Remembering one of architecture's greatest talents.
By Spencer Bailey
March 31, 2016
From the archives, our 2013 interview with architect Zaha Hadid.
Baghdad-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, 62, doesn’t just stand out from the crowd. She commands it. In part, this is because of her fantastical, game-changing designs and fearless personality, both of which have become known worldwide. She’s also racked up accolades: the 2004 Pritzker Prize, RIBA’s 2010 and 2011 Stirling Prize, a Glamour 2012 Woman of the Year award (alongside Annie Leibovitz, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and others)—the list goes on. Another reason is her wide-ranging portfolio. This year it includes auditorium seating for Poltrona Frau and the Zephyr sofa for Cassina—two of six designs released at Salone del Mobile in April—and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Azerbaijan and London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, both set to finish construction shortly. For the most part, though, it’s because of the energy that surrounds her and the architectural empire she has built. “I’m not doing this alone,” she says. “I’m doing it with lots of really talented and interesting people.”
One recent afternoon in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, at a corner table in the restaurant of the Mercer Hotel—her go-to when she’s in town—Hadid talked ardently about her work and the architecture profession at large. Her cell phone, set to vibrate, persistently buzzed on the table, but she mostly ignored it. Next to it was a Lego-like green plastic Chanel clutch and Prada sunglasses. The photographer Mario Testino stopped by to say hello. Two of her personal assistants, sitting with laptops one table over, attended to floods of e-mails. After about 30 minutes, Patrik Schumacher, her confidante and firm partner, sat down, ordered a tuna spring roll, and listened in. This brief glimpse into Hadid’s world helps explain her success: She couldn’t care less about all of the attention, adulation, and criticism around her. Hadid’s focus is on leading her firm, now 360 strong, through its third decade.
Several major anniversaries from your career fall on this year. Twenty years ago, your first built project, the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, was completed, and 10 years ago, your first U.S. project, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, was completed. And 30 years ago was when I won the Peak [club in Hong Kong]. And 25 years ago was the “Deconstructivist Architecture” show at MoMA, which I think was also very important. I can’t believe it’s been that long.
How do you feel about all these milestones now? They happened in ’83, ’93, 2003, which is interesting.
Do you think you’ll look at any of your projects from this year as another one of these anniversaries? It’s been a good year, but I don’t know. These dates are all coincidences.
A lot has happened since the 80s. Thirty years ago, many considered you a “paper architect.” Thirty years ago, I was considered nothing.
And now you have your work not only being built around the world, but also pirated in China. How do you feel about that contrast? I think it’s a good thing. One has to take these things in stride. I think it’s very, very exciting. I mean, it’s also very exhausting.
What do you think has caused this change in architecture? What has happened in the world is that architecture is becoming very global and international. That’s great, because you can get work everywhere. It’s not like before, when if you didn’t get work in your region, wherever you were based, you didn’t get anything. I think it’s fantastic. It’s opened the door to make opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.
Speaking of which, you designed a cultural center in Baku, Azerbaijan, that’s opening this summer. What was it like working there? Sometimes, not always, you have more freedom on the periphery, in some of these worlds, like Baku, that are more new—or that want to establish a new identity in the same way that Chicago or Brasília or Bilbao wanted to establish a new identity. When identity and architecture come together, I think these are interesting moments, which are then emulated by others. After Bilbao, everybody wanted that effect.
There are multiple ways to achieve that effect. I think so. I don’t think it’s about being loud. People realize they want odd spaces. They realize they can have something that they find interesting. It’s not impossible to do. The whole point of competition is that it’s raising the standard, whether it’s in film or music or anything.
The media has described your work as “alien,” “otherworldly,” “unfathomable,” even “biologically zoomorphic.” Do you think these labels will persist, or are your designs becoming the new normal? For me, they’re quite normal, obviously. When people first see my projects, they see they’re not like other buildings. But they realize they’re not so strange. I think the image is what’s strange in context. My early drawings were more drastic, but the work was tamer, more linear, sharper. Things have changed in 25 or 30 years. The idea was to really reinvent a new cityscape. And that cityscape should be much more fluid and more dynamic, which allows for a different kind of life than the building. The building is no longer confined to the actual object, but through this shift in geometry or morphology it expands beyond its context. It feels vaster than it is. Even in Cincinnati, which is a very contained project, because of the shift of the geometry on the interior, you’re always propelled to the exterior. Once you go in there, these views where the walls are, it takes you beyond the boundary of the building. The idea was to connect the city to the object.
With that project and the Broad Art Museum in Michigan, you’re sort of becoming a big name in the Midwest. That’s nice! Well, it’s interesting that the two buildings I’ve done in America are in the Midwest. We had, in both cases, a very nice experience. They are very nice projects. They’re similar in the sense that they’re both aggregates. Michigan is very tiny, but with its geometry, you can have these kind of long galleries, small galleries. It’s not like a grid. It’s very beautiful. And the light in the Midwest is amazing. You feel the expanse there. It’s weird. You also find it in any northern European country. It’s something about the flatness of the land. You feel the divide. I remember going to Oklahoma and driving to Bartlesville from Tulsa, and it was really beautiful. The light there is like being in Tuscany. It’s a strange, hazy light.
I also remember I once took a very nice flight from East Lansing or Detroit, across the lakes, to New York. It had snowed, and there was ice. It was really cold. That day, as we flew over the lakes, the ice was breaking in the sun. It was like a drawing. It was so spectacular, all these ice floes breaking up and floating. It was amazing. You can photograph these things, but if you draw them, people think they’re not real.
You mentioned Oklahoma. What ever happened to your Price Tower Arts Center project there? Nothing. I don’t know what happened to it. I think they were trying to fundraise, but they changed the director and it stopped. It was a nice project. There are these great buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff and all these people there. It’s just amazing. And even Tulsa’s interesting because it’s got skyscrapers that are all short. They’re like Mies chopped off. They have a nice, almost more contemporary scale. They’re kind of like cubes. Very nice stuff in Bartlesville, too, where there are many houses by Goff. It’s very small there. The whole town is like one block. America, I think, has a lot of interesting cities. It’s not only the major cities.
What happened to your Elk Grove project in California? I don’t know what happened to that, either.
Do you have your eyes on New York? It would really be nice. We tried to do a tower on Park Avenue, but we didn’t get it, which is a shame.
Do you think New York is ready for your architecture? I don’t think it’s very complicated in New York. I just think that the original ambition of the skyscraper was that each one should be competing with its next-door neighbor. That has gone. There is no competition anymore. They’re all monotone. In a way, New York has become more conservative. It was the most farfetched city in the early ’20s and ’30s, the last century. When you think of Rockefeller Center or the Seagram Building or United Nations or the Guggenheim, those all broke the rules. They were all interesting interventions.
What’s your relationship to New York? I used to spend much more time here when I was teaching at Harvard or Columbia. I used to like hanging around for a few days. I would commute a lot. I haven’t spent a lot of time in New York the last two, three years. I haven’t spent weeks on end here since [my] Guggenheim show in 2006. I come a few times a year. I like New York. I used to like it much more. I don’t know why.
You always seem to be traveling. Do you ever take breaks? I take a break in winter. I go to Miami. And I go for a break in the summer. I usually go to Istanbul. I used to go to Thailand, but it’s too far away. By the time I get to December, I’m just wasted. I always say I must make a habit of taking a break every few months for a few days, but it doesn’t happen.
You’ve lived in the U.K. for three decades, but the country has only recently come around to building yourdesigns: a cancer center, a school, a gallery, the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, and the London Aquatics Center. What’s the architecture industry there like? In London, like in New York, most of the work is either housing or corporate headquarters or offices. While we get a lot of money abroad to do museums or a concert hall or whatever it may be, it’s not the same in England. In London, there’s actually a lot of new work for housing, for offices, but they’re done through other arrangements. Google is building a one-million-square-foot office. So is Goldman Sachs. Those will have an enormous impact on the street, when you think of a million square feet. And they’re not tall. They’re low-rise and high-density. You can still interpret that in a nice way. We tried to do that with our Galaxy project in China. It’s not very tall, because I couldn’t get a tall building in that area. But how do we interpret the diagram of an urban scale that’s quite dense with shopping? We thought it would be more like mountains and valleys. You have more than one perspective. The idea is to create your own world, your own views, when you have so much office space.
So do you see a trend against going vertical? After 9/11, everybody thought nobody would do a tower, and the opposite happened. I think it’s not because they wanted to do a tower. I think there was a different thinking, which was not to infringe on the countryside, to intensify and densify the city. Cities are growing, so they have to grow vertical. There’s something interesting about a skyline. It’s a different way of living in the city than it is in the countryside. I think there’s another idea about how this should be going, instead of L.A.—flat—or London.
You’re teaching at Yale this spring. Do you see yourself as an academic? No, I don’t. I believe that in architecture you need to connect ideas to practice and vice versa. I think students need to know people who practice and work, not only academics—they’re too abstract. As a designer, you need to also connect to a younger generation. When you have the time, teaching is a very worthy experience. By teaching, you extend your research to the students.
The critic Herbert Muschamp once wrote that you aren’t a person to talk about books. Do you agree? Yes, because I don’t really spend my time reading, which is a shame.
You unveiled six projects this year in Milan at Salone del Mobile, including auditorium seating for Poltrona Frau. How did that project come about?
I don’t know. Actually, most of the time when you go into an auditorium, you think, “Why can’t they do something nicer?” We always think about Milan at the very last minute. It’s always, “Oh, what should we do for Milan?”
When did you become interested in furniture design? It started off with my architecture. People would say, “This is a very strange space. How are you going to fit furniture in it?” I started looking at furniture not as furniture, but as room dividers, as objects in the space. That’s why I’m interested in these objects. They’re also pretty quick to do.
Do you have a favorite country to build in? Our experience in China has been really positive. It’s far away and so on, it’s quite difficult to do certain things properly, but I admire and respect their freshness, the way our clients there approach their projects. They are willing to try our different models on a large scale in cities. I think Asia is advanced in that sense. Europe, I think, set the tone with competitions, but Europe now has a lot of financial problems. It’s a shame. It was great what was being done in Spain and France.
You have a couple of projects under construction in Beirut, where you studied at the American University. Does it excite you to do work in the Arab world? Yes. I would love to work more in the Arab world, because I really think it’s important to connect that world to the international scene—and to also raise the standards there. Beirut, Istanbul, and Baghdad all have interesting qualities. When I was growing up in Baghdad, there were great projects by Corb, Frank Lloyd Wright, Giò Ponti, Arthur Erickson, and other architects. In Beirut, there are some fabulous buildings on the water, interesting ministries and theaters.
How would you bridge the Arab and international worlds through architecture? You need to do a very interesting project. I think it’s important to use certain models. Take Beirut, which is a really small city. It’s inward looking, but it’s unlike other cities on the water. When Beirut was destroyed, there were some things they could have replaced, repaired, but they didn’t. They bulldozed everything. Their first ambition was to make it look like Atlanta, like a generic American city. That didn’t materialize, and they turned to the Berlin model, which is to make perimeter blocks. But in Berlin, there’s something like 20 million blocks—I don’t know how many. It’s an enormous city. In Beirut, there are maybe five blocks. What was intricate about it before is that it was like a maze. You traversed it. When I later returned, it took me five, six trips to locate a certain point in Beirut I used to go to. I couldn’t locate it because it had changed so much. Before, Beirut was very terraced. Then they made it flat.
Maybe it’s okay to make a tabula rasa, but there was no need. I think what replaced it should have been more interesting, not repeating what happened in Berlin, which is a different place altogether. When I first went to Beirut after 20 years of absence, they were digging holes for the car parks, and actually, it was really exciting when it was empty. They found subterranean ruins. It could have been really interesting. They could have kept this layering and somehow included these ruins. There were Roman baths and Phoenician walls. I think through abstraction you can connect those Islamic worlds, in terms of patterning and geometry, to a new world.
Your career as a woman in architecture has been one of breaking barriers. Which barriers, if any, do you feel like you still need to break through? I need to break through the corporate domain. I don’t play golf with the guys or go out for drinking or boating or whatever, so that eliminates you completely. You can’t join the boys’ club—well, you can, it’s just more difficult. I don’t think there are any barriers. I think they’re more cultural. And frankly—and I don’t mean this in any derogatory way—I think it’s more difficult in the Anglo- Saxon world. When I go to Japan or China, people treat me well because I’m only there for a few days. You’re not infringing. You’re a guest, and as a guest they treat you very well. That’s the culture in Asia, even if you’re in the Arab world. The treatment is very different if you live somewhere like Europe, or if you come to the United States. I think the mindset about women has changed a lot, but there are still areas we haven’t been able to get to. I know for a fact that if you’re a woman and you’re opinionated, you’re considered difficult, you’re considered pushy. But a guy is expected to be like that. That has to change. There’s another issue I think that’s very important: Men and women’s relationships have not been normalized. I mean this in the sense that a guy can’t go and have dinner with a woman without people thinking something wrong. When that changes, we’ll find professional behavior will be improved. Then you can meet with a man and discuss work and stuff like that.
San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King recently wrote, “Divas in architecture tend to be male and tend to measure success by the number of heads that they turn.” As someone who’s been described as “architecture’s diva,” how do you feel about that? “Diva” in their lingo is derogatory. They don’t call a guy a diva. They call him I don’t know what. In the end, architecture is very demanding. It’s not as glamorous as being a movie star, though they have to work hard as well. With architecture, like any design, there’s a groupie syndrome, and if you allow it to go to your head, you become like that, spending all your time thinking about how to resolve your problems. There isn’t time to worry about all this kind of stuff.
As prominent female architects like Jeanne Gang, Farshid Moussavi, and Elizabeth Diller rise, do you think a gender shift is happening at the upper echelons? I think so. It should be a much bigger shift. It’s not much because you can name these people. I really do think it’s a problem of continuity. When women take time off to have children, coming back to their routine work, I think, is quite difficult. Not because they can’t do it, but because they are out of step. To really eradicate that problem, society needs to help with child care. Women are becoming more independent. They want to do everything themselves. They have to have the job, the husband, the house, the child. Everything. All of this is too much for one person to take care of.
You’re known for your sense of style. Have you ever taken inspiration from fashion and used it in architecture?No. But designers have taken our projects and turned them into fashion.
Are you interested in working in fashion? Honestly, 20 or 30 years ago I used to be more interested in that than I am now. I had more time then. I had to make a decision to do architecture because there’s only so much I can do.
So now you’re an architect.
Yes, so now I’m an architect. Before, if you were trying to be an architect and you wanted to do something else, they would insult you. They’d say, “Oh, you’re a painter.” Or, “Oh, you’re a designer.” Or, “Oh, you’re a fashion designer.” Like it’s bad. It was all very derogatory. I had to kind of focus on architecture. Now I think the boundaries between all these things have become slightly more eroded.