Zaha Hadid, the first female superstar in architecture, has been in great demand recently: Venice architecture biennale in August, Zaha Hadid and Suprematism book launch in September followed by the Madrid exhibition opening, and site inspection in Baku – the list goes on forever. Naomi Campbell squeezed into Zaha’s busy schedule during her two-day breather at the London office to find out how she pulls this off, and where she draws inspiration from.
NAOMI CAMPBELL: Hello Zaha. We are short of time, and I have many questions, so let’s get started. In your interviews you speak a lot about experimental nature of early avant-garde. Is that what your book is about?
ZAHA HADID: The book is based on the show about Russian suprematism that we did two years ago in Gallery Gmurzynska in Zurich. We installed my works imitating suprematism among the gallery’s collection of Russian suprematists. Russians were obsessed with the thing during the whole of the XX century: all these sputniks, dogs in space, the monument next to the park of Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, exhibition centres with things that would look like hovering planets. It was just like everything was flying, the whole thing. They even had bottle openers shaped as rockets, I used to have a lot, don't know where they are.
NAOMI: If I’m not mistaken, even your school project was called Malevich’s Tektonik.
HADID: Yes, that was my fourth year project. I was a student of Rem Koolhaas. Once we were assigned to come up with a new scale for objects by locating them somewhere. I placed mine on the bridge over the Thames. This was meant to show that works of such suprematists as Malevich and Lissitzky are only seen as art objects because they have no scale to be compared to. But the minute you put scale they become architecture.
NAOMI: You draw a lot, but many projects never came to life. For about thirty years you were a paper architect. Why did this period last so long?
HADID: Not actually thirty years. I left school and university thirty-five years ago. Let’s say twenty years. Or maybe fifteen. No one expected to build a career like that then – it all boiled down to putting together a simple box with something in it. I took a look at the projects of very large buildings, and they seemed so massive and bulky. So it struck me that they wouldn’t be so bulky if they were in the shape of a gentle hill, or something similar. That’s when I started working on visual environment and landmasses applying fluid lines, trying to make a building look as if it were liquid. It took years to translate the word “liquid space” into an idea to be further translated into a building. This is why I used to draw and paint more at the time, as a means of exploration and personal use, so to speak.
NAOMI: And this has started the revolution! Just as the concept of suprematism in the past. Do you feel anything similar today?
HADID: You know, when I started I had a feeling that technological revolution was coming, but I didn’t know where it would begin. Eventually the incredible advancement in computer technology changed everything. Even in architecture – especially in general fabrication, which became absolutely seamless. It’s not only the seamlessness that connects the building with the ground, but also the fact that there isn’t any contradiction between the idea and its technological embodiment, fabrication. For instance, we are now in the middle of a stunning project in Baku where we apply this technology to achieve completeness. The process has become simpler. Instead of manufacturing chairs in London and shipping them to America you can just ship the machine somewhere, and do it there.
NAOMI: Do you mean these amazing 3D machines?
HADID: Exactly. 3D modeling allows us to build objects, practically one-offs with the minimal costs. You can’t apply this to buildings as they require engineering, but this is only a matter of time. There’s no need to print out drawings to send them to engineers anymore, it can be done by email. As it is very precise, now you can’t make a mistake, which would be unavoidable if it were made by hand. No need to build a model here, I email it, and they can start working on it wherever they are. It’s practically the same as in car-technology, or airplanes.
NAOMI: Should we expect new revolutionary genres in architecture?
HADID: We should. During the past decades there have been a few drastic changes in architecture. It started off with people defining the idea of what we call norm, which has only one single rational. But then people questioned it. The views on topology have shifted. They used to think that architecture has to land, as there’s gravity to deal with the buildings would have to be very grounded. It all was based on production before, it had to be flat and repetitive – like producing same things endlessly. That has changed.
NAOMI: Not only you are a fan of Russian suprematism, but also you have a couple of projects in Moscow: an office complex, and a living tower in Moscow-City.
HADID: To be honest, I have no idea what stage these projects are at. Despite my deep connection with Russia, we don’t have much work there. But I love the idea of doing something in St. Petersburg, it is a wonderful city. As for Moscow – I find it one of the most amazing places in the world.
NAOMI: I say the same thing. People ask me: How can you live there? But it’s almost like living in New York: amazing restaurants, amazing art, exhibitions, ballet. It’s always on educating demand.
HADID: Beautiful, and so very spacious. I remember staying with friends who seemed to live by my hotel, Metropol. I decided to take a walk this once, and it took me 40 minutes. Every street is triple in size of a normal street, and buildings are 8 times bigger!
NAOMI: They need a few more parking lots and garages.
HADID: And public transport. Though their subway trains are beautiful, don’t you think?
NAOMI: The trains! Did you see Alexander McQueen’s show in the subway?
HADID: Seriously? I didn’t know about it. We used to go in the subway and get out in every station, because they are all so different and so beautiful! And the idea of giving these palaces to people is unique. The Stalinism era architecture is a bit weird, but quite interesting.
NAOMI: Yes, I agree. Zaha, your work has never had any particular national references. What is your attitude to architects who keep a strong national identity?
HADID: I think people in the world become more similar, they have similar aspirations and goals. But retained identity is not a decoration. People still have very different habits: they use space differently, live in different climates… When you build something on a large scale, not a single house or a small building, it’s quite challenging to translate all historic values in the same way. But sometimes one can, indeed, learn from the locals.
Recently I went to Mexico where the architect Luis Barragán used to work. He had travelled across the North Africa, and his buildings look very modernist, yet bear similarities to African architecture – big walls, bright colors… Or, say, modernism in Brazil – light friendly paneling, as the weather conditions call for ventilation and solar screens. I think you can work in the same direction today, tending to the needs and demands of the people in that particular location.
NAOMI: Since we have already tackled the national subject, do you feel disturbed when you see what’s happening in Iraq?
HADID: Disturbed and scared. It’s a great part of the world, the people are very generous and hospitable, but they are largely misunderstood. So what if they wear hijabs or white robes?
NAOMI: You can’t judge people by their clothes.
HADID: In the 60-s, when I still lived in Iraq, there was a huge emphasis on education. Every girl would go to university. I always tell the story of a boy who came to work in our house when he was 13. My mother almost adopted him. He came from a dirt-poor family, but became as close as a brother to us. And he could neither read nor write. Eventually he grew up, got married, and bought a house of his own. Within one generation all of his kids went to college. That was an incredible change. But I can’t see this forward thinking anymore, not even among the elite. There are many problems there. The entire Iraq thing was enough humiliation. Another problem is that industrialization is vital, just sitting on oil is not enough. What is happening there now has a lot to do with the inequality, and the clash between the rich and the poor. They need strong leadership to rebuild the system.
NAOMI: Are you a Muslim?
HADID: Yes, but I don’t practice. I went to a Catholic nun school.
NAOMI: Do you find the two influences contradictory?
HADID: No. When we were kids, we didn’t know what we were. We were Muslims; Jewish and Christian girls were there as well. I used to cross my heart, but then realized that my parents did not. And I asked them why I went to this school if we were not Christians. And father told me: You don’t have to if you don’t want to. The school was situated in a chapel. I was only four then, we were children and didn’t understand ethnic differences – there were Kurds, Armenians, and many other nationalities. The term “melting pot” must have been coined to define Iraq, it’s a multinational country.
NAOMI: My mother always said that Baghdad was the Paris of the Middle-East. What do the rest of the cities look like? Did you travel a lot?
HADID: Many years ago. Southern Iraq, the marshlands. My parents were insane – to let me go there with my friends. It was a life-changing experience. Everyone was bitten to death, except me, because I applied this anti-bug spray, and was covered in it head to toe. Just try to picture this: we’re trying to cross the marshland in a canoe, and there’s a buffalo swimming right next to us. But the people who live there are genuinely beautiful, and tanned, which comes from living outside. The women look incredibly sexy, like real models, and they carry these things on their heads that look like sails when they’re on a boat.
HADID: We traveled by car, and a few times ended up in the sticks where kids had never seen a car before, and said: Wow! What is that? They clearly thought we were freaks. It was thirty years ago.
NAOMI: I have a book from the 50’s from Iraq. The men and women were so elegant! Speaking of which, I know that your favorite designers are Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. What do you like about them? Is that their clear line?
HADID: I used to like Issey when he was in charge of design. At first glance the lines look so simple, but when you put the item on, it becomes something else. But I don’t find this in fashion anymore. I believe, design should be more modern, otherwise I can just wear whatever clothes I already own. Actually, now I wear Comme des Garçons, Maison Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester. I even recall that in the 80’s all art-schools would give you a feeling of a fashion parade. Naturally, the first and foremost goal of an outfit was to express one’s individuality. I’ve been interested in fashion since I was a kid. It is fascinating how fashion seems to be competing with architecture. Also it reflects the mood of the time instantly. Of course, they need to prepare in advance, and the timing is entirely different. One must create four to eight collections a year.
NAOMI: I still have one more name to add to this… You worked along with Karl Lagerfeld. He recently said to me: “If Zaha is in Paris, ask her to text me and make an appointment.”
HADID: We shared the Mobile Art project. Karl started it with someone else, but then announced he would not continue unless I joined him. Then Lacoste got offered the limited edition shoes collection idea. They were followed by Melissa from Brazil, and Nadja Swarowski – here we worked on jewelry and lamps. Currently we are making shoes for Rem Koolhaas. These projects always bring in something that I didn’t know, something that wasn’t on my map before.
NAOMI: On a personal note… You’ve been described as a careerist. Do you feel there can be too much pressure on you?
HADID: Not at all. This is a choice. I neither argue, nor regret being a careerist. Of course it does limit your ability to have a normal life, to have a partner or children. But honestly, if I wanted to have kids, I would have had them. Though, coming from Muslim background one would still be looked upon for having children without a husband. Maybe I will regret it one day, but I haven’t yet.
NAOMI: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
HADID: I don’t carry the feminist flag, if that’s what you mean. Yet I believe in women’s ability, and power, and independence. I used to disapprove being called a woman architect, because what is important is that I’m an architect, woman is background information. But perhaps it helped other women, inspired them to take up a profession and do something on a professional scale, especially in a field considered not suitable for women. When I first started, my career choice would seem unusual to most people, but today anyone hardly ever notices. But I think the prejudices about women are still particularly strong in England.
NAOMI: Indeed! (laughs)
HADID: The Welsh are the worst, they can’t stand women. They have some sort of a brotherhood with limited admission. So yes, I’m a feminist, because I see all women as smart, gifted and tough.
NAOMI: And strong!
HADID: Much stronger than men!
NAOMI: You had to fight with the system, clients, materials, space. How did you pull this off?
HADID: Doing architecture as a woman, and a foreigner is challenging. Especially when you do something “abnormal”. I got away with it because people didn’t know how to behave around me. I would seem crazy, ill tempered and get uncontrollably angry at times, but I was also very persistent, steadfast and obsessed with work. You are familiar with the history of my work on Cardiff Bay Opera House. We won three rounds of the competition, but the client still was reluctant to pick the project. It was a big scandal. From the very beginning I knew they would savage the project and me. They told me: give up, the British have a taste for real beauty. And I only replied: “We’ll see.” And right I was. The locals were fighting with the project for 6 years. But till this day people come up to me at the airport and say: “I’m Welsh, and I apologize for what happened.”
HADID: I was unknown at the time, but this project was talked about so much, that I became a public figure. Public interest to the project all over Britain spawned a wave of attention to architecture. So, my colleagues were sure I would give up. We applied for Lottery Funding, but were never provided funding. This was a disaster. We felt as if we were lepers, and if no one would ever give us work. But we only doubled our efforts. On one hand, we wanted to erase this situation from our memory, on the other hand – to prove that we are still worth it.
NAOMI: Yet afterwards you won some incredible awards, including the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the CBE award, received the Honorary Degree of American University in Beirut, and were appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Which of these awards is most meaningful and dear to you?
HADID: It is a great honor to be appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, especially in a country I had chosen to be my home. The Pritzker had a great impact on my career. It was well timed, so to speak, and drew the needed attention to my work. Some people would retire, take a rest. But what am I going to do then? Have manicures every day?
NAOMI: You constantly pushed boundaries. What should we expect from you in the future? Is there a project you wanted to carry out in a particular country?
HADID: In the Middle East, for certain. It would please me as an Arab to mark my presence in the region. I would be happy to do a project of urban space on the whole, including every section of the city. Just try to organize a whole section according to one general idea, avoiding megalomaniac approach. This is something I haven’t done before. There are so many opportunities around, you need to keep your eyes peeled for them. For example, the Olympic park in London turned out very dull. But this – a completely new town, a great regeneration program – and the project has to be radical, fantastic.
NAOMI: What about London Aquatics Centre?
HADID: This was the first project for the Olympic park. There was a requirement that this building expands during the Olympics, and shrinks afterwards. It had to extend the whole length of the pool, but when the side-buildings were to be added, it would look completely different. Building a bridge in the air is a big challenge. Amazing experience. I am only puzzled by one thing – why haven’t they invited me to the Olympics?
NAOMI: Unbelievable! And what do you do to switch off? Do you watch TV?
HADID: Well, I do like television, but usually watch it after midnight. Honestly, I like these new series like “Mad Men”. It’s brilliant. I’m fascinated by it, it is so thoroughly researched. If you watch it thirty years from now you’d never think it was made now.
NAOMI: The hairstyles, the clothes, set-design!
HADID: Yes! So I like television, I like films.
NAOMI: How do you manage to make time for this? There must be a lot of travelling.
HADID: This is the most exhausting part, actually. But I can’t really complain, the work became global. You couldn’t do this before. Louis Kahn had to be on location in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Can you imagine, he went from Philadelphia to New York, then Europe, and on. It must have taken weeks. Or Le Corbusier, when he was working on Chandigarh! Thanks God they invented jets! This summer I’ll have to travel to the biennale in Venice, then the exhibition in Madrid, Montpellier opening, Antwerp, Baku, China… And this insanity will continue until January. I’ll turn into a vegetable without a vacation.
NAOMI: I’m going to send you some masks. They don’t look pretty but they work. You put one around your ears and your nose, it’s honey covered. On the plane people are coughing and sneezing, and I don’t get anything. When I get off, I feel hydrated.
HADID: Fantastic! British Airways new first class seats are so bad…
NAOMI: Sorry, can’t speak about this. Only when I turn off the recorder…