Platform had the privilege of featuring on our cover one of the most important and greatest architects the world has seen. We revisit her article and remember what an inspiration she was and will always be...
She is inimitable and fearless. She inspires, impresses and deserves a standing ovation for her contribution to contemporary architecture through her futuristic, avant-garde vision and technique. and more importantly, for breaking boundaries, both as a female and as an architect. The only woman to receive The Pritzker Award for architecture, her unusual and ambitious blueprints have won her the title of Dame.
After completing 40 architectural marvels around the world, Dame Zaha Hadid stands tall and helps define the future of design. She constantly pushes boundaries and challenges herself and her contemporaries. Her architectural masterpieces and bold conviction make her one of the most significant architects the world has seen.
In an exclusive interview, we learnt more about this gargantuan figure and her journey through the world of architecture.
Can you tell us a little about your formative years?
I had a very nice childhood in Iraq. As in, there were so many places in the developing world at the time, that there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism. If you look back to the ‘60s, when I was growing up, it was a moment of nation building; there was a lot of emphasis on architecture, not only in the Arab world but also in South America and Asia. These ideas of change, liberation and freedom of this era were critical to my development. My father studied at the London School of Economics under Laskian and Fabian. When he returned to Iraq, he joined the Beirut Group that was the basis of the Iraqi Democratic Party. There was an incredible momentum of social reform everywhere. This ideology was important to me.
My mother and father were definitely an inspiration. It was my parents who gave me the confidence to try new things and encouraged my passion for discovery. My father’s interest for reform was matched by my mother’s great sense of style. She was the one who taught me to draw. My older brothers shared this spirit of adventure and suggested I should become Iraq’s first woman astronaut!
Galaxy SOHO, Beijing, China | Photography: Hufton + Crow
When did your romance with design begin?
I remember when I was seven, I went with my parents to Beirut to see some new furniture that they had ordered for our home. My father was a forward-looking man with cosmopolitan interests and in those days, Baghdad, where I was born and where we lived at the time, was undergoing a Modernist influence. The architects, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gio Ponti, both designed buildings there. I can still remember going to the furniture maker’s studio and seeing our new furniture. The style was angular and modernist, and for my room there was an asymmetric mirror. I was thrilled by the mirror and it started my love for asymmetry.
Then, before coming to London, I studied Mathematics at the American University in Beirut, where I became interested in Geometry. I realized there was a connection between the logic of maths and architecture and abstraction. Geometry has a tremendous connection to architecture - and even more so now.
You have broken the norm and created a very solid position for yourself in the world of architecture. How would you summarize the journey so far?
Yes, I've achieved some success, and I am extremely grateful, but it’s been a very long struggle. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says ‘yes’ to me – it’s still a struggle. Despite having gone through it a hundred times, architecture is a very tough profession – you must constantly work to get a better building.
There were moments when I felt extremely down, but my depression never lasted very long. I am fundamentally an optimist, and I always believed in my work. In the early days of my career, we designed many wonderful projects that, sadly, were unrealized. However, they were very powerful designs and interesting in their complexity; very tough and soft at the same time – elegant and resolved in terms of planning. Maybe now I would do them differently, but they were at the beginning of all our research, necessary to develop our repertoire.
During that period architects had no work because of the economy, but we were very productive with drawings. This was always criticized as ‘paper architecture’ — as if we were trying to avoid engaging with the real world or didn’t understand how to make a building. But I’m convinced it was a very important period. It was a very critical time of investigation, and has helped the development of architecture that followed over the next 30 years. However, this theoretical work has a slight stigma to it because so much was never realized, so maybe, that was a problem in its public perception. But it was very good work and research that helped enable the wonderful advances we now see in architecture and construction today.
Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China | Photography: Christian Richters
What was it that kept you going, motivated and passionate?
In every period, there is a new challenge. We always try to interpret the purpose of an institution - as it is not only the form of a building that interests us - but we also like to research new and better ways in which people can use a building.
The rapid developments that computing has brought to architecture is incredible. Our designs demand continual progress in the development of construction technology, and the industry continues to respond by providing ever more sophisticated tools and materials. There is a strong reciprocal relationship whereby our more avant-garde designs encourage the development of new design technologies and construction techniques, and those new developments in turn inspire us to push the design envelope ever further. Great things come from this method of working!
What is interesting is that we always feel that we know a project so well. But no matter how long you work on the design, no matter how many times you re-draw the building, you cannot predict everything – and there are always these fascinating moments in every completed project that are very exciting and unexpected.
It took a while for London to acknowledge your brilliance. Nevertheless, you made it your home. What is it about the city that prompted that decision?
I can say from my personal experience, it is a very liberating experience living in London. It was always a great place to work because the British didn’t really care what you did. I’m Iraqi; I live in London; I don’t really have a particular place, and I think for people in that situation, you have liberation from certain rules. My work developed entirely because I live in London. It is a very British situation; the UK has traditionally given a platform to those from around the world who want to research. London in particular, has always welcomed and encouraged a tremendous degree of experimentation.
As an architect, one of the best things about living in London is the experience and skills of the consultants. This is very important to me. There’s uniqueness to the city; the education, the amount of research and invention. Anything you want, you can get someone to advise you on. In the developing years of my career, that was very critical. The seminal figure was Peter Rice. He was the first of that generation; matching innovative engineering with new, untried ideas and concepts. My experience with Peter Rice was very fulfilling. I was like a student and he was such an accessible, humble man. He taught me that you have to have a strategy and that even if you’re not an engineer; you have to understand that a building needs common sense.
You have collaborated with many diverse industries and brands and each project of yours speaks volumes. What is your work process like?
We greatly enjoy our collaborations with others. They provide an opportunity to express our ideas through different scales and different media - we see it as part of a continuous process of our on-going design investigation. It’s a two way process – we apply our architectural research and experimentation to these designs, but we also learn a great deal from the process of collaborating with others who lead their own industries. A brilliant design will always benefit from the input of others. Of course, there is a lot of fluidity now between art, architecture, engineering, a lot more cross-pollination in the disciplines, but this isn’t about competition. It’s about collaboration and what these practices and processes can contribute to one another. It is essential to find key collaborators to work on new discoveries and push them into the mainstream.
Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China | Photography: Virgile Simon Bertrand
The boundaries between art, design, fashion, literature, and music are merging. Do you feel we are heading towards becoming a hybrid society?
Contemporary society is not standing still, and art and architecture as well as fashion must evolve with the patterns of life. I think what is new in our generation is a new level of social complexity, which is reflected in our art, architecture and fashion. The way cities are used today is very different to how they were used in the past. Cities today have a wide diversity of ethnic experiences and influences, as well as new agendas for living. This has really changed the whole pattern of habitation. As an architect working today, your clients are different kinds of people — no longer a single entity — and I think this really adds to the richness of space. In cities, people want to be in public spaces with vitality and variety, and in the future, buildings will not just be made up of one single space, but rather of a field of different spaces.
What will the architecture of the future look like?
Huge advances in design technology will enable architects to radically rethink form and space, using construction methods and materials that are yet to be developed such as sophisticated architectural skins that can be twisted, stretched, bent and folded in whichever way imaginable. These materials will be transparent or opaque, structurally self-supporting, and take any surface quality or colour one can think of. It is structural, weatherproofing and insulation properties compressed into a thin single layer that transfers or reflects light and can be easily fabricated and assembled anywhere.
Architects will be using new concepts and methods to develop projects that respond to individual living patterns, creating buildings that engage, integrate and adapt to the needs of their inhabitants. These buildings will recognize these changing parameters to optmize their envirionment and formal composition to suit the needs of their users at any given moment.
These new design and construction techniques will also be applied to urbanism to create whole cities. Individual buildings will communicate with and connect to the next; creating an organic, continually changing field of separate buildings that are highly correlated. The same tools that allow the built environment to engage and adapt with use, will also constantly modify the architecture with respect to ecological performance. New materials and manufacturing methods relative to a whole new paradigm of space articulation and space making will create buildings that help facilitate efficient living processes and internal communication. With the architecture itself responding to daily usage patterns and changing environmental parameters, all buildings will contribute to a completely sustainable society – a solution to the urgent ecological challenge that is a defining question of our own era.
Where does Zaha Hadid Architects stand today and how does the firm work?
We have now completed over 40 architectural projects around the world. In the early days, we were all workaholics and worked day and night – it required incredible focus and ambition. When we were ten people, we were doing the work of thirty because we worked three shifts. People worked extremely hard, and during the days and years we were working in the office with nobody paying attention to us, we did an enormous amount of research that we still refer to today.
The most important trick is to be able to delegate. You know from early on that you can’t do everything yourself; you can do bits of it yourself, you can ask people to do things the way you want them done, but you also have to rely on their own inventiveness and abilities. Teamwork has been very important to me for a long time. I’ve always believed in it, and that’s why things are manageable. It is essential to find key collaborators to work on new discoveries and push them into the mainstream. We continue to collaborate with engineers and with people doing experiments with new materials. Patrik Schumacher is a great collaborator of mine – he’s very central to our office.
Our conversation with Zaha Hadid was first published in our Design Issue of 2013. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra