How Zaha Hadid found acceptance

People have no problem acknowledging the talent of the Baghdad-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who shot to prominence in 1982 when she won an architectural competition for the Peak, a clubhouse spectacularly perched on the summit of Hong Kong’s main island. Their problem seems to be knowing what to do with it.

For Hadid doesn’t do boxes. Her work is restless, kinetic, and uneasy, made up of bold slices, acute angles, and daring cantilevers, like a cartoon explosion. Dramatic on paper, it is, some find, impossible to imagine in static, built form.

“She is exceptional,” according to Ros Diamond, a London architect who has known Hadid since they both taught at the city’s prestigious Architectural Association in the 1980s. “She won the Peak a very long time ago, when it seemed that her extraordinary drawn ideas might translate into something built.”

But her winning proposal was not translated. And nor, for a long time, was anything else. Other competition entries were often shortlisted, and sometimes they won, but the real prize – getting her work built—was always mysteriously withheld. Her chance to build came at last when Rolf Fehlbaum, the director of the furniture manufacturer Vitra, asked her to design a fire station on his factory site in southern Germany. The project was completed in 1993, but it did not conform to the building regulations, and has never been used for its intended purpose.

Major would-be breakthroughs—projects in Düsseldorf and Berlin, additions to the Mies van der Rohe campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology—remained as near misses. An especially cruel blow was dealt to her ambitions when her winning design for a new opera house in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, was stifled at birth as the result of an unseemly political wrangle. Hadid meanwhile acquired the reputation for being as difficult as her buildings were supposedly impractical.

But recently, enough far-sighted clients have followed in Fehlbaum’s footsteps to change all that. At 51, Hadid is suddenly executing major projects on three continents, including the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, a similar institution in Rome, a science centre in Germany, urban plans in Barcelona and Singapore, and bridges in Abu Dhabi and London.

Is it Hadid who’s changed, or is it the climate? The answer seems to be a bit of both. One constant, though, is that Hadid is a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession. It is an unpleasant irony that it is only comparatively recently, as she has become established, that she has learnt for certain that plain sexism, rather than architectural differences, has been at the root of some of her defeats. “It’s been a tremendous struggle,” she notes wearily. “Part of the struggle has been because I’m a woman. It’s still a hurdle. It’s a shocking thing, but it’s still there.”

But the matter of her sex ultimately is a distraction. “I can’t hold her up as a role model for women, and I’m not convinced that she would want that,” says Ros Diamond. “She would want it for her own architectural theories.”

And in respect of these, Hadid no longer seems as extreme as she did. Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind have proven the appeal of architectural deconstruction. Hadid is often counted as one of the “Deconstructionists”, but, while there are superficial similarities, there are points of difference that single out her work from that of her peers.

One who is in a good position to comment is Professor Brian Roper, the vice-chancellor of the University of North London, who has recently commissioned a graduate center from Libeskind and an adjoining road bridge from Hadid. Both architects employ a vocabulary of eliding planes and odd angles, but whereas Libeskind’s work is like a collision, a forcible coming together of shapes, Hadid’s is almost the opposite, he says. It produces “a kind of extrapolative feel, like throwing a projectile. It’s like when they make candy floss, it’s gossamer-like, but then it does crystallize.”

Hadid herself has difficulty describing her style—“it’s laden with so many ideas that one cannot extrude a single one”—but lists diverse influences from Kasimir Malevich to Miesian modernism. Perhaps the most significant inspiration lies outside architecture: “the topography of landscape and perception of the horizontal domain” and the way in which we speed across it brings the potential “to reorganize space, and ideas to do with spaces; fluidity and movement becomes very important to that discourse.” She does not name specific influences, either contemporary or historical, but enjoys the sharing the “camaraderie”, if not the stylistic pigeonhole, of Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, architects “who really maintain their inventiveness”.

Another factor in Hadid’s overdue success is the improved chance of seeing her uncompromising vision, typically presented in one of her paintings or computer graphics, converted into built form with the help of sympathetic structural engineers. As it happens, Britain has made something of a specialty of nurturing such specialists—so much so that Hadid gives this as one reason for remaining in a country which might not otherwise seem the most hospitable place for a member of architecture’s intellectual avant garde.

On recent projects, Hadid has worked with Jane Wernick, formerly with the renowned firm of Ove Arup and Partners. Often, such teamwork leads to architecture-as-engineering, in which the structure is exposed and celebrated and there is not much else to talk about. In Hadid’s case, the engineer’s contribution is less overt, but allows the creation of highly dramatic, how-did-they-do-that spaces.

Wernick’s job is to ensure that such things are buildable, but she has a subtle social role, too, underwriting Hadid’s extravagant visions with a guarantee of realism, which is valued by clients and, not unnaturally therefore, by Hadid herself. With a family background in the arts, Wernick manages to do all this without diluting Hadid’s creative vision. “Her designs are very holistic, so any change changes the whole,” Wernick explains. “I found a way to give her advice and guidelines which were rationalizing without impairing the architecture.”

In a typical presentation, Hadid explains the logic of her architectural solution and seduces the client with the help of computer-generated walk-throughs based on artistic imagination as much as realism. Along with other consultants, Wernick must then, as she puts it, “convince people that what she (Hadid) draws is composed of rational elements.”

Despite her formidable reputation, Hadid is scrupulous about giving her consultants their turn as well as their due. And if this means that sometimes she feels she isn’t required, then so be it. “The way that Zaha works on projects is not the same as for many architects,” Wernick elaborates. “Her presence is staccato. She’s not deliberately willful, but she does walk out of meetings, and therefore relies on her project architects. But she works enormously long hours, late in the night, and what she’s doing is working on the designs. Project management is not her forte, and that she leaves to others. I think that’s valid.”

Clients are now queuing to submit themselves to this routine. A few appear construe her dynamic asymmetries all too literally, as the perfect stylistic foil for the prosaic function of jumping-off points of various kinds—she’s doing a tram station in Strasbourg, a ferry terminal in Salerno, and even a ski-jump. But she’s also energizing the traditionally rather hermetic environments of five museums, including the projects in Cincinnati and Rome. “If you draw the forces from the city in to an incomplete or open composition that is no longer about fortification, you can change the interpretation of the space,” Hadid comments. Many architects talk about the transition between public and private space, and introduce domains, like a sequence of decompression chambers, by which you step from one to the other. But Hadid is excitingly different, whisking you through, leaving the two kinds of space in a swirl of confusion.

Her overall project is resolutely concerned with modernity, not capital-m Modernism. Even at the Architectural Association in the 1980s, Diamond recalls, “she was one with the most serious view of things, as well as one of the most open to the kind of things that were going on. It’s the thoroughness of her approach: she has a particular field of research in terms of architectural possibilities, and is thorough in the way that she pursues it. She’s absolutely not a style merchant.” Seldom has the world found an architect less likely to dwell on the past.

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