Zaha Hadid London – people don’t understand why I stay here. I must say I do regret not moving to New York when I loved it the most, which was in the Eighties. New York was my favourite place. At that time, London was very depressing and gloomy. But because there was a lack of things to do, it propelled people together, to discuss, to talk.
But it was always a great place to work because the English really didn’t care about what you did. They left you alone. Nobody was watching over your shoulder saying, “What are you doing?”
I stayed here because of the AA [Architectural Association]. I came from Baghdad to England first to go to boarding school. I left and I came back to the AA in 1973. There was such a buzz in that school. You couldn’t walk down the stairs without noticing the buzz. I’ll never forget that. People would come to the school from across the world. You have to track back to the Sixties – to look at the legacy of [the AA’s then chairman] Alvin Boyarski. He believed that with the invention of the commercial jetliner the world would become much more international, and therefore it was really important to build an international school. He spotted globalism long before it happened.
If you search the world scene in architecture, it really comes from those years at the AA. All the people involved were on the brink of doing something new. The people who inhabited that place – the students, the staff and Boyarski – are seminal to 30 years of architecture. It’s still influencing the current work. That’s very amazing.
We used to go down to Southwark to hang out. We’d be working at home until 2, 3 in the morning, and someone would call and say, “Shall we go on a drive in Southwark?” A whole area of London black, with nothing in it: no inhabitants, one or two pubs. It was so weird. Butlers Wharf would be pitch black – incredible.
We would take our own drinks, whatever, walk down a street in Southwark at night, see the cathedral; it was very strange. It was like Gotham City. There was a degree of innocence in those days, because there wasn’t so much of everything. Everything was an incredible discovery.
We used to do the same thing during the day in Docklands; places like Limehouse Basin. Because there was nowhere else to go to. There was Ronnie Scotts and a few bars here and there but there were no restaurants or anything, so we would go and hang out in these areas.
What is very important to me is the consultants. There’s no other place in the world like it. There’s a uniqueness to London – the education, the amount of research and invention.
Anything you want, you can get someone to advise you on. In the developing years that was very critical.
The seminal figure was Peter Rice. He was the first of that generation. There was a point in the mid Eighties when he leapt out of Arup and he would come and help untried ideas. It was the beginning of the idea of interesting engineering matching these strange new ideas. And of course there was all the writing and the critique … it was very exciting.
I think London in the last five years, it’s fantastic.
I’m really sad about all that negative stuff [the bombings]. That whole week with Live8, the Olympics – there was such a fantastic atmosphere. I think it’s a great city. It’s a city that has become very, very layered.
It’s good the Olympics are going to be in London. There is a potential to do it really well. They have time. I think it could bring a lot of positive things. It’s a regeneration area. You can bring things by river. It’s not like doing it in central London where you have to disrupt half the city. There’s lots of good things about it.
Going through London is like time travel – you go from one city to the next city to the next city. I think it’s nice as an ensemble. Because it’s very spread out and there isn’t a matrix that covers it all – there aren’t grand avenues or whatever. I quite like it.
Take the South Bank. It’s odd but I think it’s fantastic as it is. The Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward [Gallery], the Purcell Rooms, the National Theatre, all that area. It’s one of the only examples of post-Sixties work, that brutalist stuff. And it’s like every time they want to do something they take away a bridge, they take away the elevated walkways, they’re amputating everything, it’s like a flower with no stem.
And they just want to make it like this block system. It’s not New York. There isn’t a city grid. So why are they dismantling it? They don’t realise that with some very clever manipulation of space they can actually do whatever they want quite well.
It’s also a monopoly. Certain developers, certain architects. There isn’t an overall conversation about where London should be, where London should go. Take the Bishopsgate Goodsyard … that’s an enormous site. No other city in the world would do a project of this size with no discussion. That has to be changed. Mayor Ken Livingstone can play a role in this. I think the London project is a major project that hasn’t started.
Schools could look at these things, these issues, and not just do esoteric, obscure stuff. It should not be an ambition to always be on the edge. At some point you want to push these ideas into the mainstream. To actually have a better society, better buildings.
I think the schools could do better here. There is no connection between ideas, education and practice. In other European cities every major artist is a professor. It comes with the trade – you teach. In America the same. All the guys I know – Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman – they all teach. But not here. None of the main players here in London teaches in London. I teach in Vienna and I go every year to Yale. Others go to Harvard or whatever. It’s not just the older generation but the younger generation that teaches in other countries. They all have assistant professorships.
The lack of resources is a problem: the schools don’t have much money. I have seven assistants in Austria. The same goes in the states. But if someone asked me to teach here I wouldn’t have seven assistants.
The whole business of Europe has been very good for London. Before, you couldn’t get a coffee in London. All the Brits used to travel abroad and enjoy all these things: sitting outside cafés, going to the theatre, having a drink, meeting a friend, going out. And they’d say, “Oh we can’t do it here.” But Paris is not warmer than London. It’s freezing outside. Then ten years ago I was in Soho and I saw people sitting and having a coffee. Outside! In February! It was freezing! I thought, “My God, I never thought I’d see the day.”
It’s still a snobbish society but there’s less caste. People from all walks of life, if they can afford to go to a restaurant, they can go. You don’t have the same thing as before, where only people with a particular accent could go and have dinner. That’s changed.
That was the success of New York in the Eighties. I used to club in New York all the time – at Studio 54 or The Launderette or whatever it was called – and anybody could go. They could pay $12 and go to any club.
I think what changed London was the music scene. Ten or 12 years ago, when the whole rave parties and clubbing began. Clubbing all night and the next day made it much more cosmopolitan. It was no longer about this idea of a society where you have to go home at 11 and you can only drink in pubs and you can’t do this and you can’t do that – there was no curfew. I think it really went crazy. It was very, very positive. I think it’s a great place.