Writing about Zaha Hadid in the past tense is an excruciatingly difficult enterprise. Yet she has left us, suddenly and abruptly -- and impossibly soon. So I feel a duty to pay homage to her in my modest way, as a journalist who came to know and like her, and, I daresay, to consider her a friend.
My first interview with Zaha took a few years to negotiate. Two key people made it happen: Roger Howie, her trusted media advisor, and Erica Bolton, the influential arts publicist who also advised Zaha. One afternoon in August 2007, after a tour of her London office, I was finally taken by the wonderful Roger to her home -- a luminous top-floor loft also in Clerkenwell.
Zaha seemed fairly relaxed around me. It probably helped that I originated from Iran, next door to her native Iraq. Perhaps she knew that I would avoid the xenophobic stereotyping and misogyny that so many British journalists reverted to when they wrote about her.
Zaha sat at a swerving dining table of her own design, with one of her magnificent Malevich-inspired paintings hanging behind her. I couldn't help but pull out my mobile phone to take her picture. I could see the color fade from Roger's face, fearing her reaction to this impromptu photography. But Zaha was cool about it; the image is published above.
The interview she gave me (below) is among the most unforgettable conversations I have ever had, and the first of seven or eight interviews. Every time she opened a building in the U.K., I was there to bear witness: the school in Brixton, the 2012 Olympic pool, the Serpentine Sackler building, etc.
What became clear to me was that, beneath her tough and occasionally temperamental exterior, Zaha was a deeply sensitive and timid person who had a big heart yet trusted few people. She was also one of the most brilliant minds of our time, a sharp pulse taker of our ever-shifting world, and a keen analyst of the transformation of cities. She saw things the rest of us didn't, which made interviewing her so much fun. She was frank; if you didn't attack her with your questioning, you could ask her just about anything, and she would answer.
With Zaha gone, I know I will never look at architecture in the same way.
Meanwhile, as a farewell, here is that first interview, which I did for Bloomberg News in August 2007:
Zaha Hadid Recalls Life in Baghdad, Revs Up for China, Russia
2007-08-06 05:40:49.680 GMT
Interview by Farah Nayeri
Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Zaha Hadid squirms at the sound of
the blender roaring in her kitchen, loud as a motorcycle. The
housekeeper is making fruit juice.
``It's going to make a lot of sound,'' warns the 56-year-
old Iraqi-born architect. She sits regally at a silicon-topped
table of her design, eyelids heavy with fatigue. Scarlet lipstick
and the bronze streaks in her dark hair suit the architectural
painting, also hers, on the wall behind.
Noise is the last thing Hadid needs on a Friday night. When
her trusted press aide tries to send a BlackBerry message, she
asks him to stop. We are at Hadid's home in Clerkenwell, north of
the City of London. It's a luminous, loft-like space with
skylights that tastefully frame the clouds and a table full of
tall, colorful vases designed by others.
Hadid in 2004 became the first woman to win architecture's
top distinction, the Pritzker Prize. ``They decided to give it to
someone who was in mid-career, and not as a life achievement
award,'' she says, sipping juice through a straw, ``because it
has an incredible influence on your career: There's no question
After years of being more feted abroad than in the U.K.,
her adopted country, Hadid is making her British breakthrough. An
exhibition at London's Design Museum, ending Nov. 25, plots her
career. For 10 days last month, mushroom-like parasols, rush-
designed by Hadid for the Serpentine Gallery's summer party,
stood in for a delayed summer pavilion. Hadid is building the
aquatic center for the 2012 London Olympic Games. In 2009, the
Architecture Foundation in London is scheduled to open and, in
2010, the Riverside Museum of Transport in Glasgow is also set to
Waiting for Zaha
Not that Hadid needs the validation, or the work. The
studio that she and partner Patrik Schumacher run in Clerkenwell
-- a former school with signs that still read ``Boys' Entrance''
-- is a beehive, with a staff of some 200. ``I'm here for Zaha
Hadid,'' I announce earlier that day to young men chatting by the
red iron gate. ``We all are,'' one of them deadpans, showing me a
brick compound marked ``Unit 2 -- Zaha Hadid Architects.''
Inside, room after computer-lined room teems with young
architects designing, here, a bridge in Spain, there, a
skyscraper in Marseille. Hadid's desk is in the middle of one
crowded office, and marked with three fuchsia-colored chairs.
Hadid is used to standing out. She grew up in Baghdad,
daughter of a Sunni industrialist educated at the London School
of Economics who briefly served as minister of finance and
industry before managing a series of household-goods factories.
Little Zaha, youngest of three and the only girl, attended
a French nuns' school with Shiite Muslims, Christians and Jews
whose faith she was long unaware of. She is baffled by the
intercommunal battles raging now. ``The Baghdad I knew was very
nice, liberal, open,'' she recalls. ``When I see it on
television, I don't recognize it.''
She last visited Iraq in 1980, and never experienced life
under the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. ``I think Iraq is
not going to recover in my lifetime,'' she says. ``I hope it
does, but these things leave very deep scars.''
Young Zaha found her calling aged 11 after an architect
visited her home and left intriguing models of her aunt's future
house. Hadid later asked her parents the word for one who makes
buildings, and began proclaiming ``I want to be an architect.''
She started her own practice in 1980, and by 1982, won the
contest for the Peak Club apartment complex and leisure club in
Hong Kong, which was never built. Her first major finished
project came a decade later: the angular Vitra fire station,
opened next to a furniture factory in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
That year, Hadid also won the race for the Cardiff Bay
Opera House in Wales. It, too, was never built; a model at the
Design Museum shows what might have been. ``I think the Cardiff
thing remains a stigma,'' she says of her slim U.K. portfolio.
In 1997, she was hired to design the Rosenthal Center for
Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, completed in 2003. The following
year came the call that she had won the Pritzker.
It was a chilly winter morning in London, and Hadid was
just back from standing in line for a U.S. visa. ``Hi, Zaha. Are
you sitting down?'' the caller asked. Incredulous, Hadid made
another call to confirm, and told no one for three months, until
the St. Petersburg ceremony.
Were there no other women deserving of the award? ``I'm
sure there were,'' she replies. ``It's not because of lack of
talent: When I teach, the best students are women.''
Rather, ``everything that has to do with this profession is
male,'' she explains. The job requires ``continuity'' and round-
the-clock work, she says, and is tough to combine with
motherhood. In the trade, ``people don't treat women well,''
Hadid says; she has only just ``graduated from that prejudice.''
Curves and Waves
Her work, too, has evolved -- from sharp, jagged edges, or
``fragmented pieces,'' to organic forms ``influenced by
topography and landscape.'' Hadid's aim is that there be ``no
demarcating line between interior and exterior.'' Her shapes are
curved, amoebic, fluid, wave-like -- and hard to define.
Next year, the MAXXI contemporary-art museum opens in Rome
after a decade of work, as does the Guangzhou Opera House in
China. After that come three dozen other big projects including a
performing-arts center in Abu Dhabi and the Moscow Expo Center.
What is it about architecture that so enthralls her? ``I
think it's an incredible thing to be able to make space,'' she
says without a moment's hesitation. ``It's really the next thing