Born in Baghdad to Iraqi parents, British architect Zaha Hadid left Iraq for the American University of Beirut at the age of 17. She subsequently trained as an architect in London, which later became her home.
Despite a decorated career in her field since opening her own practice in 1980, she initially had to wait six years to see one of her designs make the transition from the drawing board to the physical world. Today, she had designed buildings around the world, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, winning a slew of awards, including the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious in modern architecture, in 2004.
Regularly voted one of the most influential and respected women in her adopted country in national surveys, she was awarded a CBE in 2002 and made a Dame a decade later, in ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.
She spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about her career, her most recent projects, and her thoughts on the future of her profession.
Asharq Al-Awsat: It must have been a struggle to reach your current position. How do you feel now that you have reached the highest point in your field? Do you feel some sort of relief?
Zaha Hadid: Yes, you could say that. Although I did succeed, it was difficult, and I continue to fight a never-ending battle. Don’t think that everyone says “yes” to me now and accepts everything I propose; working in architecture is extremely difficult, and I still struggle every time. I suffer even though I have gone through this experience hundreds of times.
Q: Does rejection still cause you the same amount of frustration it caused you in the beginning?
I try not to open the way for frustration. Yes, I admit that I went through periods when I felt frustrated, but they did not overcome my optimistic nature and my belief in my work and personal capabilities. Perhaps the greatest frustration I experienced was in 1994 when we entered a competition for the rights to design the opera house in Cardiff in Britain, and won. After hearing the announcement and celebrating our win, we were crushed when the project was cancelled. The experience seriously impacted the psyche of my staff, and it was my responsibility to reinvigorate them and raise morale. During that time, we had entered several competitions and did not win any of them. Perhaps there was something out to get us—all the designs that we entered into these competitions were good. Today I remain convinced that despite never seeing the light of day, these designs were important and necessary for our development and for the enrichment of our portfolio.
Q: Why do you say these designs were important, even though they remained on the drawing board?
Since job prospects were scarce thanks to the economic situation, we focused on completing a lot of charts and drawings on paper. Despite our receiving a lot of criticism that what we did was merely “paper architecture” and avoids grappling with reality, I am certain that this time period, through all its finer details and experiences, was a positive one, because it gave us the opportunity to learn more and develop our current style.
Q: But you did not actually answer the question: How do you feel now that you’re on top, after all the frustrations of the past?
Of course, fame affects a person one way or another. I cannot do the things I used to do without attracting peoples’ attention, and this creates some funny situations. Generally, though, people treat me well, often telling me positive things, like how they have been influenced by my work and how it changed the course of their lives, for example. I think this increased interest in architects is a good thing, because almost 25 years ago, no one knew much about them or heard about them. Architecture as a profession is considered to be lower on the hierarchy of occupations, and because of this I’m happy that I played a role, even just a small one, in altering this perception.
Q: The Heydar Aliyev Center is one of the most beautiful projects you’ve completed so far. Do you think you will be able to top it in the future?
I’m possessed by curiosity and am always thinking of the next step, or what I call the ‘big project.’ I think the computer has encouraged us to think about more complicated forms of engineering, an exciting phenomenon that makes many things possible. The rapid evolution of the computer along with what architects have been granted in terms of wider capabilities is absolutely amazing. Our designs need to develop steadily in the realm of construction technology, among others. We must respond by using materials and tools that are more complicated and further developed. All of this inspires me to design in order to push the field to limits it has not yet reached. Great things can be borne from these methods.
I want to add here that in all of our work we face new challenges. You must create daring and ambitious designs and look toward achieving something great, especially when we learn of new possibilities offered by technology. I can say that the next step for me will involve modern materials and new inventions, as we have a whole department that specializes in researching design and construction techniques. Engineers and researchers are collaborating to test new materials with the goal of finding discoveries that can push the field forward, and our role is to implement these discoveries on the ground.
Q: All those who have seen your latest work, the Heydar Aliyev Center, felt that it has a different feel to your other work. What do you have to say about this?
This is the last work I completed, which means it combines 30 years of research, the fruit of which is both constructing a civilian, cultural building and inspiring other works. The building engages with the city and gives people a place where they can communicate. Those who follow my work know that creating public places that people can use freely and that allow the city to flow smoothly are important to me because it connects everything together. I believe that we invest in these public places, whether they be open spaces or buildings, because they are a vital element of a rich urban life. In the city of Baku, for example, the external space flows around itself to demarcate a series of interior public spaces, positioning the urban fabric of the capital in all or part or a corner of the center. You can consider building a natural landscape, or rather an engineering landscape that touches the ground and spreads without reaching its face. For example, interior spaces exist that are linked without anything opposing them. This was the idea from the beginning and it has been successfully implemented.
This project did not spare anything on Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The budget was open-ended, and this is important, because when the budget is not operated in this way, concessions or compromises are made that do not benefit the work.
Q: How many times have you been in this position, and how many times did you have to accept compromise to complete the work you committed to?
I do not like compromise at all because it means weakening the project. We are supposed to always work toward building something better than we have built before. Because of this it is necessary to work with a team that understands this and shares your vision, and one piece of this team is the customer. Fortunately, in recent times innovation and creativity have become more appreciated and are not bound to a certain sector. This trend includes a lot of institutions that have expressed their preparedness to resolve issues related to innovative architecture and adapt to needs dictated by the environment and lifestyle of the time.
Q: Where does your desire to do things differently and love for design come from?
I have believed, and continue to do so, in evolution and progress since the sixties. During that time I was still a young girl, but I took note that the time period took a special interest in construction. There was a large focus not only on architecture in the Arab world but also in South America and Asia because the field has become linked to progress, development and growth. This has had a significant impact on my own personal development. When I was studying in London, the environment was one of bubbling creativity at the university. Every one of us was ready to accomplish something new, and this is what solidified in my own memory and existence. After cultivating 30 years of architectural experience, that time remains influential, along with the professors who were among the first generation to blend engineering inventions with pioneering ideas and principles.
Q: Is this alone what makes you push the limits, or is there, to some extent, a desire for self-fulfillment?
I’ll explain something important to you: Architecture does not operate on seasonal cycles like fashion. It follows a different logic which depends more on the innovations generated by social and technological developments. The period we live in now is dealing with a group of serious social complications. These complications, in light of the dynamics of contemporary life, cannot be addressed through traditional construction using networks or architectural blocs inherited from the 20th century.
I think that one of the most fascinating challenges faced by contemporary urban architecture as a whole is to move away from methods based on the division which marked the 20th century. The transition to the 21st century requires a different approach, [one] that addresses the new requirements of life through buildings that interact with their owners and adapt to changing needs. There is no doubt that design technology allows the engineer to exploit spaces, methods of construction, and materials from a new perspective. The result is either to create new spaces, or create buildings that take into account the social and ecological environment.
Q: Are the meandering lines found in much of your work influenced by Islamic art?
There is certainly a kind of flow in Islamic art and architecture where lines of calligraphy and elements of engineering extend from the carpet to the walls and ceilings and then to columns, roofs, and domes. They form a wonderful spread and there is a relationship between all of the elements. Even today I continue to be amazed by the Arabs’ abilities in mathematics: they were capable of a combination of logical and abstract thoughts. My interest in architecture began mainly when I was studying mathematics at university. During that time I observed the link between logic, math, architecture, and abstract shapes in calligraphy. This connection has increased with technological advancement and computer simulations that employ the systems and algorithms we utilize to develop our designs.
Q: Out of all the work that you have done, which project was the most challenging, technically?
This is a tough question because I cannot identify a specific building. Each one is designed during a different time and presents a unique challenge, and this fact makes me proud of each and every one of them. I can say that the De Maxi Museum in Rome and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku matched the customer’s specific instructions and presented a new type of challenge. The result was an inspirational and dynamic work.
Q: You always talk about the fifties and sixties in Iraq with nostalgia. How would you feel if you went back to Iraq today?
I had a happy childhood in Iraq and I feel proud of my ability to contribute to rebuilding the country now, although the process involves so much more than a single building. We need to build public institutions while also thinking about urban planning, housing, schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure. Unfortunately, I do not have any family in Iraq now since the death of my parents, and if I went back it would be a difficult and poignant experience. Everyone I remember from that period of my life either died or left the country.
Q: We have taken note of your recent interest in fashion. Some may view it as strange since you work at a level much more refined than that of these collaborations.
On the contrary; the experience gives me a chance to express a range of ideas on a different scale and to use different tools. I consider it a part of researching the world of design as a whole. I am closing in on new types of architectural design, and learning from them at the same time. It is clear that many common denominators between architecture, fashion, and art have recently emerged.
Q: You always repeat that you love working in the Middle East. Are there projects you are working on now or hope to work on in the future that play on the dynamics of the region?
This certainly is an important period for all architects working in the region. There are a lot of possibilities for discussing innovative designs, and new construction techniques allow projects to develop in line with the diverse cultures and lifestyles of the region. One of the most exciting things about the dynamism I am referring to is that it reflects a strong sense of optimism. It is expressive of big aspirations, which is a good thing. In terms of urban planning, I think that it has not always been successful because the process was carried out quickly. However, the region is serious about working to improve infrastructure, and among many new projects there are some very attention-grabbing elements. These projects are impressive in their ambition and attempts to break traditional molds.
Q: If you could go back 20 years, what would you change?
(Smiling) I would try to work at a different pace, probably a bit less serious.
Q: Is there anything you regret?
It’s more heartbreak than that I have regrets. I lost my father before he was able to watch me develop from a student to a successful architect.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.