Zaha Hadid: The Woman & The Work

There are 2 sides to every story. Even for ‘starchitect’ Zaha Hadid the rules ought to apply. One story is the famous one; the story of her buildings which dot our world, sloping against new skylines.

The other is the story of Zaha herself. Iraqi. Female. Single. And more so; singular.

A quick overview of Dame Zaha: she was born in Baghdad, October 1950. She is known to have been designing rooms in her parents’ house from a young age. By 11, Hadid said she already knew she wanted to be an architect. She went to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut and moved to London in 1972 to study architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. All of that info is common knowledge. But what else?

She was 43 when she established her own practice; Zaha Hadid Architects in London, with the money won from a competition. Soon after that she won another competition to build Cardiff Bay Opera House. They dumped her design and ran the competition again. She won again. They dumped her design again. They had no coherent excuse.

After that, Zaha said, nobody would touch her firm, and for many years most of her income came in through teaching at a number of universities worldwide including her alma-mater. When business eventually trickled back in, and even when it became torrential, she still seldom got commissions in London. Zaha claimed this was because she was not part of what she described as the “boys’ network” of London.

This is one of the many incidents where Zaha brutally, with alarming directness, speaks. Almost all of her talking is barking; she famously walked out on a BBC interview when she felt the reporter was badly informed on her projects. She opposed to being called Iraqi-born but British, “I’m Iraqi!” she snaps. She detested press coverage on the latest handbag she sported at events. She was not a character to be messed with, and defiantly intended to receive intellectually stimulating exposure of her ambitious designs rather than the dress choices she made.

Tired though topics of feminism may be, it is nonetheless true that architecture in the UK still has the lowest male to female ratio. Zaha did employ women, but didn’t want the young ones because of maternity leave. Most of her female staff were senior level. This is hardly solidarity for the female position, but very telling in her dedication to construction.

“No, no I have not sacrificed my private life. […] I don’t think one has to get married. Nor are you obliged to have children if you don’t want them.” She quotes of her own life. As a result she lived alone in a bare apartment in Clerkenwell. It was reported as having no upholstery, no real furniture and no personal touches.

Who am I talking about again? I was meaning to look at Zaha Hadid the woman, who was sassy, and blunt and spoke her mind. Not many of us have the guts to say what we think, do what we want and stick with such conviction to a vocation that it doesn’t matter if it’s sinking or swimming. But rules, after all, do not apply to Zaha. The 2 sides of her life run into one; Zaha Hadid was completely about her buildings, always. She did not give up her life for architecture; architecture was her life.

It would therefore make no sense to overlook her visionary designs, as uncompromising, stark and difficult to digest as she herself. In tribute to Zaha’s lifeworks, her academic success and her colossal contribution in changing the perception of females in architecture, I would like to summarise my 2 favourite ZHA works in London.

ROCA London Gallery, Imperial Wharf, London, 2011

Zaha Hadid: The Woman & The Work

The ROCA London Gallery was designed as an events and exhibition space for global bathroom brand, ROCA. Zaha Hadid Architects were approached to create an interactive experience for visitors. The form of the exterior and interior spaces uses the flow of water as influence. The aim for the interior spaces was to create a flexible and dynamic environment that contains displays, meeting rooms, café/bar, library, multi-media wall, reception and video screens and not just permanent fixture of ROCA bathroom fittings. The interior and exterior finishes are sinuous forms of pre-cast fair-faced concrete in panels. This not only makes a lot of Zaha’s curved buildings buildable, but also affordable!

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, 2013

Zaha Hadid: The Woman & The Work

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery is an extension and conversion of a 19th century building adjacent, called The Magazine. Interestingly, The Magazine used to be a gunpowder store with barrel vaulted interior spaces, and was in use until 1963. Since the conversion, it was hidden away and used as storage space for the Royal Parks. It was then converted into exhibition spaces, a museum shop and offices for the Serpentine’s curatorial team at the same time the sinuous open social space was added.

The new addition is striking and in no respects aims to mirror its neighbour. (Perhaps only in height to please the planners.) It boasts a large naturally lit space with a floating roof structure that meets the ground ever so delicately. Despite appearances, the roof is in fact glass fibre woven textile membrane…to you and me that’s ‘fabric’. ZHA actually have their own in-house research team, they wanted to push the boundaries of architecture and construction and take it upon themselves to put their tests into practice. That’s how they evolved their roof, from what might have been curved glass or acrylic panels in their previous buildings, to tensile fabric.

Earlier this year, Dame Zaha became the first women to be awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal. The highest award for one’s contribution to architecture in the UK. Most significantly she was the first female to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004. (This is the equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Architecture. Very big deal!).

Architecture has acknowledged the works of Zaha Hadid, a formidable woman, designer and architect. Her inimitable sleekness and style will remain with us; a small part of the woman will stay behind with the buildings.

R.I.P Dame Zaha Hadid, 31st March 2016 in Miami, Florida.

Photography: Ron Ellis/Shutterstock

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