Revealing for the first time, the insightful interview with Zaha Hadid, at the height of her career when many of her designs were just being built. Hadid speaks about the people that inspire her, the designs that she loves and the social meanings behind the innovative and radical designs she has created through her company, Zaha Hadid Architects.
Q: Back in 2004, you won the Pritzker Prize although many of your works had not been built then. You’re now at the height of your career with international awareness. Why do you think people love your design so much?
A: The winning of the Pritzker Prize represents the full recognition of what started 20 years ago as risky projections of a possible future architecture. For the Practice, this recognition translates into more plentiful further project opportunities. Now Zaha Hadid Architecture can be described as intuitive, radical, international, dynamic. We are concerned with constructing buildings that evoke original experiences, a kind of strangeness and newness that is comparable to the experience of going to a new country. Today the office is seen as almost an establishment – though we remain a small, youthful office and we strive to maintain these original, independent working processes. Radical innovation is a term better applied to our recent work – and as with the work of all designers and architects, I think this innovation is appreciated by people.
Q: And your own house, what is it like? What items fill your room? Have you designed your own office as well?
A: I live in Clerkenwell in East London. I’ve had an office there for over 20 years in an old Victorian school building, and have taken over more of the building as the office has expanded. Recently I decided to move closer to it. One of the benefits is this new space is much larger than my old home, and can house some of my work. My new home can hold an Aqua table, Silver paintings, Moraine Sofa and a reproduction of the Malevich’s Tectonic painting, produced for the Guggenheim exhibition in New York last year.
Q: To you what is the world’s best architecture (or space or design) among those that have been completed and why?
A: Leonidov’s 1927 project for the Lenin Institute was 50 years ahead of its time and his 1934 competition entry for the Soviet Ministry of Industry – a composition of different towers placed upon an urban podium – remains an inspiration for metropolitan architecture today. What is most refreshing about this project is the way these projects were embedded within an intense discourse promoted by exhibitions, academic institutions and public competitions. These projects – in all their experimental radicalism had a real social meaning and political substance.
Q: What is your standard of good architecture? What are the essential qualities it must have?
A: Architecture is a vehicle in which I think you can address certain issues. I think through architecture you have to give people a glimpse of another world, and enthuse them and make them excited about ideas.
Q: And design, what is the best design to you? Will you ever make a furniture or product purely for its function?
A: The Panton chair is, by any standard, an enduring design classic that looks as fresh and inventive today as it did in 1968. It was marvellous engineering for its time – the first single-form single-material chair. It signifies for me Verner Panton’s inspirational drive towards testing the manufacturing capabilities of a material – something that has been a key element in my own approach to product design. His bold and striking colour palette complements the chair’s sleek overall form and imparts the design with its enduring contemporary feel. It’s also one of my personal favourites. We have several in our office.
I think designing furniture should be the complete marriage of form and function. One should never be sacrificed for the other.
Q: What is beauty to you?
A: As Kant said beauty is universal: it must be a formal component of the aesthetic object as well as a subjective factor on the part of its perceiver. The most important thing is to see an object from a disinterested point of view.
Q: What is the fundamental basis of your identity? From Tadao Ando’s design, we can see the strong influence of Japan’s minimalism, what is the root of Zaha Hadid’s design? Born in Iraq, raised in the UK, and having studied in the US, the diverse experience in different countries must have had its influences on you.
A: I don’t think that my work is a question purely of my identity. It’s an outcome of so many different things that happen in life, and experiences that you‘ve had before. There is no continuous going back to my cultural roots although perhaps some subliminal influence with respect to appreciation of abstract geometry and the fluidity of calligraphy. Being an Arab woman and a modern architect certainly don’t exclude each other. It’s one and the same parcel. I must say here that yes I am an Arab, but I was not brought up in a traditional Arab way, I have not lived there for thirty years, so in that sense I am maybe not a typical Arab.
I am maybe not a typical Arab. I’m Iraqi; I live in London; I don’t really have a particular place, and I think you really have to re-invent yourself, or you invent your world.
Q: The architects of today are extravagantly introducing and testing new technologies and designs we have not seen in the past. Sometimes this brings out a result where a form, architecture or a structure outstand those who are to live in it, use it, etc. Forms that outtake human, what do you think about this? What do you do to find the balance between functionality and creativity in designing a building?
A: The new digital design tools allow us to integrate highly complex forms into a fluid and seamless whole and the practice has an interesting relationship with technical innovations. 3D modelling has served a definite purpose during our design processes, facilitating the application of complex double curved surfaces. Our ambitions towards creating fluid, dynamic and therefore complex structures have been aided by technological innovations. Zaha Hadid Architects has a welcome reputation for extracting the maximum potential from structural advancements. There is definitely a different kind of operational psychology in architecture today. Before, any single architect could make a model, a drawing, design, answer a phone or make a slide. Now you have people who can only do one thing. So it just means that you have a specialized compartment in your office. And I still think that the lack of the power of the hand, from drawing or inking, takes something away. Of course a lot has been added in terms of complexity, but something was taken away from the lack of personal handling.
Q: What do you think will be the major shift or change in the future designs?
A: One of the great challenges of contemporary urbanism and architecture is the fundamental social restructuring away from the paradigm of an industrial mass society of compartmentalisation and segregation, towards an open society of flexible specialization, with its attendant new order of diversity of work and life processes, and much greater fluidity and dynamism in careers, corporate organizations and social relationships.
With respect to urban design, these new patterns allow the organization and manipulation of more complex life processes which overlap and integrate rather than separate the life aspects of work, education, entertainment and habitation
With respect to architecture, a similar complexity of spatial relations and the intensity of connections is on the agenda. Highly integrated mixed use complexes which require a new language of architectural articulation to turn this new order of complexity into legible compositions.
We have been working to develop a new architectural repertoire that corresponds to this new organization of contemporary societies. For truly open societies, cities a must adopt a contemporary urbanism and architecture of porosity and integration on all social, economic and functional levels.
Q: What about eco-friendly, what are your thoughts on this?
A: The type of material isn’t the only criteria for a building’s sustainability; its usage quality and the way it’s organised are other important factors. There are many architects that use sophisticated air conditioning and interior design methods to improve the ecological balance of a building – whereas I am concerned with adjusting new materials and manufacturing methods that are relative to a whole new paradigm of space articulation and space making. In the end, these different clusters of development – sustainability and the applicability of the materials – will come together again, bringing solutions to a great many problems.
Q: Being a woman journalist myself, I can’t express how much it means for a woman architect to not only be such an acclaimed architect of this age but also have won the Pritzker Prize. What were the difficulties of being a woman in the so called men’s world and what are the benefits?
A: Whether the honour of winning the Pritzker Prize was the exception to the traditional rule of male domination in architecture is yet to be seen. I don’t believe that much remains of the stereotype that architecture should be a male rather than a female career. 50% of first year architectural students are women, so women certainly don’t perceive this career as alien to their gender. However, in the later years of study and then professional work, the ranks do thin out considerably.
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, but I have always been extremely determined. Now I’ve achieved the success, but it’s always been a very long struggle.
Q: The boundary between architecture, design and art are becoming vaguer. How do you predict the relationship of these areas will be like in the future?
A: That’s what’s so interesting right now: we, as architects, can migrate out into industrial design, while designers are becoming increasingly active in interior design.
In terms of form they both interest me equally, although there are obviously large differences. The perception of architecture is different because it is a more immersive experience, whereas furniture design is very much about objects and objects are observed from outside. You could say that design objects are fragments of what could occur in architecture. The idea for a building or an object can come up just as quick, but there is a big difference in process. The satisfying thing about design is that the production process between idea and result is so much quicker and less complicated.
Q: What was your dream as a child? Were you a genius like Mozart or are you more like Edison who developed his creativity?
A: The reason I became interested in architecture is because my parents took me to an exhibition – I was only 6 years old – of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was in the opera in Baghdad, I remember seeing models and things.
I remember as a child with my family going 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.
I guess part of what I am trying to do as an architect is capture that kind of seamlessness and flow in an urban context—for the contemporary city and its users.
Q: Collaborating with Established & Sons, designing the Soho City Master Plan for Beijing…you are working on so many projects and in different fields and countries. How can you do all of this at once?
A: It’s very exciting actually. Of course its very tough, very demanding, but you know, I enjoy doing it. 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 example the table for Vitra or a furniture collection for Established and Sons – actually fixing these to production was maybe two months at the most – I could not have imagined that happening many years ago.
Q: You must be quite familiar with Asia, having worked on several projects in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and etc. These continents must have a different impact on you than that of Europe or even America. What was your impression on the cities or architecture in these Asian continents?
A: Ultimately architecture is all about the creation of pleasant and stimulating settings for all aspects of social life. However, contemporary society is not standing still. Spatial arrangements evolve with the patterns of life.
As Mies van der Rohe said: “Architecture is the will of an epoch, living, changing new. “
I think what is new in our epoch is a new level of social complexity. There are no simple formulae anymore. No global solutions and little repetition – and this is very true with cities in Asia.
In Hong Kong after the British left, a strong preservationist movement has come up. The idea that traditional is best, it reminds me too much of the postmodernism in the Western world, of New Urbanism. My idea is to start from local ideas and traditions in design but to then make them into something new and unusual. It is about using local identity but not copying it. I make it into my own thing in the end.
Q: What or who inspire you, or influence you in your design world?
A: Kasimir Malevitch was an early influence as a representative of the modern avant-garde intersection between art and design. The key here was the liberation from given typologies and the conquest of the realm of freedom of creation offered by the world of abstract art. Malevitch discovered abstraction as a heuristic principle that can propel creative work to hitherto unheard of levels of invention. Mimesis was finally abandoned and unfettered creativity could pour out across the infinitely receptive blank canvass. Space, or even better the world itself, soon became the site of pure, unprejudiced invention.
From my first days in architecture at the Architectural Association, I have always been interested in the concept of fragmentation. The influence of constructivist works of Malevitch and Lissitzky is apparent even from my very early work. But for me the idea of fragmentation has also to do with the idea of dynamism, of a cosmic explosion of some kind.
One concrete result of my fascination with Malevitch in particular was that I took up painting as a design tool. This medium became my first domain of spatial invention. I felt limited by the poverty of the traditional system of drawing in architecture and was searching for new means of representation.
Oscar Niemeyer also had a deep and lasting influence on my work. I have visited many of his works in Brazil, and also had the privilege to meet him personally on several occasions. 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: You have entered the competition of the complex to be built in Seoul (the Dongdaemoon Design Plaza). We’ve heard the entry is due at the end of this month. Could you tell us what your design will be like? What are your thoughts on the capital city, Seoul?
A: This project is governed by the belief that architecture must “enable people to think the unthinkable”. Taking the view that architecture should be enabling, liberating and life-enhancing for the educational experience of designers and visitors, we tried to rethink the basic concept of design education.
In the design of the project, critical Korean traditions and ever-evolving future of design have been compressed together. One fundamental aim of the scheme is to bring delight and fulfilment to the city of Seoul by establishing a socio-cultural hub. A further intention of the proposal, is to bring the city “back to nature”; to enhance or encourage users to think of their new built surroundings as being in touch with the place and environment.
This interview was conducted by Inhae Yeo for Noblesse Korea. The published Korean article can be found at https://www.noblesse.com/