The enthusiasm surrounding Zaha Hadid onstage was raw: Notebooks flying, selfies snapping, people demanding if Hadid reads their e-mails. It was a strong reminder that regardless of any controversy, her influence is epic and expanding.
Last Thursday, the Chicago Architecture Biennial hosted a public conversation between Zaha Hadid and Jonathan D. Solomon, Director of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Unlike the recent BBC debacle, the attitude in the room was relaxed, even when Hadid revealed she had just come from the Cultural Center. “Do you have any thoughts on the Biennial? We understand that Patrik [Schumacher] went,” Solomon said.
“I think it’s a cute show. There are nice pieces, but you walk away and you think, What was the great contribution to some sort of spatial experience? I like to go to the shows because they give me a clue of what to expect in the next ten years, and I’m sorry, but this show doesn’t,” Hadid said. “It gives me an idea of what I saw in the 70s, but that was a horrible time… the 70s were only great because people fought what was going on then and wanted to make a change. So if this is an experiment on maybe what could happen in the next five to ten years, then it is still very dormant and is yet to emerge… I always think there must be some sort of underlying genius that maybe we can’t spot right away.”
They moved on to discussing the Chicago architecture that inspires Hadid. She picked the Richard J. Daley Center, saying “The Cor-Ten steel building was just staggering to me. Stunning.” Indirectly related to Chicago, she also cited Mies van der Rohe: “I was very influenced by Mies, you might not think so, but he gave me the first example of a very fluid space.”
Hadid also associates Chicago with Alvin Boyarsky; his relationship with the city influenced her early years at the Architectural Association. Unsurprisingly, she and her classmates “mutinied” her first year because they disliked the project selections. “He laughed at us,” said Hadid, but in the end Boyarsky helped the students create a unit they liked. “It gave us the idea that if you want something you can get it. That we had some sort of control over our destiny. And that was very important,” Hadid said.
These instances of validation—from Boyarsky, Rem Koolhaas, and others at the AA—seem to have impacted Hadid more than her recent RIBA Gold Medal. When asked how it felt to receive the award after years of criticism, Hadid said, “One can say [these awards] are not important but they are. I know the Pritzker was very important because it completely changed my career and hopefully this might also improve my career. It was like one day I was acceptable… but I mean in the U.K., I am still bad news.”
She continued, “I don’t take anything too seriously because, let me tell you, architecture is such a dreadful profession. It’s exhausting and so these victorious moments are… the night you receive them you are very excited, but the next morning you are hit by something horrible, so you forget about them.”
Hadid may be critical of architecture, but she is indiscriminating in her criticism: Every time a project of hers is completed, she admits that she and "Patrik shred it to pieces.” That’s not to say that Hadid isn’t equally devoted to her profession. When asked about the Bilbao Effect, Hadid said, “What was interesting about [the Bilbao Effect] is that afterward, every city in Europe wanted to be found as a city through its architecture. This was a powerful message. That through architecture, cities can show themselves to the world. I think it was a renaissance of this profession; it was amazing.”
She was not as enthusiastic about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art by MAD Architects, planned for the Chicago lakefront. “Well, the architect was a student of mine and was in my office—he is obviously very fond of me,” Hadid said. “Actually, we entered the Lucas competition, but we didn’t get it—we were too conservative. I think [George Lucas] wanted something outrageous and we did something controlled. Instead they got the Dubai opera house with a halo on it.”
The hour and a half long conversation spanned a wide range of topics, from the Galaxy SOHO to her students in Vienna and the London Aquatic Center. Afterward, AN’s managing editor Olivia Martin joined Hadid onstage to delve deeper.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You said that you didn’t think the Chicago Architecture Biennial shows what to expect five or ten years from now, are there any up and coming architects or projects that do?
Zaha Hadid: I think there are a lot of kids out there doing that, but I don’t know. I think you need to give people a chance with competitions. Otherwise they aren’t going to find their path or the way or the opportunity to do it. Competitions, at least for me, are very beneficial because you can test out all of your ideas.
Between the recent exhibition at Cooper Union, Drawing Ambiance: Alvin Boyarsky at the Architectural Association, and the emphasis on experiments in representation at the Biennial, it seems like there is a lot of focus on drawing. Do you think it is productive to continue to examine drawings?
No, I don’t think it is. In those days, drawing was the project. I think whatever needed to be learned from it was learned, unless there is a new invention. I think computers and technology are very important and there are drawings, but it’s different.
I look at them in exhibitions; some of them are really nice. But nobody can draw like that anymore and there’s no point in rehashing that time.
Do you still design the same way as you did?
I design the same way; I just think the drawings are not the same. The drawings we did were very complex and it took ten people to do them. No one even knows how to do it anymore—and things like French curves, pantographs… even the tools are gone.
You mentioned during the lecture that you found New York to be very inspiring as a student because all of the ideas you’d thought of you could see already realized in the city. Was there any inspiration that you took from New York when you were designing 520 West 28th Street?
No. The High Line is a very specific situation so you relate to that condition. The High Line is on the side and there is an L-shaped side, so it was more with how do you deal with the site constraints as opposed to the whole city. I mean if it were a tower, you’d have to relate to the New York skyline, but the High Line is a unique situation.
You’ve completed 15 projects in five years, does that feel like a lot of projects or does it feel like something you’ve been waiting for?
There was a major shift ten years ago from when we were getting nothing. Getting Rome, Wolfsburg, and the ski jump, all of them within one year within each other and then Cincinnati. After finishing Wolfsburg we won almost every competition we did, so that was nice.
What projects are special to you?
Well, the Vitra fire station was one of my first buildings; Rome we spent years doing; and Baku was very special because you don’t get a chance to do a project like that, a landscape—three buildings combined into one.
You have a strong architectural language; did you ever have a moment where you felt like you hit your stride with it?
It evolved over time and is always evolving. It looks similar, but it constantly changes… maybe not radically, but continuously.