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Interview: Brett Steele in conversation with Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid discusses the layering process of her drawings, her views on the architectural profession and the future of London

This discussion was hosted by the Southbank Centre as part of the London Literature Festival the discussion can be heard in full below.

Brett Steele
One of the things that distinguishes your work right now is that it is presented as part of a much broader form of culture. I wonder if that has led you to think about the work differently in terms of the kind of projects you take on, the kind of people you work with and the kind of settings the office works in.

Zaha Hadid
It would be nice if it was wider, but what has happened in the last 25 years is that architecture has caught the imagination. Architects used to be seen as villains of a service industry and there was no respect for them. I think that has changed a lot. Most of our work is public, but I didn’t choose to do predominantly public commissions. The original work investigated the possibility of the civic and public, and it just so happened that most of these projects won through competitions were for the public domain.

BS It would be interesting to reflect on how careers like yours can begin and have that period of research over an extended time, which is clearly difficult for today’s generation, many of whom have been driven by deadlines and schedules, and don’t have those early years to develop ideas.

ZH In the late 1970s and early ’80s, a higher value was ascribed to a project than a building. However, I have to say it was not my choice not to build for so long; there just wasn’t the possibility. I was heavily criticised, even up to the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Drawings were critical to the development of the work, they went hand in hand. What was interesting was when the drawing became the project. That was the big shift, when the lines became volumes, and that’s what changed with the Vitra Fire Station.

‘What was interesting was when the drawing became the project, when the lines became volumes’

BS Your paintings become the focus of the work very early on, and they might lead to the buildings. But what seemed interesting about the studio for so many years was that the paintings were an architectural project.

ZH They were, and because there was so much research into the urban condition of whatever we tried to draw, we had to research urbanism and the city. We were doing competitions all over the place, which was very exciting, but also working on the method of constructing a drawing, the method of making the models that led to the space. For example, when we started doing Plexiglass models, they led to transparency, not to the exterior necessarily, but throughout the building. And this was not obvious immediately; it was only obvious when I gave a lecture, looking at how these things worked and how you would manipulate that space.

BS Thinking about this venue [the Queen Elizabeth Hall], would you describe your career as decidedly London-like? Could a career like yours have evolved in other cities?

ZH I think it is very London-like. My education was very London-like, because the Architectural Association (AA), although it was very international, was also very London-centric. At the time that I went to the AA, London was very boring; there was nothing to do, literally nothing going on. Change eventually happened, but not by design. In the 1990s, London had a great music scene, all the rave parties, all the nightlife.

Certain areas had low rents, so a public domain began to emerge. Also many of the banks closed, and changed from a bank to a bar, and that made the city more porous and more accessible. I used to drive from my office to my flat and I could see a difference from morning to evening. Streets that used be dark, slowly lit up. And it wasn’t because someone did an urban study and said, ‘it should become more porous’, but more through accidents and economics.

BS So as you speculate about the future of a city like London, what do you imagine?

ZH I still think that a lot could happen here. I think there was an attempt in the post-war period to change the urban geometry and the urban matrix, and to make housing appear in a different way. But these things are more ghettoised. I think the Southbank is a very good example of what happened in the 1960s and ’70s and I still think it’s a great project.

I personally don’t like what they have done with the additions to the side of the Royal Festival Hall, but I do think they can transform this area in a strategic way. A key research project of the last 30 years has been the ground project, a critique of how the Modernist era ignored the ground by lifting things off the ground and so on.

‘A key research project of the last 30 years has been the ground project, a critique of how the Modernist era ignored the ground by lifting things off the ground’

We could return to these areas now, not to fill them in, like in Brasília, but to add another type of ground. London should take on some of this discourse. There are enormous sites in London currently being demolished for the Crossrail project, so there is a question about how to deal with very large buildings on these sites. The schools should really engage with some radical studies. They will of course be watered down over the years, but it takes ideas 20 or 30 years to filter into the mainstream. I could be fanaticising about London, but there is tremendous potential here, and the more radical it is, the more appropriate.

BS What are your views of the architectural profession?

ZH I think that the profession and education are very connected. What is interesting, however, is that practice is now more adventurous than education, which I think is a real turning point. If you compared it to 30 years ago, it would be the other way around. Within the profession, there should be much more camaraderie and exchange of ideas, and more forums for discussion. Also some new people will have to emerge, because everyone else is getting old, including me.

‘Within the profession, there should be much more camaraderie and exchange of ideas, and more forums for discussion’

Some are saying it’s the end of the icon, but what I think has happened in the last 20 years is that people who are not architects have become interested in architecture and can now talk about it. Architecture is for well-being; it should be enlightening and should make you feel good. I don’t think you are supposed to just go to a place to contemplate the end of the world. There is this idea that architecture has to be dour and heavy-handed. But there is another way, and while of course we need good housing, hospitals and schools, people also have to enjoy themselves, whether in a streetscape, a hair salon, a cycledrome or a theatre.

BS Can we discuss the tradition of engineering and of other aligned professions that have made careers like yours possible?

ZH I stayed in London for two reasons, for the AA school where I was teaching, and because of the engineering. London has always had great engineers and many great consultants. You could have a consultant about almost anything, if you wanted. My experience with Peter Rice was very fulfilling.

I was like a student and he was such an accessible, humble man. He taught me that you have to have a strategy and that even if you are not an engineer, you have to understand that a building needs common sense. Today, London has more great engineers, such as Arup, Buro Happold, Hanif Kara and Jane Wernick, who have all moved away from a normative attitude to engineering. These engineers were interested in the subject and had a belief in our work.

BS What is it like working with students today, compared to your student experiences?

ZH As a student you have to have some sort of aim. You can’t just wobble about. You have to have a focus. As a student I did not know what would be at the end of the road. I knew there would be something, and that all the experiments had to lead to perfecting the project. That was my ambition to make it work.

It might take 10 years for a two-dimensional sketch to evolve into a workable space, and into a building. And these are the journeys that I think are very exciting, because they are not predictable. For example, I used to produce hatched lines on my drawings. These became striated models, which eventually became the diagram for the MAXXI art museum in Rome. So a simple idea like that would take quite a long journey…

‘These are the journeys that I think are very exciting, because they are not predictable’

BS Is there too much urgency nowadays?

ZH Doing my drawings was slow, because they required tremendous concentration and precision. I can’t work on the computer, but today is a very different time and the process is less transparent. The whole system of drawing led to ideas, putting one sheet over another and tracing, like a form of reverse archaeology in a way, leading to a layering process, where distortion in the drawing could lead to distortion in the building. Or extruded drawings could lead to extruded sections in buildings. The processes led to a literal translation in the building.

It would be nice to do a drawing charrette, to see what could be learnt. I don’t want to do the same things again, but maybe there will be other methods. Today, no one really knows how to draw a plan. It took me 20 years to convince people to do everything in three dimensions, with an army of people trying to draw the most difficult perspectives, and now everyone uses three dimensions and they think a plan is a horizontal section, but it’s not. The plan really needs organisation. There is still a primacy to the plan.

‘The whole system of drawing led to ideas, putting one sheet over another and tracing, like a form of reverse archaeology in a way, leading to a layering process, where distortion in the drawing could lead to distortion in the building’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Manish Paul Simon Simon

    This was the most inspiring conversation I have ever read. Kudos to BS for taking the interview of ZH. I just learned a lot reading this blog. Btw I'm an architecture student from India. Contemporary architecture mixed with Indian tradition is my style of designing.

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  • Great conversation!

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