London, Asharq Al-Awsat – The story of Zaha Hadid, the world-renowned architect, began in Baghdad, Iraq, where she was born. She has become one of the pioneers of architecture and is associated with the school of deconstructivism.
In 2002, Hadid won the competition to design the masterplan for Singapore’s One-North development project and in 2005, Hadid’s design was chosen for the Basel city casino in Switzerland. Zaha Hadid went on to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the American University of Beirut and has also been awarded a CBE. Moreover, she made history in the world of architecture as the first woman to win the Prikter Architecture Prize in 2004.
Zaha Hadid has recently worked on the Mobile Art Pavilion for Chanel, which brings together the creations of 18 artists influenced by Chanel’s iconic quilted bag. The exhibition will visit numerous international cities until it reaches Paris in 2010.
Zaha Hadid talks to Asharq Al-Awsat about her rise and her work in the architectural world.
(Q) What made you want to become an architect?
(A) I became interested in architecture when, I remember vaguely, my parents took me to a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at the Opera House in Baghdad. I was around six years old and I remember seeing models and things. I think both my parents were interested in architecture in an indirect way.
As a child I also travelled with my family on a small boat to visit some of the villages within the marshes of southern Iraq, and the landscape was so beautiful. There was this amazing flow between the sand and the water and the wildlife that extended to incorporate the buildings and the people. What I am trying to do is capture that kind of seamlessness and flow in an urban context for the contemporary city and its users.
When I was studying mathematics in Beirut, I realized there was a connection between the logic of maths and the idea of a concept in architecture and abstraction. Geometry has a tremendous connection to architecture.
(Q) You were raised in a political family; in what ways did your family influence you towards architecture?
(A) My parents gave me a modern upbringing in Iraq. For such enlightened guidance and selfless support, my mother and father were definitely an inspiration. Their enthusiasm first ignited my ambition and their encouragement taught me to trust even my strangest intuitions.
(Q) Who else has influenced you as an architect?
(A) Oscar Niemeyer has had a deep and lasting influence on my work. I think his originality, spatial sensibility and virtuoso talent are absolutely unique and unsurpassed. His work inspired and encouraged me to pursue my own architecture following him in the pursuit of total fluidity on all scales.
(Q) Did you think that you would reach such a high level of success?
(A) I have always been extremely determined. There were moments when I felt down, but my depressions never lasted very long. Fundamentally, I am an optimist, and I knew I would eventually come out of that situation. You have to adjust your thinking every once in a while to correspond to the time.
(Q) To what extent did your identity, as an Arab woman, contribute to your success?
I don’t think that my work and success is a matter related purely to identity. It’s an outcome of so many different things and experiences.
I came to London from Beirut in the early 1970’s to study architecture. Perhaps it was my flamboyance rather than being a woman that gave me such determination to succeed. I have achieved success now, but it has always been a very long struggle. In the early days we were all workaholics and worked day and night; this required incredible focus and ambition. This determination was not only because I am female.
Being an Arab woman and a modern architect certainly do not exclude each other. I am an Arab but I was not brought up in a traditional Arab way; I have not lived in an Arab country for thirty years, so in that sense perhaps I am not a typical Arab. I am Iraqi; I live in London; I don’t really have one particular place, and I think, in that situation, you really have to re-invent yourself, or you invent your world.
(Q) What motivates you in your work?
(A) I’m always curious about the next step, the next big thing. We are not a static office. When I look at the work every five to six years, there is something that connects it all. If I look at the work between the mid-seventies and eighties I see a similarity. Every period has a new challenge. When I look back there is a new challenge.
(Q) What is it like to be a woman in the world of architecture?
(A) I think it is still very difficult for women to operate as professionals because there are still worlds you have no access to but I don’t believe that much remains of the stereotype that architecture should be a male rather than a female career. Fifty percent of first year architectural students are women so women certainly do not perceive this career as alien to their gender. In our office we have no stereotypical categories that relate to gender at all. However, perhaps unlike some other professions, in the latter years of study and then professional work, the ranks thin out considerably.
(Q) Do you follow the development of architecture in Iraq and the Arab world?
(A) There has been a shift recently that you could describe as a renewed pride in Arab identity. Suddenly things that were not necessarily possible before are possible now. It is an exciting time for Arab architects as there is a spirit of innovation and creativity in the air. It is an interesting time now where you can do something modern.
(Q) What would be your ideal project in the Middle East?
(A) We are already building some amazing projects in the Middle East. I would love to build a whole city quarter to use all that I have learnt about creating public spaces, indoor and outdoor areas on a grand scale. I would also like to build housing, a restaurant and a hotel.
(Q) Out of all of your designs, which do you favour the most?
(A) The Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg is perhaps the most ambitious and complete statement of our quest for complex dynamic and fluid spaces. This project combines formal and geometric complexity with structural audacity and material authenticity. A lot of time and energy was concentrated on achieving this result!
(Q) You are considered an icon on par with Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas; how do you feel about this?
(A) I think if you ask them they would also agree that everything requires so much more diligence. Architects, in general, really have a hard time; no matter how successful they are, this is always the case.
(Q) How do you foresee the evolution of deconstructivism in architecture?
(A) Deconstructivist architecture goes back to a whole series of people operating in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s who were concerned with shattering and breaking, 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 and Chinese calligraphy. I am sure that the Russians ─ [Kazimir] Malevich, in particular ─ looked at those scripts. [Wassily] Kandinsky’s art also has to do with script.
The person who first observed this connection was Rem Koolhaas. He noticed that only Arab and Persian 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 fragmentation in space.
This has progressed further into the fluidity of our recent work. I believe that the complexities and the dynamism of contemporary life cannot be cast into the simple platonic grids and cubes of most cities of the industrial twentieth century.
Today, in the digital twenty-first century, with people’s lives becoming so much more flexible and globalized, we have to deal with societies that are so much more complex. This requires a new architecture of fluidity and seamlessness ─ this can be seen in every current project in our office.
(Q) Other than buildings, you also design furniture; would you like to dedicate more time to other design projects or do you feel that buildings are more durable?
(A) The designs for buildings and furniture emerge from the same thing. For example, the idea of ‘elasticity’; this stretching began in a project for the Guggenheim Museum in Taiwan, then it became an installation called Elastika in Miami ─ now it is a table for Vitra.
For Vitra, we wanted to do a table that is a landscape. We have been thinking about it for a very long time. For example, the Seamless collection for Established and Sons was all done at the same time as the Vitra table; it was all about the organic form. All the projects are connected somehow.
What I find very exciting is the ability to create designs for furniture so quickly by using the newest technologies in design and manufacture. For instance, it took perhaps two months at most to design and complete the production of the table for Vitra or a furniture collection for Established and Sons.
(Q) Can you tell us more about your experience with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld?
I first met Karl Largerfeld in the lobby of our hotel in New York. At the launch of the project in Venice, he said that he saw me as the first architect to move away from the constraints of the post-Bauhaus paradigm. Our ambitions towards creating fluid, dynamic (and therefore complex structures) has been aided by technological innovations. The current state of architecture requires the investigative attitude that I think Chanel were looking for. There is a strong reciprocal relationship whereby our architectural visions encourage the continuing development of the new technologies and manufacturing techniques required to make our visions a reality. As with this collaboration with Chanel, great results come out of this method of working.
(Q) What excited you the most about the Mobile Art Pavilion project?
(A) I have always felt that the fascination for me with the Mobile Art Pavilion has been the challenge of translating the intellectual and physical into the sensual – experimenting with completely unexpected and totally immersive environments for this global celebration of the iconic work of Chanel. I see the Pavilion as a kind of total artwork that continually reinvents itself as it moves around the world.
(Q) In what ways did the iconic Chanel bag inspire you?
(A) Chanel’s signature creation, the quilted bag, was their inspiration for an exhibition that travels throughout the world. To me, this is very interesting as Chanel’s fashion is similarly a global entity that has had such a worldwide presence. Chanel is renowned for its layering of the finest textiles and exquisite detailing to create the most elegant and cohesive pieces for each collection. The Mobile Art Pavilion mirrors this philosophy of layering and fluidity.
(Q) In your view, how can architecture contribute to the world of fashion and vice versa?
(A) Art, architecture and fashion are created for its users. Ultimately they are all about the creation of pleasant and stimulating settings for the user in all aspects of life. Contemporary society is not standing still, and fashion and architecture must both evolve with the patterns of life.
I think what is new in our generation is a new level of social complexity, which is reflected in its art, architecture and fashion. There are no simple formulae anymore, no global solutions and little repetition. My idea is to start from ideas and traditions in design but to then make them into something new and unusual.
(Q) What do you miss the most from Baghdad?
(A) Baghdad was home to a wonderful garden city suburb with lots of modernist houses. We had a very nice house from the thirties with funky fifties furniture and the house is still there.