In her own words: Zaha Hadid

The celebrated British-Iraqi architect, who died on Thursday, stood for a radical understanding of space as a fluid, public art.

 |  11-minute read |   01-04-2016
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Zaha Hadid, the iconoclast, British-Iraqi architect par excellence, died unexpectedly yesterday from a heart attack following treatment for bronchitis.  She was 65 years old. With her loss the world is a little less bold, a little less brave and a lot less beautiful.

She is the only woman and the only Muslim to have ever won the coveted Pritzker Architectural Prize in 2004. She was the ONLY woman architect operating at her level.

zha-lacombe_02_040116032020.jpg Zaha Hadid.

What follows is the full transcript of an interview that I did with her last year. Her memorial should be her own words unedited and deeply inspiring.

What is it about architecture that first drew you to the art form and what continues to excite you about it today?  

My earliest memory of architecture, I was perhaps six years old, was of my aunt building a house in Mosul in the north of Iraq. The architect was a close friend of my father's and he used to come to our house with the drawings and models. I remember seeing the model in our living room and I think it triggered something, as I was intrigued by it. I was very fortunate to travel with my parents as a young girl and I can still remember visiting the Great Mosque Cathedral in Cordoba, Spain with my family. I was seven years old, and that was the most stunning space.

Of course, there are lots of other truly great spaces - but this building left a tremendous impression on me. It's has a dark interior, but then there is the extraordinary white marble inside the space - it's like the modern hybrid projects we build today.  

zha_dppseoul_vsb_03_040116032046.jpg Not just a building, but it was future-building that inspired Zaha Hadid.

In the 1950's and 60's, when I was growing up in Iraq, there was a true belief in progress.  As in so many places in the developing world at the time, Iraq was going through a moment of nation-building; there was a lot of emphasis on architecture, not just in the Arab world but around the globe.

My father studied at the London School of Economics to study 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 a remarkable moment of social reform - and this ideology of building a better future has always been important to me and the development of my work.   

In every period there are new challenges, and our designs always become more ambitious as we see the new possibilities created by advancements in design, construction and material technologies. The construction industry around the world continues to provide even more sophisticated tools and materials.

zha_dppseoul_vsb_05_040116032108.jpg Fluidity of public spaces was a political statement from Hadid.

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!  I think the next step is more advanced materials and fabrication.

We have a whole section of our office researching new design and construction techniques. The office maintains this principle and there is always a lot of collaboration with engineers and with people doing experiments with materials to work on new discoveries and push them into the mainstream to benefit everyone.  

Your first mentor, Rem Koolhaas, has a very specific celebratory attitude to the unplanned cities that lives around his buildings. What did you learn from working with him and how does your own response to the host city-scape differ from his? Do you see it as your job to confront or comfort our poor modern urban souls? 

From my first days studying architecture at the Architectural Association School in London, I have always been interested in the concept of fragmentation and with ideas of abstraction and explosion, where we were de-constructing ideas of repetitiveness and mass production. The idea was about breaking not just the rules, but moving away from the things we inherited from previous movements.

It goes back to a whole series of people operating in Europe in the 1960s and '70s, who were concerned with deconstructing the status quo - and before that to the beginning of the twentieth century, when certain abstract movements in art were looking at figurative art, and also certain geometric abstractions, as well as Arabic calligraphy scripts. I'm absolutely sure the Russians - Malevich, in particular - looked at those scripts. Studying his work allowed me to develop abstraction as a principle to explore and invent space.

zha_dppseoul_vsb_07_040116032126.jpg Imposing but personalised.

Kandinsky's art also has to do with script. The person who first observed this connection was Rem Koolhaas. He noticed that his Arab architecture students like myself were able to make certain curved gestures. He thought it had to do with calligraphy. The calligraphy you see in architectural plans today has to do with the notion of deconstruction and fragmentation in space.  

Alvin Boyarski, the fantastic chairman of the Architectural Association during my student years and years as teacher at the school, offered me my first platform to expose my ideas, while Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis were crucial as my teachers. Another seminal figure was Peter Rice. He was the first of that generation; matching innovative engineering with new, untried ideas and concepts.  

I came to London to study and I think my work developed in its own way entirely because I live here. The UK has traditionally given a platform to those from around the world who want to research and experiment. London in particular, has always welcomed and encouraged a tremendous degree of experimentation.

zha_dppseoul_vsb_12_040116032143.jpg Experimentation with shades and spaces.

As an architect, one of the best things about living in London is the experience and skills of the consultants. 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. Cities like London always inspire projects that are unpredictable.

There are still all these quirky situations within the city, with extraordinary adjacencies that make the city so unique. There are enormous sites in London currently being developed for its transport infrastructure, so there is a question about how to deal with very large buildings on these sites. There is tremendous potential here, and often the more radical it is, the more appropriate.  

The majority of work in London is corporate, which sees the private domain having a tremendous impact on the city. This should be discussed. In New York, many of the city's large corporate developments, such as the Rockefeller Center, include public spaces that are as much a part of New York's public realm as the city's civic buildings and parks. London should learn from this and ensure its corporate projects engage with the city and its public domain.  

zha_dppseoul_vsb_09_040116032200.jpg Hadid said people should be at peace in public spaces.

All buildings should have a civic component. Even a commercial high-rise building should offer a civic programme - public spaces in which people can connect and use as their own.  Developers in both the public and private sectors must invest in these public spaces and civic, cultural buildings. They are a vital component of a rich urban life and cityscape - they unite the city, tie the urban fabric together.  

I don't believe cities should be like Venice and not grow or change at all. It is important to intervene in a contemporary way - but you must do it in a very precise manner. In cities, you need places where things can shrink and expand - you need to allow and plan for an organic kind of growth to occur. This organic growth, layerd over many centuries, has made the urban fabric of our cities so rich.  

Part of architecture's job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, go to school and where we receive healthcare - so we must be committed to raising standards of our homes, schools and hospitals. Having a comfortable home is such a crucial issue - not only in terms of a shelter and the basics - but also for wellbeing, for a better life.

There's enough total wealth today that all people should have a good home and access to good schools and hospitals. In many countries around the world, these vital public buildings have always been based on the concept of minimal existence - but that shouldn't be the case today. Architects now have the skills and tools to address these critical issues - and many communities around the world are committed to resolving them.   

zha_dppseoul_vsb_11_040116032216.jpg Hadid's trademark slopes and curves imitate the natural world.

Although your buildings are some of the most future-positive buildings out there, it seems to me that there is a huge influence of classical Islamic architecture on your designs - the fluidity of movement between inside/outside spaces, the play of light and weather on simplified, repeating paters for example. Is this a conscious thing? 

Although there are no direct formal references to my cultural roots in my work, it is this mathematics of the Arab world that I am fascinated by - the mix of logic and abstract. I became interested in geometry while studying mathematics at university in Beirut. I realised there was a connection with the logic of maths to architecture and the abstraction of Arabic Calligraphy.

Geometry and mathematics have a tremendous connection to architecture - even more so now with the advanced computer scripts used in many of our designs. This relates a great deal to my Arab identity in terms of algebra, geometry mathematics and calligraphy. The fluidity and calligraphy you see in my architecture is an evolution of this research. 

My ambition has always been to create fluid spatial flow. We work with fluid forms and volumes as they visually simplify everything, and you can then cope with more complexity in a building without the design appearing cluttered. I am often asked "why are there no straight lines in your work?" This is because the world is not a rectangle. Natural landscapes are not even and regular - yet people find them very beautiful and relaxing. I think that one can do that in architecture.   

zha_dppseoul_vsb_08_040116032232.jpg Influence of calligraphy evident.

Would you like to have a town planning commission? Do you think that women would build different cities to men? 

We have completed several urban masterplans in Singapore, Bilbao and Istanbul. For me, perhaps not a whole city, but I would love to build a whole city quarter;  to use all I have learned about creating public spaces - indoor and outdoor areas - on a larger scale. As we've done in our individual buildings, where elements fit together to form a fluid continuum, we can now apply these concepts to whole cities to create develop a whole field of buildings; each one different, but connected to the next.  I don't know the ego of a man, or how their mentality works, but there is no difference at all between men and women in their capability, not formally in terms of the buildings at least.

There might be differences in women's confidence - but I know we can design just as well if we have the chance. It was frequently assumed that a woman architect could not take on a big commercial project - and I do recognize a bias that pushes women towards designing interiors. It is thought they understand interior shapes - and I am sure they do understand them better than men actually - but people wrongly assume women prefer to deal with a single client, rather than with corporations and developers.  I am sure that as a woman, I can design very good urban projects like train stations, museums or skyscrapers. I don't think it is only for men.  

zha-lacombe_01_040116032259.jpg Zaha Hadid.

What do you think of the rise of the showboating buildings commissioned by real estate developers to sell "luxury living" for a premium?

Each of our projects is the very specific result of how the context, local culture, programmatic requirements, and innovative engineering come together - allowing the architecture, city and landscape to seamlessly combine, both in terms of formal strategy and spatial experience. Every design creates new public spaces where concepts of seamless spatial flow are made real - to create a whole new kind of civic space for the city. 

With every civic, cultural, educational or residential project, there is always an underlying logic within each design which we then push to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship. If the completed design is then considered by people as a "showboat" building, this is an expression of essence and quality of the project itself - and not because the design represents something else.

We are never shy to develop any of our projects to such a high standard that they become well known, but that is not our aim, it is something which evolves through the design and construction process - and a reflection of the project's design and build quality.

Writer

Jessica Hines Jessica Hines @londonishstyle

She is a writer, connector and traveller.

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