Zaha Hadid: Farewell to the Starchitect

Sad to hear of the sudden death of Dame Zaha Hadid, superstar of architecture, design genius and hugely formidable character. We met in her London office just before the 2012 Olympics, for which she designed the magnificent Aquatic Centre. Here is that encounter, as it appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, in tribute to a woman who was a challenge to interview but whose achievements were really very impressive indeed. That was a life. 

Is she going to the Olympics? The look of disgust on Dame Zaha Hadid’s face when I ask that question would make Lord Coe squirm. “I have got nothing to go to. They have not invited me to any event.”

Seriously? This is the woman who designed by far the most beautiful building in the Olympic Park, the Aquatics Centre where Tom Daley and Rebecca Adlington will compete. Swimmers have described the space as thrilling, fantastic; spectators will feel like they’re beneath a giant wave. But it seems the acclaimed architect who dreamt it all up is not wanted.

“Not me, not a single member of my team has been invited to a single event in the pool or anything,” says Hadid, with what I can only describe as a very quiet, lazy growl. She speaks in a mumble much of the time, as if expecting the world to lean in and listen – but, then, this 62-year-old was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.

“Everybody is amazed,” she says of the snub, in an accent that carries the distant memory of her birthplace, Baghdad. “But the more I talk about it, the more likely I won’t get anything.”

Has she asked for a reason? “I haven’t asked them. No, I mean, come on, people spend seven years doing a venue and you don’t get one invitation? It’s not acceptable.”

It’s easy to see why they call her a “starchitect”, a superstar of architecture. Zaha Hadid looks the part, with long, wavy hair and hooded eyes. She’s drinking tea from a white cup on a white table, surrounded by white models of her work, in a room with white walls; but is dressed all in black. Her expensively simple tunic could be from a Goth version of Star Trek.

We’re in the converted Victorian school in Clerkenwell where she designs the surprising, flowing forms that have won acclaim in Europe, America and the Far East, although in this country, Hadid was dismissed for a long while as a fantasist who never actually got anything built.

“We were stigmatised,” she says of her experience in the Nineties, when she struggled to make a living. The key moment was when her design for a new opera house in Cardiff was approved in 1994 but pilloried in the press and dropped by the planners, leaving her the reputation of being someone who was good at ideas but not to be trusted with concrete and steel: “There was a lot of resistance in this country.”

Abroad, she won great acclaim with a series of startling buildings, including the Guangzhou Opera House in China and MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts, in Rome. Futuristic and daring, they also echo the organic shapes of nature and the landscape.

In 2004, she became the first woman to win the Pritzker, her profession’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Hadid is the current holder of the RIBA Stirling Prize, the highest accolade Britain has to offer an architect, having won it for the second year running with a zig-zag design for a school in south London. Then, last month, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which is not bad for someone who came to this country as a student 40 years ago.

“I was not expecting that, to be honest,” she says. “These things are always rather humbling, because people have taken their time to consider you for the honour and you should not feel blasé about it. I think it’s very nice, but it hasn’t hit me yet. Somebody said to me at dinner yesterday: ‘This honour has been an apology to you for Cardiff.’ I had not even considered that.”

But it still didn’t get her an invitation to see young Tom dive into the pool she had created. “I complained to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and he laughed – but he doesn’t have tickets either.”

So will she not be going? “I bought tickets,” she admits. “I applied for them like everyone else. I didn’t get them for everything.”

She must be a multi-millionaire by now, with a company turnover of around £44 million a year. Friends also came to her rescue, through their involvement with other Olympic sites. “I just think it would be nice if the team who worked on this project got to see it in action, you know?”

Indeed. But I do have to challenge her about the huge cost of the Aquatics Centre. While it is destined to join London’s roster of world-class landmarks – which, as of its opening last week, now also includes Renzo Piano’s Shard tower – how can she justify a £75 million project coming in at nearly £270 million? “The £75 million was the budget for construction and nothing else. Not the site, or the cleaning, no fees or contingency, no inflation, no nothing. It has not been explained properly.”

The organisers of the Games should have made it clear. They also said her building would be an icon of London 2012 – then put temporary stands at each end, spoiling the flow. How does she feel about that?

“OK, the pool was always going to have wings, but they were originally under the roof,” she says. “I quite like them on the interior, they give a different atmosphere. Then when they are gone, it becomes more like a pavilion in the park, which I’m sure will be very beautiful. The interior is stunning.”

Does her involvement with the Olympics make Hadid feel accepted here at last? “I’m not sure I’m accepted as a British architect,” she says, with a sudden chilliness. “I really don’t know what they see me as. We hire lots of people here. Had I not lived in London all these years, I don’t think the work would be what it is.”

She was born in Baghdad in 1950, the daughter of an industrialist and progressive politician who took his family on holiday to Europe every summer. Born a Muslim, she was educated by Catholic nuns, with the traces of an ancient civilisation all around: “The school used to take us on outings when we were four or five, and we would have a picnic in ruins of Babylon.”

One of her current projects is a new home for the Central Bank of Iraq, but she has not yet visited the site. “I have not been back for more than 30 years. My resistance has nothing to do with the state of affairs there; it’s to do with my personal, emotional return. It’s a bit traumatic, going back after so many years and you don’t know anyone.”

After a degree in maths, she came in 1972 to the Architectural Association in London. “I stayed in the UK because the institution is important to me, because I have friends here and there are great engineers here, creative people, the best in the world.”

Here at her offices, sketches become 3D models, plans and eventually buildings. The young workers are eerily quiet. “Yeah, because they are all on computers, wearing earphones. Before, when we used to draw, we would all be laughing and giggling, but not any more.”

Maybe they’re scared. Is it true she’s hard to work for? “I don’t see it that way. We work together.” Is she tyrannical? “No.” Oppressive? “No.” There’s a pause while she considers. “Well, I could oscillate between all of them. I really do believe that people bring ideas to the table. But if they don’t listen to what I’m saying, or they do the opposite of what we all want, then I would be furious. Otherwise it’s very pleasant.”

Does she live with anyone? “No.” She works all the time, employing 300 people but changing lives in cities around the world, making visions of the future real. So, I ask Dame Zaha, what would her parents have made of it all?

“My father was a socialist, so he would have thought that I shouldn’t be a dame,” she says, smiling. “Ah, I don’t know. They believed in progress for women. I’m sure they would be very proud.”

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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