“I don’t have an identity,” declares Zaha Hadid
This is nonsense, of course. Hadid’s identity is as complex and multi-layered as her buildings: she’s a British citizen, an Arab, a Sunni Muslim, an Iraqi brought up in pre-Saddam Baghdad and educated by Catholic nuns; she’s a temperamental figure with a reputation for tantrums and sulks. Yet she’s simultaneously a woman of magnetic charisma who sucks flirtatiously on her Starbucks frappuccino while icon’s photographer changes film.
“I think of myself as an Arab,” she concedes. “But I think I’m really more like a Londoner. I live here now.” Hadid is also a superstar – the world’s most famous female architect. She is at the top of her game, working on a portfolio of landmark buildings on three continents. And she has just completed her biggest project and her first in the USA – the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati. An Arab designing a Jewish-funded cultural centre in America, Hadid represents an enlightened internationalism.
In person, she is a scream. She frequently breaks off from the photo shoot, at her converted school-house studio in Clerkenwell, to summon a mirror so she can check her make-up, to take animated phone calls in Arabic and even, at one stage, to direct an impromptu rehanging of her paintings. Busy architects drop their work and leap into action, shuffling the frames around on the wall until Hadid is happy.
She teases her young staff constantly, but with affection, taking the mickey out of their foreign accents and issuing preposterous orders that have them chuckling into their monitors. “Where’s Christos?” she demands.
Finally, two hours late, she’s ready for the interview. Almost every journalist who meets her comments on her timekeeping, and it’s easy to conclude that she enjoys making people wait for her. But the spontaneous and apparently chaotic way in which she flits from task to task is typically Middle Eastern: “It’s very ordered, actually,” she giggles, her voice all molasses and gravel. “But it’s not linear. There’s no structure – it just comes at random. People show me different things at different times. I think about them for a few days and I come back to them. I think linear processes do not lead to the best solutions. Too many people are too obsessed by method. That becomes their dogma, and I don’t think it should be like that.”
Hadid’s father was a Baghdad industrialist and a leading politician in the fledgling Iraqi democracy that followed the end of the British mandate in 1958. She recalls being intoxicated by the conversations she overheard at home. “As a child, you heard all these things about civil liberty, about agrarian reforms, about oil nationalisation… all these things. You started to understand what it means to be in a free society.”
Baghdad at that time was tolerant and progressive. Her parents sent her to a convent school: “There were French nuns, Iraqi nuns and English nuns. They were all there in Baghdad, in the heat, with their costumes, and there were Muslim girls – Shia and Sunni – Christian girls, Jewish girls, all in the same school. We never thought about it. I crossed my heart for five years not knowing what it meant. And I finally went home one day and I realised my parents did not cross their hearts. I asked them and they told me they weren’t Christian. So I went back to school and said I’m not going to chapel. There was a big hoopla.”
She says she became interested in architecture at the age of eight, when an architect friend of her parents came to the house to discuss a project he was working on. “I remember being intrigued by this project. And then I began to read about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and everything in the history books, but what intrigued me was the idea of the architect as a modern figure.”
A career in architecture was not an unusual choice for a young Iraqi woman, she says. “The majority of my female friends and contemporaries went on to be professionals. The population was highly skilled – especially the women. And you know, with all these wars with Iran, the men went to war and the women were running the place. So going to study architecture in London was not a weird thing at all.”
She is reluctant to comment on recent events in Iraq – understandably perhaps, given that she is in the running for a couple more big jobs in America. “I don’t approve of the war situation. It’s very difficult to say. I hope it’s an improvement but, er, you know, I’m Iraqi. I’m cautious about what I say. So I say very little.”
Hadid left Baghdad for good in the 1970s. She attended the Architectural Association at a time when teachers including Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Nigel Coates, Peter Wilson, Bernard Tschumi and Daniel Libeskind were encouraging its students to break free of the conventions of modernism and post-modernism. “It was a very interesting moment for the profession,” she recalls. “It was about defying all normative work.”
She thrived in this iconoclastic environment. “Twenty-five years ago, architecture was guided by one single rationale, which was western rational thinking. Then all the rules changed. The idea of typology changed – people were obsessed with typology at the time. You can only do a library in this particular way, or you can only do a house in this way. So that was challenged; the idea of drawing was challenged. I think the significance of drawing things differently was really important.”
Hadid took as her starting point the modernism of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier and the work of the constructivists, but quickly broke away from the standard approach of exploring ideas through plans, elevations and sections, and instead developed a three-dimensional rendering style that led to her trademark paintings. These present buildings as exploding intersections of planes, layers and volumes. “This was before the computer became a useful tool, and so most of these drawings were done by hand,” she says. “They were quite elaborate, and I think they informed my work in terms of this kind of landscape, this kind of distorted thing.”
Her identity, or lack of it, meant that she was able to develop an architectural language that adheres to no particular school. “I think the fact that I was displaced – that I did not belong to any particular place – was critical because there was no stereotype I had to follow.”
She is able to conceive highly complex spatial arrangements in her head, which she then refines through an exhaustive process of drawing and model-making. Often, though, the solution is not immediately apparent: “Sometimes I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. That’s why you test everything. We’ll do sketches for a project that we don’t know how to interpret architectonically and it will take three or four goes before it becomes a real project. With competitions, you carry on until the last minute to see how much you can push the envelope. But at some point you have to freeze it.”
Hadid went on to work with Rem Koolhaas and became a fâted figure on the lecture circuit, but for all her early promise, there was little in the way of built projects. Her career stalled spectacularly when she won an anonymous competition to design an opera house on Cardiff Bay in 1994, but was scandalously dropped amid accusations of parochialism and racism levelled at the competition organisers (who instead decided to build a rugby stadium) and counter-claims that Hadid was an uncompromising, temperamental diva. Thus a project that should have made her international reputation instead left her tainted by scandal.
For a while it looked as if she would never recover from the setback, but in the last few years, plenty of more open-minded cities have come forward to commission Zaha Hadid buildings. She is working on major projects in locations as diverse as Rome, Leipzig, Dubai and Bartlesville, Oklahoma. She is also in the frame to design a Guggenheim museum in Taiwan.
Hadid is still bitter and self-pitying about Cardiff, but in hindsight she feels that she was probably ahead of her time and believes that her experience has opened the door for others. “It was like a triple whammy – I was foreign, I was difficult, I was a woman – and my work isn’t normative. I feel we have suffered because we were pioneers – it was always ‘the first woman architect to do this’ and ‘the first foreigner to do this’ and we were punished for it. It was like a continuous beating. It bothered me, but you have a greater belief in the work to carry on. This is a very tough profession. But hopefully it makes it easier for other people in the future. That has also changed a lot in the last 10 years – that young people are getting large projects. I am maybe the figurehead.”
In her own office, she entrusts large projects to extremely young architects – Markus Dochantschi, who has been running the Cincinnati job, is just 35. The structure of her practice is unusual, in that she has no partners, but rather a small core team of trusted collaborators and an ever-shifting band of around 60 staff from around the world.
Most of these are crammed into the tiny, chaotic schoolroom that is hardly an adequate base for a major international practice. Until recently, architects were forced to sit on cheap plastic classroom chairs, but these have now been replaced by more stylish – but posturally ruinous – moulded Verner Panton chairs.
She blames the state of the office on her staff: “It freaks me out because I am by nature very organised and very tidy but these guys here are a mess. It’s unbelievable. Every day, there’s a fight about messiness. It’s partly because this space is not big enough for us any more.” Every year, Hadid says, she plans to move to bigger premises but she never gets round to it. That, presumably, is one of the drawbacks of her non-linear working methods. Another is that one of her earliest projects – the conversion of her own dilapidated Kensington flat – is still not complete. Again, it’s not her fault: “It’s a fiasco. Seriously. It’s falling to pieces. People have been working on it here for about five centuries. They work on it and then they abandon it.”
Hadid’s working hours are unusual; she’s rarely in the office before 2pm. She gets up around 9.30am or 10am, and spends the morning “unpacking, packing, going shopping, taking care of all my meetings”, and then works at the studio until about 10pm.
She travels continually and says the workload leaves her exhausted and ratty – tales abound of her tempestuously firing staff and then, a day or so later, calling them up to apologise profusely and charm them back. “You’re always under so much pressure,” she says. “You’ve seen like 70 people in one day and you can’t cope. So you become irritated. It’s very wipey-out.” Wipey-out? “Yeah, wipey-out.”
Hadid appears to exist almost solely for her work. She does not have a boyfriend (“Where is the time for me to have a boyfriend?”) and she has stopped going to the ballet – a passion of hers – for the same reason. She admits that she’s lost touch with what her fellow architects are up to: “I don’t know many of the younger people. I haven’t seen Rem’s recent work.”
Being Zaha Hadid is a full-time occupation, she seems to be saying, and she’s not about to relax now that she’s achieved global stardom. “I’m not trying to be difficult, but I don’t really waltz around thinking I’m the world’s most famous woman architect. The danger is to copy yourself. You do to a degree because you have to develop your own repertoire. People ask who inspires you and I say, you know, by now, it’s not that I inspire myself, but you learn from your own repertoire. That becomes also a well for you to look back on.”