'I don't do nice'
- Zaha Hadid on the trials of being a woman architect
Zaha Hadid has created spectacular buildings all over the world - but never in Britain. As her first UK work is unveiled, she talks to Jonathan Glancey about the trials of being a woman architect, and why her new designs are inspired by the swamplands of southern Iraq
Zaha Hadid stands in front of the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Art. Photograph: AP
In the cavernous meeting room of the former school that houses her
London-based practice, Zaha Hadid is talking me through her latest
commissions. I count about 18 major designs: a bridge in Abu Dhabi; a
maritime terminal in Salerno; a library for the University of Seville;
a skyscraper in Marseille; a museum of modern art in Rome. There's also an opera house for Dubai that extends out from the auditorium into the sea, like some magnificent starfish.
But one country is conspicuously absent from Hadid's map of commissions: Britain. Remarkably, it is only now, a quarter of a century after she opened her architectural studio in London, that her first British building has been completed: Maggie's Cancer Care Centre in Kirkcaldy, Fife, which will be opened by Gordon Brown next month, and then only from behind a veil of intense secrecy.
"Magazines fight for 'exclusives' on our latest buildings," Hadid explains. "Last year, one design magazine was so crazy to be first to publish the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany [perhaps her finest work, and tipped to win this year's Stirling Prize], it sent its reporter dressed in a hard hat pretending to be a construction worker, so he could get the first pictures with a little camera."
Hadid has become an international celebrity in the world of architecture; quite why Britain has been starved of her magic is a puzzle. Although she has been awarded a CBE for services to architecture, it was her adopted homeland (she was born in Baghdad) that very nearly ended her career only a decade ago.In 1994, Hadid won the competition for the design of what was to have been an ultra-modern opera house on Cardiff Bay.
Her design was as practical as it was inspiring, with much of the
magnetism of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, but it was rejected by
the Millennium Commission in December 1995. Virginia Bottomley, then secretary of state for National Heritage, said that the application was flawed by "uncertainties". But, whatever the reasons, those outside the decision-making process could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hadid was a risky prospect, better in theory than in practice. One wonders how those who vetoed the project feel when they look at the banal architectural sweep of Cardiff Bay now.
Hadid kept her nerve after this fall from grace. "I've no idea what I'd have done otherwise," she says. She might have painted: her Russian constructivist-inspired paintings, rooted in the work of the radical Soviet artists of the first years of the revolution, are mesmerising. But she says not. "The paintings have only ever been ways of exploring architecture. I don't see them as art." What about academia? She has inspired a new generation of architects worldwide, and studied mathematics at university. "No. I don't have the patience, and I'm not very tactful. People say I can be frightening."
Architecture has been in Hadid's blood, ever since she first visited Sumer in the south of Iraq, where architecture itself began and the first cities were built. Her father, she says, was a friend of Wilfred Thesiger, the English explorer. "I knew the marshes of southern Iraq from his books and photographs before I ever went there myself. When I did, as a teenager, I was amazed. My father [a leading liberal Iraqi politician] took us to see the Sumerian cities. Then we went by boat, and then on a smaller one made of reeds, to visit villages in the marshes. The beauty of the landscape - where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings and people all somehow flowed together - has never left me."
It's a landscape that continues to inspire her. "I'm trying to discover - invent, I suppose - an architecture, and forms of urban planning, that do something of the same thing in a contemporary way. I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their peoples."
In 2006, Hadid is still the world's only major woman architect, by which I mean an architect who will go down in the history books.
"There have been some well-known women architects in the US," she says. "But they have always been part of husband-and-wife teams, like Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown [who designed the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing]. There have been very intelligent women architects working in local authorities and government offices worldwide, too. But for a woman to go out alone into architecture is still very, very hard. It's still a man's world."
What's more, she says, architecture requires 100% dedication. "If it doesn't kill you, then you're no good. I mean, really - you have to go at it full time. You can't afford to dip in and out. When women break off to have babies, it's hard for them to reconnect on the big scale. And when [women] do succeed, the press, even the industry press, spend far too much time talking about how we dress, what shoes we're wearing, who we're meant to be seeing. That's pretty sad for women, especially when it's written by women who really should know better."
In another way, I can be my own worst enemy. As a woman, I'm expected to want everything to be nice, and to be nice myself. A very English
thing. I don't design nice buildings - I don't like them. I like
architecture to have some raw, vital, earthy quality. You don't need to make concrete perfectly smooth or paint it or polish it. If you
consider changes in the play of light on a building before it's built,
you can vary the colour and feel of concrete by daylight alone. Some
winters ago, I flew from New York to Chicago in the snow; at sunset,
the landscape and cityscapes became no colours other than starkly
contrasted black and white, while the rivers and lakes were blood red.
Amazing. You wouldn't call that a nice landscape, but it had the
quality of light and life I would love to get into our buildings."
Hadid is feeling under the weather, she says, the inevitable result of having to jet backwards and forwards to the US. Her overflowing diary demands that she zip around the world from one client meeting, lecture, exhibition opening and building site to another. Does she ever stop?
"Yes, I had a month off, sort of, this summer. I had this great idea of just lying by the pool doing nothing, like any other girl. But, for one thing, I can't stop thinking, and for another, I was in Lebanon. This year's bombing raids started the day after I arrived."
Hadid's new building for the American University of Beirut is currently under construction. She did a degree in maths there before taking up architecture in 1972 and is very fond of the Mediterranean city. The raids made her more furious than sad: "It's a crazy situation, especially for an architect who wants to build, not destroy."
Crazy, too, for someone of Hadid's background. Strictly speaking, she is a Muslim, but she was educated by Catholic nuns in Baghdad, and then at a school in Switzerland. At home, Hadid was brought up in an intellectual family, for whom education and the understanding of other cultures - there are many in Iraq - were an absolute priority. After the 1958 coup d'etat that brought down Feisal, the British-sponsored Iraqi monarch, and before the Ba'ath party seized power 10 years later, education was top of the Iraqi political agenda.
"When I went to the marsh villages," Hadid says, "there were new schools among the reeds. Girls were being educated for the first time. It was a wonderful, if brief, moment in Iraqi history. Today, there is nothing but destruction. Now, we have to watch the same destruction, the same slide into what could well be civil war in Lebanon, the same loss of learning, the loss of opportunities for young women. There are so many brilliant Jewish liberals and Arab intellectuals: why can't they sitdown and sort out this stupid mess?
"Much as Hadid would like to build in Baghdad as well as Beirut, this is hardly the right time. Her efforts are necessarily concentrated
elsewhere, in the cultural arena. "What I would really love to build
are schools, hospitals, social housing. Of course I believe imaginative architecture can make a difference to people's lives, but I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society."
Meanwhile, she is being asked to design more and more daring buildings: skyscrapers, concert halls and the Aquatic Centre, or swimming pool, for the 2012 London Olympics, for which she has high
hopes. How can she take on so many projects without diluting the
inventiveness of her designs? "We were without work for so long that I
haven't lost the habit of saying yes to every job. Call this insecurity if you like. I mean, look around you here [at the practice]: you'll find 150 architects clinging from the rafters. I'm aware that we could slip into a slick mass-production mode, but I don't think we will. Maybe, though, I'll have to start saying no."
Patrik Schumacher, Hadid's right-hand architect, joins us around an enormous conference table. "We argue all the time," says Hadid. Schumacher guides me through future projects, none of which shows any sign that the practice's collective imagination - or Hadid's daring - are about to become compromised by overwork. "I think we're maturing," says Schumacher. "We're moving into towers. We've had to learn about energy use and structural systems so we can offer skyscrapers that are something different - both exciting and socially responsible."
Images of skyscrapers appear on a wall-mounted screen. They sweep down to pavements in great skirts or tails that,once realised, would embrace shops, cafes, metro entrances and public meeting spaces. They soar into the sky, morphing as they rise. Some resemble drawings of exotic plants, others sea creatures. One, a smooth organic form with raised lettering and decorative motifs, is a sort of experimental handbag: it is an idea Hadid has been working on for Yves St Laurent.
"For an architect," she says, "everything connects. The design of a handbag, or furniture or cutlery [Hadid has recently produced designs for three] have their challenges, and they're fun to do. I'd love to get some designs into mass, low-cost production. I want to be able to touch everyone, not just the educated and cultural elite, with a little of what we can do. One of the things I feel confident in saying we can do is bring some excitement, and challenges, to people's lives. We want them to be able to embrace the unexpected."
Hadid has even been able to add excitement to one of the world's most
thrilling sports: her Bergisel ski-jump at Innsbruck is a superb match
for the performances of those who dare to launch themselves down, and
off, its glacial, vertiginous course. Equally, she has added to the
performances of singers, with, for example, a celebrated stage set for
the Pet Shop Boys' world tour of 1999-2000, and with an inspired
setting for Swiss-born composer Beat Furrer's opera, Desire, performed
in Graz in 2003.
There is no getting away from the fact that architecture played at Hadid's level is becoming ever more theatrical. It has been suggested that such architects are as much "directors" as designers of buildings. Hadid aims to shape entire urban landscapes, spaces and places we have yet to imagine, let alone build. Such landscapes might just happen to incorporate buildings that soar like ski-jumps, while spreading out like the marsh villages under vast Sumerian skies.
The Maggie's Cancer Care clinic will not reflect the full range and power of Hadid's ambition and architecture. But it will be an impressive toe-hold on these islands for one of the great architectural talents of our times.
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