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The first great female architect

The first great female architect

For the first time, the world’s most interesting architect is a woman. Jonathan Meades meets Zaha Hadid

For the first time, the world’s most interesting architect is a woman. Jonathan Meades meets Zaha Hadid

Jonathan Meades | 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…”

What then? 

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 a 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-GGM 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.  

The idea that London comprises a series of villages – an estate agent’s vulgar conceit – goes lazily unchallenged. Villages are small, hick, inward-looking. London is not. London pioneered sprawl: it was a horse-drawn precursor of Los Angeles. It is a city of stylistic collisions and astonishing juxtapositions. Which might be reckoned to make it susceptible to imaginative and unorthodox architectural interventions. There is, after all, no classical homogeneity to rupture, no defining idiom which must be adhered to. 

Yet Zaha Hadid – an architect who is nothing if not imaginative, nothing if not unorthodox, who is feted throughout the world as, ugly word, a starchitect—still does not have a single building to her name in London, despite having lived and worked here for three and a half decades. There are, to be sure, schemes – the 2012 Olympic Aquatic Centre, and a building for the Architecture Foundation in Southwark; but the former’s budget is being persistently called into question and pared, and the other has not progressed since it was first mooted several years ago. 

It would be disingenuous to feign surprise at this absence of a work by her in her adopted home. A catalogue of circumstances militates against her. She is extraordinarily engaging but equally obstinate. She has never pretended to be anything other than an artist. An artist moreover of a particularly dogged sort, one who has kept alive, or revived, the unfashionable notion of the avant-garde. And who has created her own fashion rather than blindly following the herd like, oh, 99% of architects.

She is, evidently, not English; her sensibility is not English; her lack of timidity is not English; her earnestness is not English; nor her resolute ambition. Then there is the question of her sex.

Architecture is dominated by men to a degree that no remotely kindred endeavour is. This has always been the case. The history of architecture can be written, often has been, with no mention of women save, perhaps, of monarchs, aristocratic grandees, philanthropists: patrons, not makers. The contention that women are less adept than men at three-dimensional thought doesn’t begin to account for their acutely disproportionate position in British architecture. According to a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) survey in 2007, only 14% of practising architects in Britain are women. The percentage of qualified women architects is 38%, but women drop out at an alarming rate – so alarming that the former RIBA president George Ferguson commissioned an investigative study. 

He need hardly have bothered. Its conclusions were thoroughly predictable: low salaries and long hours (which equally afflict men), lack of preferment and office machismo (which probably don’t). The outstanding woman architect of the generation before Zaha’s, Georgie Wolton, opted for a (successful) career as a landscape architect having designed just one major building, a studio block in the north London district of Holloway. Sarah Wigglesworth (whose most celebrated building is also in Holloway), Amanda Levete and Cécile Brisac are London architects currently producing work of the highest order, much of it outside Britain, in cultures where there exists less bias against women. The volume and prestige of commissions received by such practitioners as Manuelle Gautrand in France or Tilla Theus in Switzerland is unthinkable in Britain.

Of course, the British bias is not merely against architects who happen to be women. It is against architects who happen to be architects. 

British architects who aspire to anything more than polite apartment buildings or self-effacing, production-line offices have to prove themselves abroad. That is where creative reputations are made. This has been the case since the early 1970s, when public confidence in architecture plummeted and architects came to be regarded as licensed vandals committing a sort of aesthetic trahison des clercs.

“No! Later,” Zaha corrects me. “It was 1975, six. Definitely.” By that time, she had been at the AA for four years. It is telling that popular antipathy towards the discipline took so long to breach that institution’s carapace of ivory exclusivity. 

She is certain of the date. For that was when, incredulous and indignant, she witnessed the transformation, the near-apostasy, of some of her dogmatically modernist teachers. “Between one term and the next,” she says, Leon Krier became a former modernist, literally a post-modernist. Krier lurched, in the bipolar way that fundamentalists will, from preaching the rhetoric of imaginative, technologically based rationalism, to becoming a groupie of the then still incarcerated Nazi war criminal Albert Speer, an architect whose formidable banality was matched only by the megalomaniac scale of his (mostly, thankfully) unbuilt projects. Krier would, frighteningly, go on to become the Prince of Wales’s architectural adviser, and thence the brain (if that’s the word) behind such volkisch excrescences of the New Urbanism as Poundbury, the cottagey slum of the future disgracefully dumped on a greenfield site on the edge of Dorchester. 

“By 1978 he is god of historicism… You know – that attitude that you can’t go forward without looking back, that’s the historicist position, post-modern position.” It’s one she deplores, to put it mildly. Zaha seems to consider post-modernism a sort of betrayal. Which may be going a bit far. Surely, I suggest (adapting Duke Ellington’s maxim about music), the question is not taxonomical, not what style a specific building belongs to – post-modern or any other – but whether it is good or bad. She appears not to hear. She asks for more tea. She snuffles. She has a cold. 

But then I too would develop a cold if someone had put to me a proposition that impertinently questions the very core of my aesthetic. She is contemptuous of the sort of relativism that even hints that the often infantile, mostly eager-to-please idiom of the Thatcher years is serious architecture. She is, perhaps, right. Accessibility merely means lowest-common-denominator populism, commercial opportunism, the subjugation of the creator by market researchers, and of originality by second-guessing what the “people” will find acceptable. Zaha has been fighting all her professional life against the architecture of the marketplace, struggling to assert the paramouncy of the artist, ie, of herself, of an uncompromised vision. She had to bide her time a long while. 

She was the victim of a shift in taste. She could, chameleon-like, have followed Krier and many of her AA contemporaries and near-contemporaries, who discovered themselves suddenly sympathetic to upside-down diocletian windows, playground colours, bluto columns, oafish pediments: the components of a new architectural “language”. On the other hand there were those who invented with aplomb.        

She tells me she doesn’t want to talk about other architects’ work before I have even broached the matter. Happily she isn’t as good as her word. An architect with a detailed knowledge of architectural and urbanistic history is, astonishingly, a rarity. Yet the living and the dead constellate her discourse. They are not the figures one might expect. Despite the status she has achieved she still, implicitly, considers herself an underdog rather than a star. There is something heartening and generous about the way she enthuses about the work of Douglas Stephen, an unacknowledged genius who designed less than a dozen buildings in a lifetime of scrupulously high standards and absolute integrity. She is enthusiastic about the Italian rationalist Aldo Rossi, whom she describes as forgotten. Forgotten by whom? I wonder. 

“Forgotten,” she insists. 

I point out that his rationalism was hardly all-encompassing and that whenever he was in London he would go to gaze at the clunkily historicist War Office in Whitehall. She smiles, as though to acknowledge the disparity between the architect and the man. She admires Rodney Gordon, maybe the greatest of the British brutalists, a sculptor in concrete whose finest buildings (the Tricorn in Portsmouth, the Trinity in Gateshead) have been or are about to be demolished. 

Would we burn a Bacon? Take a hammer to a Gormley? No. But in Britain architecture is peculiarly expendable. British short-termism is expressed in two ways. Buildings, notably those of the 1950s and 1960s, are wantonly torn down before they have been allowed the chance to come back into fashion. This, of course, is not exclusive to Britain. Even in France, which has a much greater appreciation of modernism, Claude Parent’s space-age shopping centres at Reims and Sens have been disfigured. We rue the loss of High Victorian buildings of the 1860s. Why will future generations not rue the loss of those made in the 1960s, during another of those rare periods when British architecture abandoned its habitual timidity?

Secondly, buildings used to outlive humans, not least because the process of construction was so long and laborious that permanence was a desirable aim. Today’s corporate presumption is that a building’s duration will be hardly longer than a few decades. Its lifespan is in inverse proportion to our own continually stretching sentence. This is disposable-building syndrome, and one consequence of it is that quick delivery and low cost are valued above all other considerations. Much architecture is, then, increasingly concerned with the provision of what are in effect temporary structures. Zaha has an unfashionable distaste for such ephemerality. She must, like any architect, worry about what will become of her buildings. One of her earliest completed projects, a pavilion for the study of landscape at Weil am Rhein on the German-Swiss border, is already looking as tatty as a sink estate, while the fire station she built nearby for the furniture manufacturer Vitra’s factory was considered inappropriate for that role and has been turned into a museum of chairs.

A consequence of short-termism is standardisation. “London is becoming more and more even. I don’t like current work here. I’m not against new projects, obviously I’m not. But there’s no planning here, no critique about what is coming next. There is a responsibility on the city to impose – not, not, ah, rules but… quality. The state should invest in architecture like in Spain, Holland. But the dynamic here, it’s all corporate…” 

Again, it always has been. Aesthetic dirigisme is as alien to Britain as economic dirigisme. Public building is the exception: the long third quarter of the 20th century – the years of abundant social housing, of new hospitals, theatres and libraries, of the new universities and their architecturally enlightened chancellors – were atypical. 

“Yup,” she sighs and shakes her head. “London: city of lost opportunities.”

That’s largely because London lacks the sort of patrons the city needs: wilful, vain, philanthropically inclined plutocrats with a taste for self-advertisement, endowment and high-art museums rather than for football grounds. Collecting buildings is a very expensive hobby. There is no Getty, Guggenheim, Whitney, Vanderbilt or Rosenthal here. 

Zaha doesn’t seem embittered but, rather, wearily resigned. As well she might be, for while London is unquestionably enjoying a building boom, it is equally suffering a blandness boom. The private-finance initiative does not encourage audacity. Indeed, it is infected with an almost totalitarian conviction that architecture should be useful rather than beautiful or striking or marvellous. And most architects duly oblige, for they know who calls the tune. It is as though they pride themselves on the design of risk-free buildings whose primary attribute is that no one will notice them, so no one will take offence. (They are wrong. Blandness on a massive scale is offensive: just look at Southwark Street, across the river from the City of London, where the prolific commercial practice Allies and Morrison has committed some sort of crime against streetscape which Zaha loyally refuses to condemn.)

Why then does she base herself in a city that, if not professionally antagonistic to her, has been hardly welcoming? 

“I was teaching here.”

But she was also teaching at Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Hamburg, Vienna… 

“Vienna has the same problems as London.”

What are they?

“It’s historic city.”

But many of the cities in which she has buildings under construction are equally historic. Naples, Madrid, Strasbourg, Barcelona, Seville. And as for Rome…

“I’m in London because the best civil engineers in the world are here.” 

Civil or structural engineers are unquestionably the scientists without whom architects would not exist. But, given the internationalism of both architects and engineers, it is a truly bizarre reason. One is inclined to suspect that it’s a professional disguise that masks a private inclination. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever do a big project in London…But I do have a take on the city.” 

That take is as much a flâneur’s as an architect’s. Over 20 years ago, Zaha envisaged a linear city down the Lea Valley and another around the Royal Docks. The latter has come to pass, but in typically London manner – piecemeal, unco-ordinated, scrappy, unambitious. And the Lea Valley is being cleared, cleansed, to host the Olympic games, a trophy coveted by emerging tyrannies, tinpot totalitarians and third-world dictatorships. Tactfully, and atypically for so opinionated a woman, she refuses to diverge from the party line and mutters some right-on stuff about the games’ “legacy”. Maybe she believes it, maybe not. 

I wonder, because Zaha the flâneur has an immense appetite for a very different London, an insatiable curiosity which she reveals only obliquely. She palpably appreciates the very oddities of the area that the Olympic site will occupy, the atmospheric terrain vague of abandonment, dereliction and toxic canalisation.    

When Zaha talks about anything other than architecture, she employs an urbane vocabulary, a flourishing grammar, and even the definite and indefinite articles. She is fun. On how London has changed socially: “The kids cannot believe it when I tell them about the King’s Road in those days, cannot believe it.” She is eloquent about parties, friends, flu remedies, clothes (she nearly always wears black, though she professes to pine after the days of colour), a tardy florist, a driver whose limited comprehension of sat-nav prompts him to put in “crescent” rather than the name of the crescent. Her word-power expands miraculously. 

You might deduce that a different part of the brain is activated, that architecture is confined to a ghetto that is actually cut off from language – pre-verbal or extra-verbal. Zaha is neither dyslexic nor left-handed, two conditions which afflict a number of extravagantly gifted architects. 

The awkward struggle to describe the products of her capacious imagination is hampered by her disinclination to employ simile, which, though it might clarify, would undermine her achievement. To compare her work to something already existing would be to detract from it. For me to state that her buildings are like something – frozen napkins, or origami in a hurry, or squeezed-out tubes of ointment, or a carnival dame swaying in a frock, or a flock of starlings cartwheeling like iron filings subjected to a magnet, or baroque drapery – is explanatory shorthand. It is not to debase them, far from it. But I didn’t make them. They are admirable for a load of reasons.

Her work derives, she says, not from observation of extant architecture. Nor from formalism. She claims to take nothing from organic morphology. No ammonites, no sharks, no petals. It all begins with painting, with pure abstraction.

But a few moments later she changes her mind. She contradicts herself and attributes her inspiration to landscape,topography, sedimentology, geological patterns...Indeed, one of her pieces of furniture is called Moraine, and there is an unmistakable acknowledgment of a badlands roster of folds, prisms, hoodoos and organ pipes, a nod to the shifting shapes of dunes and drifts. European architects such as Lars Sonck, Antoni Gaudi and Gottfried Boehm have represented rock formations with differing degrees of naturalism. Zaha goes further. Buildings are static objects. Throughout the 20th century, architects vainly attempted to imply that structures were on the move, to invest them with speed, one of the essential properties of modernity but one which is, alas, necessarily absent even in borax buildings that are streamlined or googie ones which borrow the imagery of aero-planes or rockets. Much of Zaha’s work implies a different sort of speed – the slow passing of millennia, the gradual attrition of wind, the grind of the sea on stones, the way rain turns chalk into pinnacles and spires. There is a scent of erosion, of time’s inexorability, of future fragmentation. Of mortality. 

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