architect: Zaha Hadid
interview title/ topic: Creating public spaces which are open to all
interviews compilation no: T-01
interview format: text (edited)
date: June 16, 2007
appeared in: Telegraph UK
interviewer: Telegraph media group
context: Zaha Hadid at the Design Museum, June 29-November 25 (designmuseum.org). The Telegraph Media Group, media sponsor for the exhibition,held a Zaha Hadid reader event at the Design Museum on July 9
Zaha Hadid's designs were once dismissed as brilliant but unbuildable. Now her spectacular edifices are springing up all over the world. Sheryl Garratt meets the architect who refused to give up
Zaha Hadid stops midway through a sentence, annoyed by the sound of a lorry backing up outside her offices in Clerkenwell, east London, and then says something I never thought I would hear from her. 'There's too much building going on!' she sighs.
She has been in this Victorian school building for 21 years, slowly taking over more and more of it as her reputation as an architect has grown. Most of this time she was revered for her visionary ideas and the energetic, abstract beauty of the paintings she used to bring them to life.
But famously, none of her buildings ever got past the planning stage. Often referred to as a 'paper architect', she was widely considered to be brilliant, but unbuildable.
Her career should have gone into the stratosphere after she won a 1995 competition to design a new opera house at Cardiff Bay, a building that could have been to Wales what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim has been to Spain, but which instead ended in farce as politicians dithered, the media attacked, the competition was rerun - and then, when Hadid's design won it a second time, they decided to abandon the project altogether.
The Design Museum is about to host a major exhibition of her work, one that can, finally, celebrate real buildings. Gorgeous, solid buildings with strikingly shaped exteriors and strangely angled interiors that, it turned out, could be built, and without astronomical expense.
At first they were small projects - a factory fire station, a ski jump - but as developers and civic bodies saw that they not only worked but also attracted press, awards and kudos worldwide, they got bigger.
A contemporary arts centre opened in Cincinnati in 2003; an extension to the BMW factory in Leipzig and the curiously shaped Phaeno Science Centre - all sharp and angular on the outside, yet undulating curves on the inside - which opened in Wolfsburg, Germany last, year.
Then a building on UK soil in the shape of the small, tranquil Maggie's Centre for cancer care in Dundee, angled to make the most of an area of green space at the edge of a car-park.
And now she has started, it seems she is unstoppable. There are university buildings in Seville and Barcelona, an opera house in China, the Olympic aquatics centre in east London. There are museums and galleries in Rome, Glasgow and Calgari, exhibition halls planned for Moscow, bridges and train stations, and tall towers twisted into graceful new shapes.
The day before our meeting, a new retail and office development in Dubai had been announced under the name Opus, a sculpted cube that shears off into three towers with a big, silvery hole in the middle, allowing light into every part - bringing the number of major projects in progress around the world to well over 40.
'I always believed it would happen,' Hadid says, without a hint of triumph. 'It was sometimes very frustrating, and even now people still ask me, "Do you think your work is buildable?" Well, how many more buildings do I have to do to prove it?'
More than 200 young architects are beavering away at computer screens in her practice. The open-plan rooms all have high ceilings, white walls, white desks, black chairs, black files on white shelves. It looks young, hip, industrious.
In one upstairs room adorned with some of Hadid's colourful paintings, a section of desk juts out at an odd angle; I'm told that this is where the boss sits. Although right now she is in the downstairs conference room, in a meeting with a client that has run on.
Finally I am ushered in to meet her, and we sit at another huge, white table. She looks tired. At the age of 57 Zaha Hadid is finally doing what she always wanted to do, what she had spent all those years waiting for: she is imagining buildings unlike anything we have seen before, and then building them. It is exciting, she says, but it would have been easier earlier.
'I lost a lot of time, it's a pity. It's nicer to be busy when you're younger, when you can work 24 hours a day and run around. I used to fly to Japan for two days! I could never do that now.'
She launches into a diatribe about how badly airports are designed. 'I went through Heathrow a few days ago. All the conveyor belts were broken. It's terrible, inexcusable! They are replaceable. It's a conveyor belt, not rocket science.'
Hadid is famously abrupt with her staff and imperious to everyone else. The Pet Shop Boys worked with her on the stage set for their 1999 world tour - which, when it came to Wembley, became her first construction on British soil. A kind of flexible ramp, it proved far more practical than anyone at the time expected.
'It gave a real dynamic to the show,' the singer Neil Tennant recalls. 'It looked great, and it worked very well. For the whole tour. We always liked going to Hadid's office because it was all quite young. It was an unusual mixture of fun and terror. In the middle of meetings, she would suddenly say, "Why are you saying this? Shut up! Who do you think you are?" And you'd feel slightly embarrassed.'
Sure enough, just after I have been introduced to Hadid, two men creep hesitantly through the door, wanting her to decide who will accompany her on a trip to Dubai. 'I can't think of that now!' she barks, and when they persist because the flight is two days away, she waves them away.
But the dragon image shatters when the next thing she does is call an employee whose husband has been taken sick, to see how he is. 'I always talk to people with tongue in cheek and some people don't understand that it's half-joke, half-real,' she says later.
My view before I met her was that someone this brilliant shouldn't have to be nice. Yet actually she was lovely. Perhaps I got her on a good day; perhaps she's mellowing now she has so much less to prove, but she turns out to be warm, funny, with a throaty laugh and a willingness to explain any architectural jargon I don't understand.
Her partner in the practice, Patrik Schumaker, has been with her for 20 years. She has worked with some of her senior architects for more than a decade. There have been times when it wasn't easy: when money was tight, projects collapsed. Yet people stayed.
In the long doldrum years, she was sustained by teaching. At the Architectural Association she became a sought-after teacher and built up a future powerbase among the young turks, many of whom went on to do well in the profession. 'It's still very exciting. Every time I do a studio lesson, there's something new and refreshing I discover from it.'
It has changed, of course, she says wistfully. Once she wasn't much older than the students, and they often became friends. Now her formidable reputation comes before her.
'It's a very different dynamic now. They've heard of me, and are almost freaked out. But there are still people who start out and they're not great, but then by sheer effort they make an incredible leap. That's the most exciting thing about teaching. People underestimate how much they can achieve. You don't know till you do it. And frankly, I can say the same about myself.
After Cardiff, I really thought I was going to give up. I was staggered that people in the office stuck with me. Why should they? We had no money, we lost every competition. Nobody wanted us.'
Now she can view Cardiff, and all the other disappointments, with equanimity. It was a huge project, she says, on which they learnt how to work with a big team of consultants, from acousticians to theatre designers to the different specialist engineers. It all enabled them to cope with the rapid expansion of the past few years.
'Thirty years on, one has so much more experience. It's the only way we could have handled our growth.'
One of the things that seems to have surprised people most about Hadid's wonderful buildings is how well suited they are to their use. When she was training at the Architectural Association in London some of her tutors thought the inspiration for her fluid new shapes might be Arabic script.
In fact, she says her ideas come from observation: of the site, of nature, of people moving through the city. 'It's always about how you move people through a space, and how they use it.'
Hadid recently moved to an apartment in Clerkenwell to be nearer the office, and we talk about how the area has changed in the past two decades to a vibrant place full of creative businesses and restaurants. But Hadid says she has noticed that fewer people from the nearby council estates walk through now and she worries they have been excluded.
'These people, can they participate in what's going on? I think it's really a problem. A disconnect. And that's why they should build good housing in the inner city. Then you can integrate rather than separate and ghetto-ise everything.'
Hadid has always been concerned about creating public spaces that are open to all. Her Cardiff building curled in on itself, creating courtyards and terraces designed to be used by those who wouldn't dream of going to an opera. The bottoms of her skyscrapers often flare out into skirts to gather in the public at street level.
'Despite all the drawings, there's still always something you don't predict,' she smiles, saying how much she had enjoyed watching children running all over the Wolfsburg Science Centre when she had visited it the week before.
Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who was also a liberal politician. She tends not to talk about Iraq in interviews. She doesn't want to be misunderstood, she explains.
She still has family there, and her parents remained throughout most of Saddam's time, with her ailing, widowed father only reluctantly moving to Europe at her insistence in his final years. But she does point out that the Iraq she grew up in was very different, open and liberal.
'I went to a nun's school with Jewish girls, Christian girls, and as a Muslim it didn't matter if I was Sunni or Shi-ite. Honestly, I didn't know what religion I was until I was six or seven, when I noticed that my parents weren't crossing their hearts.'
When she was 11 she asked her parents, 'What do you call someone who does buildings?' Then she said that was what she wanted to be: an architect. They were always encouraging, she says, and there was never the feeling that she shouldn't have such ambitions. When I ask where it came from, this urge to make buildings, she talks about a house some relatives were building in the north.
'Somehow my parents were in charge of this work, so there was a model at the house. I was very intrigued by it.' There was an exhibition, perhaps of Frank Lloyd Wright's work, that she saw as a child, and she watched the creation of heroic US architecture through her parents' Life and Time magazines.
Their garden suburb was full of impressive modern houses, and in the years before he was ousted in the 1958 coup, Prince Faisal had ambitious plans to give Baghdad a new, modern identity. Hadid's school was opposite the Ministry of Culture building designed by the Italian Modernist Gio Ponti. Joseph Sert designed the American embassy, Frank Lloyd Wright was asked for an opera house but came up with plans for a whole new city quarter, and Beirut - where her family went in the winter - was also the subject of ambitious plans.
'I think the Arab world was going through something similar to what happened in South America with Brasilia, and Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa wanting to invent an identity that was not colonial. So there was lots of great work, really stunning projects in Lebanon and Iraq.' She pauses. 'I'm not sure whether they still exist, now.'
Mostly Hadid was educated in Iraq, but there were spells in Switzerland and England, and she did a maths degree in Beirut before studying at the Architectural Association in London in 1972.
'I was not necessarily intending to stay here. I was like everyone else from Iraq - coming to school, and eventually going back.' But she has remained in London. It was easy for her to go back to Iraq, she says, but far harder to leave again. You needed an exit visa and the rules were constantly shifting.
After completing her training she worked with her former tutor Rem Koolhaas for a while before setting up her own practice, when she won her first competition. Her overheads were low, and fees from subsequent competitions just about kept her practice going. Her parents had been able to help her through the student years, but now their circumstances had changed.
'It was bad in Iraq, and we were in bad shape. So no, I wasn't bankrolled.'
For someone who has lived in London for 35 years, she remains gloriously exotic. Her English is fluent but heavily accented. When she is talking about her ideas, her thoughts start to layer and her speech to fracture just like those paintings of her buildings, coming from different angles - interesting but almost impossible to quote in print.
She once complained that profiles invariably focus on her appearance, whereas Sir Norman Foster's suits are rarely mentioned. This is true, but suits are boring and Hadid's style is not.
Her tousled hair is streaked blonde on top, pink underneath, and on the day we meet she is carrying a black Prada bag covered in tassels, and wearing a gorgeous asymmetric lime satin jacket. For years, she would wear a piece of fabric pinned to form her dress or customise Issey Miyake outfits by wearing them upside down. She no longer has time for such indulgences but still talks excitedly about trends she has seen in Vogue and may soon be following up the rubber bag she made for Vuitton with a project for Chanel.
'I was very sad about [the death of] Isabella Blow,' she says. 'She was very stylish, and there are not many people like that.'
In her own field, of course, she is still an anomaly. She was the first woman to design a US museum (the Cincinnati project); the first woman to win architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Pritzker, in 2004, the only woman ever to join the ranks of superstar architects.
'It's easier for the younger generation,' she says. 'The men are also more understanding, more co-operative. They don't see the difference.' But engineers and builders are still mostly male too, and she points out that it's a very difficult profession to stop and then go back to. 'It's not that you can't do it, but you have to almost retrain.' It is probably no coincidence that she has no children.
I ask what ambitions she has left, and she says she'd love to build a whole city quarter, to use all she has learnt about creating public spaces, indoor and outdoor areas on a grand scale. She'd also like to build some housing, a restaurant and a hotel. Most buildings deserve to be interesting, she says.
In April she won outline planning approval for a new City Academy, to open in south London in 2009. And of course she'll have the pool in the Olympic Park to the east of the city.
'Here, you're not used to doing public buildings. So when you do them, they become symbolic. It becomes too political. There's always the concern that it will be criticised, that it's taxpayers' money. But I do think that negativity in the British psyche generally has changed. People are much more upbeat now, they have fun, they sit about in the streets drinking and eating, they dress differently, they travel more.'
In the meantime, there are no plans for a Hadid building in central London. 'What's sad about it for me is the genesis of all this work was from London. All the observations came from the city.'
People ask why she stays when her work has met with such resistance here, but she likes London. 'I have friends here, and there are great consultants. Great engineers. Incredible structural engineers. I don't think you'd get that service anywhere else.'
There are endless possibilities for customization offered by computers. It is now possible for her to design a new sofa, zip the file over to a manufacturer, and have the finished, one-off piece in her flat within weeks, she points out.
She seems far younger than she is, mainly I think because she still engages with the world, is still surprised and excited by it. One of the phrases she repeats most in our two hours together is, 'I was curious about...', and this almost childlike curiosity is very appealing. Her conversation ranges over art, movies, fashion, hip-hop, MTV, iPods and back to architecture, without ever missing a beat.
I ask if she has hit her professional peak yet. 'I don't know,' she says thoughtfully. 'I think you can have many peaks, if you keep at it. I'm always curious about the next step, the next big thing.'