“I started out wanting to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new ... landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of other people,” Zaha Hadid once said.
I met the star architect, who has died aged 65, in Hong Kong in 2014, having been a serious fan for years of Hadid the mega personality, the radical aesthete, the female design titan – one whose creations embodied more than any other Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s description of architecture as “frozen music”.
In person, Hadid had a powerful presence. She was candid, whip-sharp and at times laconic. She spoke passionately about extending her creative force to design outside of architecture, and was obviously fascinated by working with materials in different scales, and how her buildings worked in so many different contexts.
As an architect, Hadid was a pioneer who was constantly asking us to re-evaluate our ideas of a cityscape and accept new and exciting ways of interacting with our environs. With 950 projects in 44 countries, she had a lasting impact on the world’s built environment, above all through her use of curves - seamless, formidable and feminine. But, though evidently proud of her accomplishments, Hadid seemed almost academic about them when we spoke.
In Asia alone, she created Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Innovation Tower, Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza (now epicentre of the city’s design and fashion scene) and the Guangzhou Opera House (in my opinion, easily the best building in that city), to name just a few. I felt that her appreciation of the cultural complexities facing developing countries shone through in the understanding she showed of China’s transformation, and her eagerness to be part of it.
On top of all this, the Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid, whether willingly or not, became a voice for fellow Arabs and women in the fields of design and architecture, not just because she represented both, but also because of her capacity to surprise and ability to smash through lazy stereotypes.
Before meeting her, I was aware that she had a reputation for being a genius, but also difficult. From interviews I had seen, she often gave intelligent, deadpan answers to questions she’d probably been asked a thousand times – questions that usually centred around her place as a woman in the industry, why there weren’t more powerful women architects and whether architecture was biased against women. It must be so tedious, I thought, to be a sixtysomething winner of architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker prize, and twice winner of the Stirling Prize (awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects) yet be hounded mostly for media soundbites on something she had no control over – her womanhood.
In the event, she patiently, and very nicely, explained her position: that gender bias starts way before anyone enters architecture school – at home and in the playground – and it was these places where encouragement and empowerment would be key to changing attitudes.
“No matter what, women are objectified,” she said. “But maybe it will change.” Indeed, Hadid seemed optimistic about the future, having seen much positive change just in the previous 30 years.
I called a Jordanian jewellery designer friend, Lama Hourani, upon hearing of Hadid’s death. I knew that she had a personal relationship with Hadid and had spent time with her at the queen of Jordan’s 40th birthday celebrations as well as at Art Basel Miami. Hourani told me: “She left a huge legacy behind. I always admired how she was proud of her roots and was always connected to them.
“She didn’t a give a sh*t about who was in front of her. She wanted to do things true to her vision. I really respect how coherent she was… and people often forget that it actually took her a long time to get paid projects (only in her 40s) despite winning lots of awards early on. She told me recently that she almost gave up many times, but in the end those times always happened to be before she nailed her biggest projects and [got her] biggest highs.”
“My last conversation with her was about being Arab and living in the UK and how sometimes she was victimised and labelled because of it,” Hourani said. “But she explained to me that none of that mattered really, because none of that made her design or act differently. Other than being an inspiration to Arab women, she was an inspiration to all women.”