• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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BusinessDay

Unlikely ‘pushover’ who doesn’t play safe

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The arrangement of the room is not to Zaha Hadid’s liking. The permanent exhibition space, a five-minute walk from the office of Zaha Hadid Architects, is in a converted Victorian school in London’s design hotspot of Clerkenwell. It displays some of her product designs: a large spidery, sludgy-yellow construction that is in fact a daybed; a huge, beautiful glassy acrylic table; and some purple shelves that look like aeroplane wings.

She pulls the architect responsible to one side. “I don’t care where [the lights go] as long as they’re not in my presence,” she snaps. Zaha’s two assistants stare at the ground. Moments later they fall to the floor to take off her high-heeled Martin Margiela ankle boots so she can walk five yards across the room.

Why does this globally renowned architect – the first female winner of the Pritzker award (considered the Nobel Prize of the field) – pick on her employees? “Some people take the piss and I don’t like that,” she says. “People have to understand my limits. There is a point of no return. Most people who work with me know that line.” You cannot run a business and be “a complete doormat”.

Zaha, the Iraqi-born British architect behind such uncompromising, curvilinear buildings as the Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics, the MAXXI museum in Rome and the Guangzhou opera house in China appears an unlikely doormat. “I’m a pushover,” she insists in a deep, raspy voice that veers between mumbly and forceful. “I make allowances for people if I like them.”

Referring to younger staff variously as “kids” or “the children”, Zaha, cloaked in black and with smudges of fuchsia on both her eyes and lips, says she is approachable.

Those who know her (and prefer not to be named) characterise her as volcanic – she blows up but then it’s over. There are no lasting grudges. Her business partner, architect Patrik Schumacher, says the explosions are the byproduct of “uncompromising standards”, suggesting such bust-ups are normal in creative offices.

A staff joke reflects her employees’ attitude to the flare-ups: What do you do if Zaha sacks you? Pretend she hasn’t and turn up for work as usual? Go home and wait for the phone call demanding you return to the office? Or decide she’s not for you and work somewhere else?

She certainly has no problem recruiting staff; she has a workforce of more than 300 people – big for a creative architectural firm (Lord Rogers’ firm employs 180). After years of being labelled a “paper architect”, because of her inability to get designs built, she is in huge demand.

Projects are under way in France, Germany and China. In Oxford, work started in January on an extension to the Middle Eastern centre at St Antony’s College. Its construction is personally meaningful – her brother, Foulath Hadid, an accountant and expert on Arab affairs who was an honorary fellow at the college, died in September. She wipes her tear-rimmed eyes. “We were quite close.”

Born in Baghdad 62 years ago to an affluent secular family, her British-educated father, an economist and industrialist, was one of the founders of the Iraqi National Democratic party. She was encouraged to pursue a career. “At that time in Iraq you [never] thought as a woman you would not work. Women were not docile,” she says.

The intellectual and political climate of the 1960s encouraged her to become an architect. “All over the world was nation-building,” she says. “In America they were building skyscrapers. In Brazil it was like the rebuilding of a new continent. In the east, it was the same. There was tremendous interest in modernity as a way of moving away from colonialism – modernity became the aesthetic of independence.”

After boarding school in Britain, she studied maths in Beirut before arriving in London in 1972 to study at the Architectural Association. “I loved London. In the 1970s … it was very exciting, really wild. Much more radical than it is now; it pushed [your work] to the edge. And that was interesting.”

In 1983 she won her first international competition to build the Peak, a leisure centre in Hong Kong. She used the £100,000 prize money to set up her firm in Clerkenwell. The Peak, however, was aborted after the developers went bankrupt. It was not until 1993 that she built her first building – a small fire station in Germany.

Early in her career she received financial support from her family. Her late father shared her doggedness. (“He behaved the same way in politics,” she says.) She then relied on overdrafts and teaching at the Architectural Association and US universities to sustain her small business.

Two things helped her buildings become realised, she says. First, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum opened in 1997 in Bilbao. “It showed developers that it was possible to do a very successful and innovative project within a historic centre.” Second, in 1994 the Millennium Commission refused to fund her winning “crystal necklace” design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Perversely, the very public fallout raised her profile. The Sun newspaper ran a campaign accusing the project of elitism and Rhodri Morgan, then first secretary of the Welsh Assembly, likened her design to a heretical version of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Zaha said then that she had been stigmatised on grounds of gender and race. Is this still the case? “The stigma about women has lifted a lot in my career.” However, she believes male developers, particularly in the City, prefer to play it safe and stick to what they know. “They have been very used to a particular way of doing things in terms of corporate development in London.” She would love to design a corporate building for the City, to appear alongside Lord Foster’s “Gherkin” or Renzo Piano’s Shard. But she deems such aspirations “too far-fetched . . . because the client is very conservative”.

While she has been elevated to the “starchitect” firmament – a term she shrugs off with disdain – she has some nostalgia for her early days. There was a purity about how she worked that has been diluted by her international travel and pitching. She liked going through the night for four days on end – making midnight snack runs for crisps from the local garage. The sleeplessness, she says, helped the creativity by putting her into a state of “delirium”. It also built a camaraderie that she says has been changed by people working at their computers with headphones on.

“At the beginning you can do things in an arty way, but [not] for long,” she reflects. The operation is far slicker and the privately owned business turns a modest profit. The firm has revenues of £34.5m and reported pre-tax profits for the year ending April 2012 of £1.85m. By contrast Lord Foster’s 1,000-strong practice made a pre-tax profit of £43.2m on a turnover of £159m the same year.

The business tries to balance creativity with profit – lossmaking innovative projects are subsidised by the larger, moneymaking ones. “It’s important we are still a creative office and don’t count every minute as reimbursable,” she says.

Does she have rules for who she will take money from? Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was criticised for building Chinese state television’s headquarters because of the country’s censorship, and Zaha was condemned for designing the Heydar Aliyev Cultural centre in Baku. Named after the former KGB chief and Azeri president, it was commissioned by his son, the current ruler Ilham.

“It’s very difficult to draw a line, what’s right, what’s wrong,” she says. “I would not do a prison. You may not want to do a house for a dictator, but governments change. And no matter what the ruler is like, if [the building] helps the population . . . ?”

No succession plan is in place at the firm. “We are always saying we must go away and discuss what we’re going to do, but we haven’t done it.” Zaha won’t be drawn on whether the practice could survive without her, only saying: “We have lots of very good people.”

She is unmarried and childless. Has her personal life suffered as a result of her punishing work schedule? “I didn’t make a conscious decision to focus on career and not have a family.” However, she says her career has provided personal fulfilment. “I’m very lucky because I like the work, I’ve met amazing people through it.”

The door opens hesitantly, signalling the end of our conversation. A queue of nervous architects – “the children” – is waiting outside with their problems.

Culled from FT