[Economist] Zaha Hadid

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Thu, 24 Jun 1999 14:50:50 -0700

[a dramatic, inscrutable Iraqi lady architectural theorist with a=20
yen for all-black and Miyake?... I'm in love! :-) Rohit, in a rare=20
binary attachment posting to FoRK]

Showing what buildings can be=20

=46or a foreign-born woman, Zaha Hadid, at 48, has built a big=20
reputation in a male-dominated profession. She has also begun to=20
build some big buildings
ZAHA HADID is one of those large and striking personalities who=20
arrives in a room before she is there. As an architect she also=20
arrived somewhere near the top of her profession before she had=20
really built anything beyond a celebrated small fire station for a=20
modern furniture factory in Germany. Yet those long years as an=20
also-ran in international competitions, when she had to endure the=20
gibe of "computer architect", seem to be over now that big=20
commissions are catching up with her reputation. She is designing art=20
museums in Cincinnati and Rome, as well as the "Mind" zone for the=20
Millennium Dome in London's Greenwich. To her many enthusiasts, the=20
only strangeness is that it has all taken so long: Ms Hadid, they=20
will tell you, is a path-breaking architect who handles building=20
spaces with a breath- taking freedom in totally new ways.

You get no hint of that originality from the outside of her modest=20
London office on the boy's side of an old redbrick primary school in=20
=46arringdon. Within are her black-clad assistants at their screens,=20
dozens of books on the early heroes of architectural modernism and=20
lots of sculpture-like models in white card or perspex. The office=20
noise changes as she enters. Questions are asked; orders given. The=20
eager young staff jump to. They seem used to her imperious ways. But=20
they call her "Zaha" and are obviously thrilled to be part of such an=20
exciting architectural quest. "She was too far ahead,'' one of them=20
explains, "but now it's her time.''

If that sounds a touch breathless, recall for a moment the Cardiff=20
fiasco. Five years ago she won a competition for a new opera house in=20
the Welsh capital. The Welsh National Opera, whose theatre this was=20
to be, is one of the most innovative companies in the land, and Ms=20
Hadid provided a dazzling new structure to match. Her winning design,=20
which survived a reappraisal panel, called for an inviting glass=20
courtyard around an auditorium within. It looked on paper angular and=20
explosive-to the casual glance aggressive even. Critics derided it=20
for disregarding the city and its traditions. Yet they did not look=20
very hard. Her building said both that "Opera's special: this isn't a=20
chip shop" and "See for yourself: walk in off the street." No matter.=20
Ms Hadid's design fell foul of local hostility, a withdrawal of=20
National Lottery money and the dogged fondness of the Prince of=20
Wales, Britain's heir to the throne, for the mock- antique. Instead=20
of a contemporary classic, Cardiff Bay got a forgettable mediocrity.

Ms Hadid is used to this sort of disappointment. "We were=20
schnitzeled," she says of a later rebuff with the confident air of=20
one who believes she is right and who knows whom to blame. She is not=20
always easy to follow-particularly when explaining her architectural=20
ideas-but in everything she says there is a weight of conviction and=20
seriousness. "Too way out", "too like painting", "too obscure": many=20
complaints have been made of her work, but "light" or "frivolous",=20
never. She knows what she wants and is reluctant to compromise.=20
Obstinacy is not unusual in good architects: as weak members of the=20
building foursome that includes also client, planner and engineer,=20
they need a strong ego and a clear vision. How much truer that is for=20
a Baghdad-born woman.

You can list the noted women architects of the past century in=20
America or Europe without reaching double figures. Most of them have=20
chosen one or other of two sorts of professional shelter. Either they=20
have worked with a male architect-as did, for example, Julia Morgan,=20
the designer of Hearst Castle in California, who toiled in the shadow=20
of an eclectic San Franciscan, Bernard Maybeck; Alison Smithson, who=20
with her husband Peter designed The Economist Building in London; or=20
Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, part of a more recent husband-wife team=20
that did Seaside, a controversial "retro" beach community in Florida.=20
Alternatively, women architects have concentrated on interiors, such=20
as Eileen Grey in the 1920s, who also designed furniture, or Gae=20
Aulenti, an Italian, who decorated the Pompidou Centre in Paris and=20
fitted out the old Orsay station there as an early-modern art museum.

Ms Hadid, by contrast, runs her own firm and takes on the big boys in=20
tough international competitions. She does not disdain furniture and=20
interiors-she has done both-and her transformation of the often=20
awkward spaces of London's Hayward Gallery for an art-and-fashion=20
show, "Addressing the Century", won raves in 1998 from even her=20
harshest critics. With less ambition and a smaller ego, she might=20
well have gone into partnership with some established architect or=20
stuck to the quieter path of interior design. But safety and=20
submission, you feel, are simply not her thing.

While not making a meal of her womanhood, Ms Hadid is clear-eyed=20
about the obstacles to working in a "male-dominated profession": long=20
hours, patronisation and the need to be "obsessive" in your work.=20
"It's much harder for a woman,'' she says, "especially if she wants a=20
family.'' When asked if she ever did, her stock answer is that the=20
question never came up, as if to say that architecture for her really=20
is all-engrossing.

Neither does she make a big thing about Baghdad, where she was born=20
in 1950. At first she seems reluctant to talk about her background,=20
sensing possibly that the very word "Iraqi'' evokes peasants or=20
cartoon villains even in sophisticated western minds. Yet the Baghdad=20
of her girlhood was an exciting, forward-looking place with a large,=20
international-minded middle class.

She recalls architectural models in the family drawing room and she=20
remembers her excitement at seeing world-class modern buildings for=20
the first time: Walter Gropius had designed a university building=20
there and Le Corbusier a sports stadium. Her father, a businessman=20
who had studied at the London School of Economics in the 1930s, was a=20
democratic politician and member of that first post-war generation of=20
Iraqi reformers who were sidelined by the brutal revolution of 1958=20
and not seriously disturbed thereafter. As a girl, Ms Hadid explains=20
with a laugh, she went to a convent school, though her family is=20
Muslim. Hers anyway is a cosmopolitan m=E9tier, in which the=20
pigeon-holes of creed and nation mean little. She feels at ease in=20
her adopted country, saying gently: "We're not exiles."

The limits of theory

Ms Hadid's reputation as a theoretical zealot dates from her time at=20
the Architectural Association, the forcing house of many of Britain's=20
best post-war architects. She got there in the politicised early=20
1970s when, by her account, students had almost to threaten strike=20
action in order to get classes in basic design. On graduating, amid a=20
building bust on both sides of the Atlantic, she did write a lot for=20
architectural journals in London and New York, earning herself the=20
unhelpful label of "deconstructionist". A better introduction to her=20
work are her drawings, the most important of which can be found in a=20
1998 book, "Zaha Hadid: The Complete Buildings and Projects" (Thames=20
and Hudson; =A316.95).

As you flip through at first, you may well find that these do not=20
look like buildings at all. But if you let the imagination play for a=20
bit, they begin to make structural sense, much as the daring sketches=20
of El Lissitsky, Antonio Sant'Elia or Erich Mendelsohn did early in=20
the century, despite the claim that such baffling visions could never=20
be built.

Almost all Ms Hadid's work shows a zestful disregard for conventional=20
shapes and traditional angles. The blades or wedges of concrete that=20
form the walls and ceiling of the Vitra fire station at Weil am Rhein=20
in Germany slant and jut in disconcerting new directions. In design=20
after design certain motifs reappear: angular forms, asymmetric=20
plans, transparent verticals and floating, ribbonlike horizontals.=20
Always there is a strong sense of dynamism in her spaces: it is easy=20
to think of them as in movement or of yourself moving through them.=20
Restfulness is probably the last thing you will imagine.

Ms Hadid likes to talk of her city projects as rising from an "urban=20
carpet", by which she means that she wants her buildings to be an=20
easy extension of the city street. Asked to name successful pieces of=20
modern urbanism, she comes up first, rather surprisingly, with New=20
York's Rockefeller Centre: though stylistically more solid than=20
daring, this complex of offices and public spaces unified site and=20
street in ways that are still working more than 50 years on.

That difficult trick is what Ms Hadid is hoping to pull off with her=20
design for Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Centre on a corner site at a=20
busy downtown intersection. This is to be a nine- or ten-level museum=20
(rising five storeys above ground) enclosing 74,000 square feet and=20
costing just short of $30m. Its hallmarks are the openings and ramps=20
that seem to pull the street into the building, then twist into walls=20
and finally blend into interior staircases.

The shock of the new takes a different form in Rome. Any modern=20
commission there is bound to startle if only because, within the=20
city's core, almost every stone is listed and new buildings of any=20
sort are so rare. Ms Hadid's commission is for an $80m modern art=20
museum-the city's first if you exclude the dreary Paul VI collection=20
of 20th-century religious art in the Vatican. It is to be built on=20
the site of an army barracks on flat land enclosed by a bend in the=20
Tiber across from the 1960 Olympics complex (designed by Pier Luigi=20
Nervi) and not far from a new auditorium (by Renzo Piano). Ms Hadid=20
is proud to have won, not only as a foreigner, but as the best of 16=20
finalists from across the world, including a friend and fellow=20
path-breaker, Rem Koolhaas.

Her Roman design, necessarily low because of height restrictions,=20
flows over and around the existing buildings on the site in long,=20
sinuous strips. Once completed in five years or so-the Roman planning=20
gods are more than usually mischievous-it promises to brighten one of=20
the city's forgotten quarters and to consolidate Ms Hadid's growing=20

If she were not a woman in a man's profession, would Ms Hadid stand=20
out so much and win so much praise? Sir Denys Lasdun, one of the old=20
lions of modern British architecture, who designed London's riverside=20
National Theatre, has no doubt. "She's broken the mould," he says=20
enthusiastically, "and made us look at space in new ways." Other=20
architects, less impressed, point out that intersecting planes have=20
been around for some time and that radical things can also be done,=20
for example, with the curve, that Ms Hadid tends to neglect.

Ms Hadid is often likened to Daniel Libeskind, the designer of the=20
much-praised Jewish Museum in Berlin, a broken zig-zag structure=20
expressing a tragic history. Superficially, they are alike. Both seem=20
drawn to twisting asymmetries and off-kilter angles with almost=20
mannerist intensity. Yet while Mr Libeskind, you feel, treats the=20
regularities of more conventional architecture as almost a form of=20
wickedness-a denial of life's horrors and complexities-Ms Hadid=20
treats them more serenely as uncalled-for limitations on the shapes=20
buildings are now free to adopt. And here lies a second difference:=20
Mr Libeskind's buildings tend to want to say something, often in a=20
literal way, whereas Ms Hadid's aim for a purer sort of architecture.

Ms Hadid belongs to the exuberant school that treats structure as=20
stricture and that wants to encourage people, through the strange=20
geometries of their buildings, to imagine new possibilities of every=20
kind. Whatever you think of the theory, the results in her hands are=20
surely liberating. Will lesser architects have the talent and the=20
vision to succeed with her intentionally disconcerting approach? You=20
can welcome Ms Hadid's exciting new architecture while worrying about=20
future imitators-a compliment, in its way, to her originality.