Designing Woman

Zaha Hadid sits in her London office and bangs her hand on her desk.
"Patrick!" she shouts.

Hadid is known to be demanding. Some even call her a diva. In one instance, Hadid tells her staff the project is not going to have her name to it.

The Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid has become the most famous female architect in the world. It has not been an easy path.

"There was a loss in the belief of the realm of possibility," she says.

For years critics said her organic shapes were intriguing but couldn't be built.

For example, this fire house in Germany was one of the only Hadid projects to actually be constructed until a Cincinnati museum took the leap to hire her.

Her designs were "like a roller coaster, a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time," says Charles Desmarais, director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center.

"She was a paper architect, as they say, someone who had great respect as a theorist and as a thinker about architecture but who hadn't had the opportunity to build," says Desmarais.

But her avant-garde designs caught his attention.

"She totally got what we were trying to do, which was to try and bridge that sort of gap between the inside and the outside, between the world and the museum."

So with a sympathetic patron in a small American city, Zaha Hadid finally got the chance to prove her stuff…

"Every city wants that kind of a building which they want to say 'look we have a great building,'" Hadid says.

And Cincinnati got a great building. Its dynamic use of space has won rave reviews. The New York Times called it the most important American building since the end of the cold war.

"I think the key moves were the dynamism of that corner and finding a way to use that corner to reflect the energy of the city, generate energy in the city," says Desmarais.

Hadid likes to design all kinds of things, even small things--like a cast-aluminum bench, and a teapot set that comes apart, the top part for milk, the bottom for sugar.

Hadid's interest in design started early. She credits her middle class upbringing in 1950's Baghdad, then a thriving city full of possibility, where her Muslim parents could send their daughter to a French Catholic school.

"That was really fantastic, and also the nuns were very tough about education. I mean the head mistress was very ambitious," she recalls.

By the age of eleven, she found her vocation.

"I designed my bedroom," she remembers. "And my parents indulged me. That was a great success. It gave me a bit of confidence."

From that early confidence came Hadid's design audacity. Last year, it won her the most prestigious honor in the architecture world, the Pritzker prize, and the first time it's ever been awarded to a woman.

"I swore many years ago, 25 years ago, I will never say this word but I have to say it. It's wow," she said in her acceptance speech.

A lot has been made of her success as a woman. What are the challenges of being a female architect?

"I don't know. I have not been a man ever. So I have nothing to compare," she laughs. "There is no stereotype, but because there is no stereotype they don't know how to handle you. So if you have an opinion they think you are difficult because god forbid that a woman should have an idea about anything."

Some people call her a diva.

"They don't call a guy a diva. They'd be sued."

Hadid does have a temper and she's not afraid of showing it. Back in her office she yells at her employees. "I'm telling you, if you don't stop it I will call a lawyer now. I'm very serious now, this is crap."

In this instance, she lets loose about a project that was not going the way she'd like.

"The original one was much better. Patrick, damn it. I'm not accepting it."

And from the silence and averted eyes in the room you could tell they'd seen it all before.

With all she has going on, how does she keep on top of this?

"You saw me earlier, I had a fit," she admits. "This might be very painful for everybody, but it's important that we actually don't say, 'oh, everything we do is amazing,' you know?"

Hadid is now building an extraordinary number of projects. In just a few years, her London office has expanded from ten to over 70 employees. And the call for projects is pouring in from around the world.

There's the science center that opened last month in Wolfsburg, Germany. The aquatic centre, with its roof shaped like a wave, for the 2012 London Olympics. The new BMW factory, where conveyor belts carry cars from the factory through the office area, in Leipzig, Germany

"It's always about trying to make a better space for people to use," says Hadid.

It's research in new engineering that allows her adventurous new shapes.

"There's civil engineering work which are much more elaborate, like bridges and ramps. And if you use similar kinds of engineering for buildings you can achieve this kind of degree of lightness and at the same time you know give it complexity."

At the Pritzker award ceremony, Hadid could celebrate how far she has come. There was a dinner in the Great Hall of Czar Peter the Great and fireworks outside his palace.

"The people I least expected to have tears in their eyes were very emotional, because many of them have known me for a long time."

"I know that Zaha doesn't want to be a symbol, but she certainly is a symbol for a lot of people," says Desmarais. "It's about sticking to your guns and recognizing in yourself the capacity to be great no matter how many people (say) you don't have the capacity."

Some people used to say her buildings could never be built

"I was going to always say time will tell. But, I mean, time is telling now," she says.

Indeed, as her buildings go up all around the globe, it seems that now Hadid's time is on the world stage.
  • Scott Benjamin

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