dame zaha hadidPhoto by Alberto Heras

Since this article was published on March 22, Dame Zaha Hadid has passed away.

Dame Zaha Hadid is a living, walking, breathing architectural empire. Throughout her life she has chosen to surround herself with things that inform or represent her vision and has cultivated an iconic multi-faceted style.

Many people say that her career in architecture began with German manufacturer Vitra’s building in 1993 but in reality it started much earlier than that. Growing up in the suburbs of Baghdad, she was given an asymmetrical mirror in her room. She became so enchanted by the piece that she moved her whole room around to accommodate it. Her cousin liked what she had done and asked her to rearrange her room too, followed by her aunt and other family members.

Hadid’s early passion for asymmetry has been channelled to create some of the world’s most famous landmarks including the London Aquatics Centre (2011), the Galaxy Soho shopping mall in Beijing (2012) and the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku (2012). She has won dozens of awards, and the publishing of this article – which was originally meant to appear in Volume 14 of SUITCASE Magazine – was delayed because the architect was being awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. She is the first woman to receive the accolade in the 180 years since its inception.

What’s so impressive about Dame Zaha Hadid, however, is not only her previous achievements but also the fact that, at the age of 65, she continues to challenge herself and the landscape of architecture. She is a huge proponent of technology and is constantly looking to undertake new collaborations and projects.

Shortly after her exhibition at the Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai, we spoke to Dame Zaha about her Iraqi heritage, sexism in architecture and design-led solutions to the defining ecological and social problems of our time.

SUITCASE Magazine: We were very excited about your largest exhibition of design works to date at Leila Heller Gallery this January and February in Dubai. The exhibition presents a broad array of pieces in differing styles and mediums. At its rawest form, how would you characterise your work in design?

ZAHA HADID: We work hard to express a lightness and continuity in the fluid forms of each collection. The complex exchange of structural forces inherent in each design is shaped further by ergonomic, typological and functional considerations, yet precariously dependent on the coherence of each collection’s design language. Grounded by a comprehensive understanding of materiality and structure, the designs continue a narrative that explores our perception of solid and void, figure and ground, form and function. Each piece is of its time, and yet essentially timeless; suspended in time and space, yet bound by neither.

SM: Shifting gears to the geographical location of the exhibition, being of Iraqi origin and growing up in Iraq, has the Middle East shaped your architectural practice or approach to design in any way?

ZH: When I was growing up in Iraq, there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism. If you look back to the 1960s, it was a moment of nation-building, there was a lot of emphasis on innovation and progress, not only in the Arab world but also in South America and Asia. The ideas of change and progress of this era were critical to my development. This ideology was very important to me and the development of my work.

it is the mathematics of the Arab world that I am fascinated by

Although there are no direct formal references to my own cultural roots in my work, it is this mathematics of the Arab world that I am fascinated by – the mix of logic and the abstract. I became interested in geometry while studying mathematics at university in Beirut. I realised there was a connection with the logic of maths to architecture and the abstraction of Arabic Calligraphy. Geometry and mathematics have a tremendous connection to architecture – which also relates to my Arab identity in terms of algebra and calligraphy. The fluidity and calligraphy you see in my architecture is an evolution of this research.

SM: What was it like to grow up in Iraq? Did something in your childhood spark an interest in architecture?

ZH: I think both my parents were interested in architecture in an indirect way. My earliest memory of architecture, I was perhaps six years old, was of my aunt building a house in Mosul in the north of Iraq. The architect was a close friend of my father’s and he used to come to our house with the drawings and models. I remember seeing the model in our living room and I think it triggered something, as I was intrigued by it. As a child, I was fortunate to travel with my family each summer, and my father made sure I went to every important building and museum in each city. I remember going as a child to see the Great Mosque in Cordoba, I was seven years old, and that was the most stunning space. Of course there are lots of other truly great spaces but this building had a really tremendous impact on me.

SM: One of our favourite buildings that you have created is the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku. Do you take idea’s from the culture and history of the region you’re working in, and if so, is such applicable to this project?

ZH: The design of centre breaks from the monumental Soviet architecture that is so prevalent in Baku. Built on the site of an old Soviet tank factory, the centre’s public plaza flows up and around in three dimensions to define a continuous series of public spaces within, bringing the urban fabric of the city into every part of building. This fluid architecture embodies a more enlightened philosophical framework – its open forms promise to open and engage with Azeri culture by an act of attraction rather than imposition.

Fluidity in architecture is not new to this region. In historical Islamic architecture, rows, grids, or sequences of columns flow to infinity like trees in a forest, establishing non-hierarchical space. Continuous calligraphic patterns flow from carpets to walls, walls to ceilings, ceilings to domes, establishing seamless relationships and blurring distinctions between architectural elements and the ground they inhabit. Our intention was to relate to that historical understanding of architecture, not through the use of mimicry or a limiting adherence to the iconography of the past, but rather by developing a firmly contemporary interpretation, reflecting a more nuanced understanding.

SM: How do you take into account the needs and demands of local people? For example, how might your architectural creations differ when building a space in Rome versus New York given the scope of architecture that presently exists in these cities?

ZH: Each of our projects is the very specific result of how the context, local culture, programmatic requirements, and innovative engineering come together – allowing the architecture, city and landscape to seamlessly combine, both in terms of formal strategy and spatial experience. Every design creates new public spaces where concepts of seamless spatial flow are made real – to create a whole new kind of civic space for the city.

We are always interested in expanding our repertoire and doing different things in different contexts but there are some principles which we always adhere to. And one of them is to first investigate and research the landscape, context and circulation of the site. From this detailed research we establish many connections with the local environment and lines of circulation through the site – and use them to inform the design. This ‘embeds’ the new design within its context, ensuring each project has the strongest possible relationship with its unique environment.

SM: Do you think architecture has transformative powers?

ZH: Architecture carries within it an inherent sense of vitality and optimism; the ability to connect communities and build their futures. Cities today are so much more diverse than previous generations, and must cater for a whole range of people with different cultures, experiences and influences. As an architect, your client is no longer a single person or type of person – the client today is everyone. This has been really exciting and adds to the richness of civic space.

Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, go to school or where we work

Engaging with communities around the world to create key public spaces is very important. I believe cities must invest in these civic buildings and public spaces where people can connect with each other. A community centre, art museum, sports facility or public park, these vital civic projects are accessible to everybody – so they unite the city, they tie the urban fabric together.

Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, go to school or where we work – so we must be committed to raising standards. Having a home is a crucial issue – not only in terms of a shelter and the basics – but also for wellbeing, for a better life. There’s enough total wealth today that all people should have a good home – not just the very rich. Social housing, schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure has always been based on the concept of minimal existence – that shouldn’t be the case today. Architects now have the skills and tools to address these critical issues – and many communities around the world are committed to resolving them.

SM: I am sure you are frequently asked such questions, but architecture is historically a man’s domain. Does the fact that you’re a female architect ever influence the way you work or what you create?

ZH: My ambition has always been to create fluid space, I wouldn’t call the designs ‘feminine’ simply because they interpret fluid geometries. We like to work with fluidity because we believe it visually simplifies everything, and you can then cope with more complexity in a building without crowding or cluttering the visual scene. We often look at the unrivalled logic and coherence nature’s systems when we are working to create environments – as well as the geological forms of erosion, and the organic morphology of cells and biology. People do ask: ‘Why are there no straight lines? Why no 90 degrees in your work?’ This is because life is not made in a grid. If you think of a natural landscape, it’s not even and regular – but people go to these places and think it’s very natural, very relaxing. We think that one can do that in architecture and design.

Have you become less aware of sexism in your industry throughout your career through your own personal success, or do you still feel that you are operating within a boys’ club?

ZH: It’s still difficult for women to operate as professionals because there are still some worlds women have no access to. But I don’t believe that much remains of the stereotype that architecture should be a male rather than a female career. In our office we have no stereotypical categories that relate to gender at all.

When I teach at universities, many of my best students are women. The numbers of male and female architecture students are equally balanced, but only about 20% of qualified architects are women. In the later years of study and then professional work, women do leave the profession. The problem is continuity. Society has not been set up in a way that allows women to go back to work after taking time off for family. Many women now work – as well as do everything at home and look after the family – and no one can do everything! Society needs to find more ways to help women. It may be a little easier now, with new technology, for a woman to take some time off for family and then return to work.

I still experience some obstacles because I am a woman – but I think this keeps you on the go

You now see more established, respected female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the difficulties are incomprehensible. But in the last 15 years there’s been tremendous change, and now it’s seen as normal to have women in this profession. I still experience some obstacles because I am a woman – but I think this keeps you on the go. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says ‘yes’ to me – it’s still a struggle, despite having gone through it a hundred times. It’s not necessarily always great, but it makes you think about and do things in a different way.

SM: When you arrived on the scene, you disrupted the architectural landscape in a very big and positive way. What do you think the next big changes will be and which of the next generation do you think will be leading them?

ZH: Architecture does not follow fashion or economic cycles – it follows the cycles of innovation generated by social and technological developments. I think architecture must change with these new patterns of life to meet increasing demands of their users. I believe what is new in our generation are the much greater levels of complexity and connectivity. Contemporary urbanism and architecture must move beyond the 20th century architecture of repetitive square blocks, towards architecture for the 21st century that addresses the complexities, dynamism and densities of our lives today.

Huge advances in design technology are enabling architects to rethink form and space, using new construction methods and materials in development such as sophisticated architectural skins that can take almost any shape and have the structural, weatherproofing, and insulation properties compressed into a single layer and can be easily fabricated and assembled anywhere. Architecture can also assist in the reorganisation of living patterns so that everyone can contribute to a more ecologically and socially sustainable society. We can now create buildings that optimise their environment to suit the needs of their users and changing weather patterns at any given moment. We are also researching new materials, design techniques and construction methods that bring significant environmental benefits.

As these different clusters of development – sustainability and the applicability of the materials – come together, we are beginning to find significant solutions to urgent ecological challenges we face today.

Our task as architects is to continue this progress. We must marry these new concepts of accessibility and integration with the incredible advances in ecologically sound materials and construction practices. We must not look at the disparate parts, but understand them as a whole, working to create integrated communities that present solutions to the defining ecological and social challenges of our time.

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