Zaha Hadid in Nina Magazine
Dame Zaha Hadid, a self-professed world citizen, learned the art of nation-building in Iraq, a country that defines her past and will possibly come full circle, as a nation rebuilt, with her buildings as physical symbols of hope. Now in her early 60s, Zaha set up a practice in London in 1980. Her work graces cities from Guangzhou, China, to Glasgow, and includes the iconic London 2012 Aquatics centre.
She grew up in Iraq, before leaving at the age of 17 to study abroad. Despite not being back in over 30 years, she describes the Iraq of her youth as having given her an unbroken belief in progress, along with a great sense of optimism. Within a world that is no longer defined by physical boundaries, she uses her art to reflect the shifting sands of identity, blending the fluid concepts of a digital homeland with physical presence. This perspective is never more in evidence than in her office building, which I visited last month.
Occupying a former school in Clerkenwell, London, this 1870s building is the professional home of the first lady of architecture. It has an industrial feel to it, but despite its strong physical identity, seems to have one foot in the tangible and another in the digital. There is a silent ‘buzz’ of over 200 people working collaboratively – physically, certainly, but mainly in global cyberspace – a new type of community. This reflects Zaha’s style of leadership with her multinational team focussed on translating a vision that reflect globalisation, but which ensures that real identity and the impact on local society remains at the heart of her work. Zaha has won nearly as many global awards for being an international business woman as for her architecture. Through this hub of industry, she combines both facets, sharing with Nina her thoughts as to how the heart of a woman can create a global footprint – in this, our inaugural issue.
As an inspiration to the Iraqi women, what message do you want to convey to them?
Firstly, I believe education is so important – allowing all young people to explore their future possibilities and learn from history, especially now, where we are on a global stage. I see women around the world as being smart, gifted and tough, but a good education can open ideas and opportunities. For example, the school I went to in Baghdad had taken all the teachers from the university. The levels of the science courses were really incredible. These high standards, linked to the fact that the Headmistress made education of women a priority, had an impact on me.
Secondly, never give up! I am extremely grateful for my success, but architecture is a tough profession, so it has been a struggle. I think it is very important to have the commitment to persevere, and to have a strong belief in yourself. As a woman, you need the confidence that you can carry on and take new steps every time. You can’t always get everything right every time – but you have to keep trying.
Thirdly, I believe in hard work, but there also needs to be a balance. This is especially important for women. Women world-wide are becoming more independent and there is a new layer of confidence, because they are achieving. However, we still feel as if we must do everything – work, manage the house and look after children. There is too much to do! So it is important to learn how to trust others. You must learn early on that you can’t do everything yourself; you can do bits of it yourself, you can ask people to do things the way you want them done, but you also have to rely on their strengths and abilities. Teamwork has been very important to me. I’ve always believed in it, and that’s why things are manageable and it is how I achieve my personal balance.
Finally, it is important not to neglect your friends and family. Time doesn’t stop when you’re trying to meet a deadline, and the intensity of working under such pressure can create great things. However, one must equally work to ensure friends and family are not neglected, as they will always be your greatest support.
Your origins and your gender – can you explain how these have impacted on your work?
I am an Arab and a woman, and this has presented setbacks. It is like a double-edged sword. You work hard to overcome one – and then the other comes up. The moment my ‘womanness’ is accepted, the ‘Arabness’ seems to become a problem. But this comes back to the point I made in the previous questions. Confidence, toughness and the need to stand up for your vision is what can then translate into the true success that can influence nations.
In terms of my cultural roots, although there are no specific formal references, the mathematics of the Arab world, the mix of logic and abstract (the abstraction of Arabic calligraphy), have had a significant impact on the way I design.
You designed the Central Bank of Iraq Building – is this the start of a new kind of relationship?
I am deeply touched and very happy to be contributing to rebuilding Iraq. Although I no longer have family left there, I often think of returning. I know that when I return, it will be very emotional for me, as everyone I remember from my days in Iraq no longer lives there.
I do look forward to this moment though, as we are working on some very exciting projects and I believe that rebuilding Iraq requires more than individual buildings. Iraq needs major infrastructure, as well as well-conceived urban planning, with public institutions, housing, hospitals and schools.
Just as an example of connected planning, the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton is a project I am very proud of. The school inspires its 1,200 schoolchildren to achieve their dreams and be part of London’s progress – and each afternoon and evening, it is used by the entire community as a centre for all.
Do you think that architecture and living spaces can change the way we interact – for example, can your work have an impact on women and culture?
Where we live and work should reflect the flexibility needed to thrive in our modern culture. I believe, ideally, we should learn to adjust our thinking every once in a while to fit the moment. I have tried to do this in my work. For example, it can be difficult for women to operate as professionals, because there are still some worlds women have no access to. There are certain territories that no matter what you do, you cannot enter. This can and should be changed.
In my case, in order to enter this new space, I needed to be part of creating a new dialogue. In order to do this, I needed to think about and do things in a different way, which I then carried out meticulously. Needing to define new territories in order to work made me tougher and more precise – and maybe this is reflected in my architecture.
One thing is for sure, change can happen! You now see respected female architects all the time. In the last 15 years there’s been tremendous change and now it’s seen as normal to have women in this profession.
Can you give an example where an era ended up shaping a new energy or way of thinking?
I came to England first to go to boarding school in the 60’s, then I came back to study architecture in 1972. At the time I arrived, London was very depressing and gloomy. There were strikes everywhere and a three-day work week. We only had electricity for a few hours each day. But, as there was nothing to do, it propelled people together to discuss and debate. This made it very liberating: a great place to study and experiment.
The city offers so much education, research and invention. Anything you want, you can get someone to advise you on. In the developing years of my career, that was critical. The seminal figure was Peter Rice. He was the first of that generation; matching innovative engineering with new, untried ideas and concepts. Another key influence was the late Alvin Boyarski, who believed the world would become much more international, so it was important to build a truly international school. He embodied this global approach in my place of study, the Architectural Association (AA) School in London.
So globalization, debate, discussion, innovation and experimentation – a great blueprint for nation-building, I think.
Do you think modern technology is changing the spaces we live and work in (Nina, as an online community, is an example of this) and do you think online space is reflected in new types of architecture?
Contemporary society does not stand still – and buildings must evolve with new patterns of life to meet the needs of their users. For example, the invigorated ethos of worldwide collaboration is something that needs to be reflected. We live in a truly collective global research culture, where many contributions and innovations from around the world feed into each other and allow us all to flourish. This new kind of interaction, as well as a greater level of social complexity, should be reflected in an architecture for the 21st century that addresses today’s complex work and life processes.
Architecture is a vehicle that can express some of today’s very important issues – that can respond to a community’s needs, yet also gives a sense of optimism and belief in the future. Although Nina is a different kind of structure to the one I’m used to building, it would certainly seem as though our ambitions of making people feel good in a space they inhabit are similar!