Today Zaha Hadid is an award-winning architect, designing Tokyo's stadium for the 2020 Olympics and Qatar's for the 2022 World Cup. Seven years ago, we published a profile by Jonathan Meades saying, "The world is waking up to her"
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008
ZAHA HADID'S PRACTICE occupies a former school in Clerkenwell, an area of London that still bears the scent of Dickens. It's an 1870s building designed by the London School Board architect E.R. Robson, who, typically of his profession, was unquestionably formulaic. Still, his was a sound enough formula. Today the high, plain, light rooms are crammed to bursting with Hadid's 200 or so employees. Though they are of every conceivable race, they are linked by their youth, their sombre clothes, their intense concentration. They gaze at their screens, astonishingly silently. There is little sound other than the click of keyboards and a low murmur from earphones. They don't talk to each other. It is as though they are engaged in a particularly exigent exam. It feels more like a school than a former school. And it feels more like a factory than a school. If there is such a thing as a physical manifestation of the dubious concept called the knowledge economy, this is it. This is a site of digital industry.
"What is exciting," says Zaha, "is the link between computing and fabrication. The computer doesn't do the work. There is a similar thing to doing it by hand..."
"The computer is a tool," I agree.
"No. No, it's not..."
The workers on the factory floor—my way of putting it, not hers—are, she says "connected by digital knowledge...They have very different interests from 20 years ago."
Sure. But this does not make immediate sense. It is a matter to return to, that will become clear(ish) in time.
TEN MINUTES' WALK from the practice is Hadid's apartment—austerely elegant, a sort of gallery of her painting and spectacularly lissom furniture. It's a monument to Zaha the public architect rather than Zaha the private woman. It occupies a chunk of an otherwise forgettable block. Her route from home to work might almost have been confected as an illustration of the abruptness of urban mutation. Here is ur-London: stock bricks and red terracotta, pompous warehouses, run-down factories, Victorian philanthropists' prison-like tenements, grim toytown cottages, high mute walls, a labyrinth of alleys, off-the-peg late-Georgian terraces, neglected pockets of mid-20th-century Utopianism, apologetic infills, ambiguous plots of wasteground. It is neither rough nor pretty, but it has sinewy character. It may be ordinary, but it is undeniably diverse. The daily stroll through this canyon of variety is surely attractive to an artist whose aesthetic is doggedly catholic, each of whose buildings seems unsatisfied with being just one building.
If Zaha is offended by the suggestion that constant exposure to such a typical part of London might, however indirectly, impinge on her work, she doesn't show it. But she is faintly bemused. It is as though such a possibility had never occurred to her. This is absolutely not the sort of proposition that gets mooted in the world of Big Time Architecture which Hadid has inhabited all her adult life (she is 57), for many years as a perpetually promising aspirant, a "paper architect" who got very little built but still won the Pritzker prize—the Nobel of architecture—which raises the questions of whether architecture is divisible from building, of where the fiction of design stops and the actuality of structure starts. Today she is this tiny, powerful milieu's most singular star, and its only woman, its only Zaha.
So distinctive a name is useful. It's a fortuity which might just grant her effortless entry to the glitzy cadre of the mononomial: Elvis, Arletty, Sting. The first architect to be so blessed since Mies (van der Rohe).
Architecture is the most public of endeavours, yet it is a smugly hermetic world. Architects, architectural critics and theorists, and the architectural press (which is little more than a deferential PR machine) are cosily conjoined by an ingrown, verruca-like jargon which derives from the cretinous end of American academe: "Emerging from the now-concluding work on single-surface organisations, animated form, data-scapes, and box-in-box organisations are investigations into the critical consequences of complex vector networks of movement and specularity..."
They're only talking about buildings. This is the cant of pseudo-science—self-referential, inelegant, obfuscatingly exclusive: it attempts to elevate architecture yet makes a mockery of it. Zaha, however, has the chutzpah to defend it. She claims to be not much of a reader of anything other than magazines, so the coarseness of the prose doesn't offend her. The point she makes is that this is the lingua franca of intercontinental architecture. A sort of Esperantist pidgin propagated by the world's major architectural schools—the majority of which happen to be notionally anglophone, yet whose pupils and teachers come from a host of countries—and the world's major architectural practices which are international and polyglot. When Zaha talks about architecture, about urbanism, about the continuing exemplary importance of the Architectural Association (AA) in London, where she studied after a childhood in Baghdad, boarding school in England and university in Beirut (reading maths), she uses this pidgin, and studs it with syntactical mishaps.
"You know, space is an interesting endeavour...you create an interesting...the impact you have on the cityscape. The whole life of a city can be in single block...Break the block, yeh? Make it porous...Organisational patterns which imply a new geometry...The idea of extrusion...One thing always critical was idea of ground, how to carve the ground, layering, fragmentation..." Perhaps being "connected by digital knowledge" is just a way of circumventing the problems inherent in a polyglot workforce, given that verbal expression plays only a minor part in architectural creation. The gulf between clumsy, approximate jargon and precise, virtuoso design is chasmic. And it has some important ramifications. Despite its practitioners' fastidious, perhaps delusional protests that it is a creative and scientific endeavour, architecture is a very big business, one that is involved in the creation and sale of one-off objects: it is a trade dealing mostly in the bespoke.
Now, one consequence of being "connected by digital knowledge" is an enforced internationalism—at the highest tier. So take, for example, the Basque provinces where Santiago Calatrava has built Bilbao's airport, where Frank Gehry has famously built a Guggenheim Museum, where Rafael Moneo has built the (better) Kursaal at San Sebastian, and where Zaha has no fewer than three projects: a new quarter of Bilbao; a sleek, partially buried railway station in Durango, and government offices in Vitoria.
This region, whose paranoiac sense of itself and of its blood-drenched individuality need hardly be emphasised, is becoming a testing ground for exercises in a globalised aesthetic entirely at odds with its vernacular idioms of distended chalets and Hausmanian pomp. Zaha is enthusiastic about this sort of dissonance. She is opposed to new buildings which nod allusively—she would say deferentially—to their ancient neighbours. She regards such buildings as sops to populism.
"It would be interesting to do a large project without looking backwards."
"How large? "
She grins. "A city. A city! Without looking backwards. Vernacular building...it's like minimalism." (I take it that she means neo-vernacular building.) "People can handle minimalism, vernacular. It doesn't disturb them."
Hadidopolis, the dreamed city, would, paradoxically, be less disturbing, less astonishing than a single building by her in an already established environment where the clash of idioms is potentially deafening.
"They still talk about contextual. Ha!"
"They" are her bugbear, the (now rather old) New Urbanists, the begetters of crass, kitschy, retro-developments such as Seaside and Disney's Celebration, both of them in Florida. Her distaste for their twee, anti-modernist escapism is total.
In Zaha's lexicon, contextual might be synonymous with compromised, which is the last word that could be applied to her own work. Bloody-minded, unaccommodating, serious, joyful, emotionally expressive, intellectually engaging: these are more apt. Yet, no matter what she says, each of her buildings is sensitive to its context. Being sensitive does not mean being passive. It is not a question of taking a cue from the immediate surroundings, but of making an appropriate intervention that changes those surroundings, which creates a new place and better space. She has 25 projects either completed or under construction, and even the most cursory scrutiny of them reveals an exceptional versatility and a multitude of responses. She has eschewed the temptation to develop the signature that afflicts high-end architects, prompting the accusation that Libeskind or Calatrava or Gehry merely plonk down the same lump of product time and again across the globe. Zaha has style all right, but not a style.
The Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati is blocky, grounded, cubistic; it is unrecognisable as being by the same hand as, say, the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, which is taut, dynamic, horizontal and looking to make a quick getaway. The Museum of Transport on the south bank of the Clyde in Glasgow has a silhouette that might be a child's depiction of a city's skyline. Of her cable railway stations in Innsbruck, one is sleek and reptilian, a second fungal, a third an homage to a species of bird that never existed.
Sometimes she seems to be working in steel, other times in butter; here she is chiselling wood, there she is twisting chocolate. A university building on the Barcelona waterfront recalls a poorly shuffled pack of cards. Her winning entry for the new Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in the already architecturally rich city of Vilnius might be an exquisite example of the patissier's art which has melted under a merciless sun. The A55 motorway's descent into Marseille, one of the most thrilling in Europe, will be further enhanced by the headquarters for the CMA-CGM container company, built in the cleft where raised carriageways bifurcate. This 147-metre tower will be the highest in the burgeoning city. It is a perhaps reproachful complement to the effortful wackiness of neighbouring projects, such as Massimiliano Fuksas's Euromed Centre: Zaha's tower is as stately as a duchess's ballgown, and again very different from anything else she has done.
How do she and her collaborators, chief among them Patrik Schumacher, manage to avoid the besetting architectural tic of self-plagiarism?
"Don't draw on computer. Don't draw and then put it onto computer...I have five screens...Different projects...You work on developing, oh, a table while at the same time you're developing masterplans. It's like you have different information coming from different directions. Like photography. Out of focus...then you zoom in. I'll have a sketch—it'll take a few times before it takes. Sometimes a few years. You see, not every idea can be used right then. But nothing is lost. Nothing."
So a shape or form devised initially for a piece of furniture may be fed a course of steroids and become a building?
"No. That's not what I'm saying. Doesn't work like that."
I rather suspect that Zaha has an ancient fear: that to discover how her processes work would be to jeopardise them.