To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Zaha Hadid’s seminal building for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati — her first completed commission in the U.S. — and the opening of CAC's accompanying exhibition, A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure, we republish her interview with Kenny Schachter in PIN–UP's inaugural issue from 2006.
In the two weeks I spent trying to arrange this interview, Zaha Hadid traveled to three continents and five cities — it was almost impossible to get a hold of her. But I’ve grown accustomed to her busy schedule. It has been nearly three years since Zaha and I began working together. Our collaboration started when I bought a property in London’s East End and asked her to design a building for it. Once complete, the structure 0will be her first in London, a city she has occupied for over 35 years. Despite my sometimes far-fetched schemes and, to be frank, my trepidation about Zaha’s somewhat towering personality, our successful collaborations have become increasingly frequent and close.
Take, for example, the Z-Car, commissioned in 2005. The design brief asked for a truly modern, sustainable car. A road-worthy prototype by a renowned auto manufacturer in Austria is already in the works, while two full-scale models were recently on view, one at the New York Guggenheim and one at the British Motor Show. In another collaborative venture, we created a large furniture/storage/sculpture object. Shaped like a twisted boomerang, it cantilevers 10 feet from its base and contains a storage bin and built-in seats; it now serves as my desk. Most recently I asked Zaha to design a bespoke pavilion for my gallery, Rove, to display her fascinating paintings and editions of her models. The pavilion, itself a sculpture, can be seen at Art Basel Miami Beach this fall.
All told it’s been a whirlwind. Perhaps the best, and only, way to describe Zaha is like mercury given form: hard to grasp, agile and elegant, but always potentially dangerous....
Kenny Schachter: Was it a childhood aspiration to be an architect? Was there any other career you ever contemplated?
Zaha Hadid: Politics always interested me — as did psychology and mathematics. I also remember wanting to be a singer.
Are there any lasting impressions/influences from growing up in Baghdad? Does that color the way you work in any capacity?
Yes — in some obvious ways, but not in others. At that time, Iraq was progressive and liberal. This aspect of growing up in Baghdad at that time definitely influenced me. This question actually makes me think of a discussion I had with Alvin Boyarsky about how calligraphy influenced abstraction, and later Deconstructivist architecture. Rem Koolhaas was one of the first to make the connection, when he observed that only his Arab and Persian architecture students were able to make certain curvilinear gestures in their work — he thought it came from the calligraphy. The act of making that script — a visual and physical gesture that is an everyday movement for someone writing in these languages, but is not part of Western language — maybe encourages or allows for abstraction of gesture in other ways. Or understandings. And I think definitely the Russians, Malevich particularly, looked at these scripts. Kandinsky — you can see this in his work. Also, one of my first memories of the museum in Baghdad — we were allowed into the storage area because one of my teachers in school was married to an archaeologist. It was an incredible experience to see these thousands of glass vitrines, and literally millions of seals — long ones, short ones, Sumerian, Babylonian treasures. Upstairs was modest, but the basement and the storage area were amazing.
The distinctions between furniture, design, art, fashion, and architecture are blurring. Good thing? Bad thing?
It’s not a bad thing at all. Traditionally, there has always been an overlap at certain historical moments. The Bauhaus or Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century are obvious examples. A lot of what we try to do is create an architecture that translates the intellectual into the sensual by experimenting with completely unexpected immersive environments. We often use smaller design projects to test out ideas, which later become incorporated in our building designs, and we are also working now on a series of projects that look at smaller environments within the whole — the kitchen we have designed for DuPont, for example. We are very concerned with making fluid spaces, where everything works together, both functionally and aesthetically — so the blurring of disciplines is good; it furthers that experiment, or goal.
Were you always into fashion from an early age?
Musicians reference art (Sonic Youth wrote an album about a Richard Prince painting); your works have been compared to Russian Constructivism. Do things like art and music truly influence your designs?
You can’t design — or exist, for that matter — in a vacuum, so of course. Malevich was an early influence as a representative of the modern avant-garde intersection between art and design. The liberation from given typologies and the conquest of the realm of freedom of creation offered by the world of abstract art was appealing.
Are you very mathematically inclined? Do you have to be to be an architect?
I am. Mathematics and philosophy are very useful for architects, but not the way most believe them to be. I studied mathematics at university in Beirut before going to the Architectural Association, so yes, I have a certain level of knowledge. I think it is important for architects to have these skills. Obviously, buildings would not be built without engineers. Architects need them. But by the same token you can’t just hand a sketch to an engineer and expect that they’ll run off and build it. You need to know what you’re doing structurally and technically in order to design any building. Maybe not always the small details, but the bigger picture.
You exude a Nietzschean sense of self-determination. Were you always so self-assured?
Is there a place for humor in architecture?
Could you live anywhere besides London?
Any thoughts on London’s mayor, Ken Livingston?
What do you hate about London?
London is still too conservative in its architecture. There is almost too much of a brotherhood in almost every aspect of the city. But it has also been my home for over 30 years, and I have no plans to change that.
You have designed shoes, are working on a handbag, have done tea sets, furniture, kitchens, etc. Is there a hierarchy of importance for you with regard to the disparate design works you are presently undertaking?
The idea for a building or an object can be just as immediate as one another, but there is a huge difference in the process that follows. The satisfaction of design is that the production process between idea and result is so quick and uncomplicated compared to a building. In terms of form, though, design and architecture interest me equally — there is a useful dialogue between the two. You might say that design objects are fragments of what could occur in architecture.
Black and white have prominently figured into your design work and dressing mode. Is there a wider role for color in your present or future work?
Is black your favorite color? I know that sounds asinine but it’s still interesting!
Clear, or transparent, is my favorite — it’s not really a color, but then, neither is black.
You have crashed through the cement ceiling becoming the very first internationally acclaimed female architect. Do your buildings reflect gender in any discernable way?
I don’t think so.
This interview is in PIN–UP, so I will briefly touch upon issues of sexuality: Can buildings contain some notion of sexuality within the design (other than Norman’s pickle)?
This interview was initially published in the inaugural issue of PIN–UP, Fall Winter 2006/07.
Go to the PIN–UP ARCHIVE to discover more issues from 2006 to today.