Building home

‘Zaha Hadid: Architecture and Design’, Design Museum 2007

Grand designs
By Nonie Niesewant
Vogue, British Edition
January 2008

Architect Zaha Hadid’s bold vision of the future — all organic shapes and dramatic curves — has made her one of Britain’s most powerful women. Nonie Niesewand visits her at home.

Getting inside architect Zaha Hadid’s apartment–on top of an industrial box near her ZHA practice in Clerkenwell–is difficult. For a start, there’s no front door; just a lift that opens directly into her open-plan living room, but only if she, or her maid, pins in the code. And she is pretending to be not at home to Vogue. I visit her at the end of the week in which she was named Forbes magazine’s third most powerful woman in Britain, after the Queen and the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, Clara Furse. Hadid began the week talking grands projets in Paris with Nicolas Sarkozy, then had her picture taken for the National Portrait Gallery, considered the Shanghai World Expo 2008 at the Foreign Office, taught at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, unveiled a sculpture cast in cement outside the Royal Festival Hall and kept her eye on more than 50 ZHA projects around the world, including a masterplan for Istanbul, Italy’s national museum of twenty-first-century art, a mobile art pod conceived with Karl Lagerfeld, an opera house in China, and practically the whole of Abu Dhabi. She is exhausted. And she has conjunctivitis.

Once inside–our shoes left at the lift doors because of the snow-white rubberised floors–and feeling as if I am walking on eggshells, Zaha Hadid’s gravelly voice can be heard on the phone, behind a closed bedroom door, rattatting at her PA and her PR to get around there immediately and cancel the shoot. ‘I don’t want my apartment photographed. Period. No. Nothing is to be published. It’s no my project. I haven’t touched it. You understand?’ The 57-year-old architect-who has designed Barbie’s house for Mattel, a fire station for Vitra and a modern-art gallery in Cincinnati that won her architecture’s equivalent of an Oscar, the Pritzker–is scheduled to have her portrait taken for this story in the one building she hasn’t designed: her own home. But everything in the apartment–the paintings, the furniture, the vases, even the teaspoons–is unmistakably her design. Home to zigzag sofas with chambered curves and Eiger-like peaks, paintings that explore flight and motion above distorted planes, a vase that looks like a rock fissure and a silver tea set of tilted blocks, it’s clear that what she lives with is as distinctive as she is. And it is beautiful.

The apartment is a single long, open space, maybe 40ft long. One glass wall opens on to a roof terrace fringed with bamboos, freshly green in the wintry light. Huge doors as big as theatrical flats, leading to her bedroom, are closed. White floors seamlessly morph into white walls; light streams in from a glass ceiling. Just five pieces of extra-outsize furniture stand alone like sculptures, the equivalents of Calders that you could swing on or Frinks that you eat off. These artworks adapt to the users’ needs. The Glacier bench, which wiggles to accommodate different sitting positions, from slouch to Pilates posture, is long enough to seat the entire Vogue team of eight. By midday Zaha still hasn’t left the bedroom. When she does step out, she is dressed in a white satin Prada coat and Issey Miyake leggings with Prada pumps. ‘Shoes used to be my extravagance; now it’s funny coats,’ she says. She has a stern beauty, and a coquettish charm. Hadid never relaxes in conversation, even when gossiping, and she never misses a thing, despite absent-mindedly texting people while we talk. She puts her head on one side to level a piercing, hawk-eyed gaze upon me as I ask questions. The ones she won’t answer are dealt with sharply, and she quick-fires her own in accented English. ‘When?’ ‘Why?’ ‘See what I mean?’ She doesn’t suffer fools. People get nicknames that don’t stick, depending on her mood and assessment of their performance–‘Dumdum’ or ‘Blah Blah’ for people who are boring her.

For her Vogue portrait, Zaha stands regally beside the Iceberg sofa–like a prop from The Chronicles of Narnia. Its semi-abstract, moulded surfaces are seemingly carved from a single continuous mass, but underpinning it is a span of aluminium fins like fishbones hidden within fibreglass. It takes four months to make to order and costs £42,000. Her bedroom is all white, with just a bed and a 3m-long dressing table artfully displaying Perspex and neon-coloured jewellery, photographs, scent bottles, vintage handbags and make-up. There’s a rail of five identical satin Prada coats: in black, white, green, taupe and purple. At the far end of the apartment are the kitchen and a room to showcase things Hadid didn’t design but likes: Venetian glass, red lacquer stacking boxes and George Nelson’s Marshmallow sofa, upholstered with coloured lozenges. It’s the only upholstery in the house. Her own sofa designs, made of fibreglass, create a topography that folds, slopes and shears around the human form, comfortable but as controlling as a Dolce & Gabbana corset in positioning the body. Critics of modern architecture always think that architects should be condemned to live with their designs. Zaha Hadid does.

Detail of acrylic light spiral designed by Zaha Hadid

Decorators simply wouldn’t know what to do with her furniture. The old way of arranging things to follow a domestic routine has been abolished. This is a war against middle-class taste. There isn’t a cushion in the place. No rugs or curtains. In fact, there isn’t a scrap of textile anywhere, unless you count the white blinds. Or a book as far as I can see, apart from a single volume on Gio Ponti tucked in a spare bedroom that’s stuffed full of boxes and a clothing rail for coats with lapels like butterfly wings. But when I asked her assistant with a clipboard what lay behind a pair of full-length slender cupboard doors, she snappily replied ‘AV’–code for the telly and DVDs–so you never know where the library might be housed. Clearly there are no pets or children over-running this space–the only animal is a carved goat which a friend gave her years ago and which she takes everywhere because, as she says, ‘I am very superstitious about friendship.’ Yet the place is neither austere nor impersonal. It is not at all like living in a white-cube art gallery with barriers to prevent you touching and feeling. This is a liberating environment. ‘People become part of her work, which is friendly, never cold or distant,’ says her friend Paolo Moroni, who produces her designs for Sawaya & Moroni.

The kitchen is a no-go area, not because of the maids making Turkish coffee and cappuccinos in there all day, but because Hadid didn’t design it–a shame, because her Z.Island kitchen design is the only kitchen in the world ever to be displayed at the Guggenheim in New York, as part of her retrospective there in 2006. Two Dupont Corian workstations–Fire (heat) and Water (washing area)–combine worktops with screens for TV and internet connections. She has been angling for ages to get these pieces into her own home. Hadid calls her designs for sofas and tables ‘installations’. Long before buildings, sofas and tables were the first things she ever had built. Her first sofa, a great boomerang called Bitar, and the Sperm table, based on a squiggle, were unveiled at the Architectural Association in 1987. She revealed, ‘The biggest compliment I’ve had from people who’ve seen my furniture is that it really looks like the drawings, which they didn’t think was possible.’ Curiously, what most impressed Alberto Alessi at the time was ‘the physical vigour of Zaha, manipulating the big sofa here and there in the room’.

In her apartment, her prototype for the Aqua table is covered with silicone-gel top that cloudily registers three bulging legs below as indentations on its surface, as if she had dropped a pebble into a pool. The form blurs the relationship between the horizontal top and vertical legs, while still being stable. Alasdhair Willis of Established & Sons, who sold it as a limited edition, says, ‘It’s true that the prices realised by the design are getting higher and higher. Zaha Hadid’s Aqua table did indeed break records for us when it sold in auction at Phillips De Pury & Company in December 2005 for $296,000, but we’ll never see design works selling for £20-30 million like artworks.’ Hadid groups her things on the table with the same meticulous attention that interior designer David Hicks gave his famous table arrangements: Venetian glass, jewellery from Georg Jensen, the bleached prototype of a project for Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, a silver banana-shaped fruit bowl and a model for a dessicated pod-like pavilion destined for Rioja in Spain. She explains her fascination with her models. ‘For me, the next phase is computing–hardly any drawings, but relief models done at the practice. Press ‘print’, and they’re made into 3D objects and pieces.’ Zaha Hadid and her partner at ZHA, Patrik Schumacher, used to drag drawings across the photocopier glass as they were being copied to distort them. To escape the constraints of the set square, her flowing lines were drawn using a Beaux-Arts tool–banished by the Modernists–called the French curve. Now, all is stretching and distorting of form has been overtaken by computer programs.

The BMW car plant in Leipzig (2005) is a good example of how Hadid’s digital modelling becomes reality. Flying over the 256-hectare site, the great va-voom of its roof makes it clear that the latest Hadid has landed. Hadid was asked to design the gigantic hub for 5,000 workers in the centre of the plant. Her genius was to keep the cars visibly moving on conveyor belts between three production shedson the huge site, and letting the workers at its hub see 762 cars daily rolling through the assembly lines. BMW are so proud of the way in which the production plant has revved up their fortunes that they have patented it. Cast in silvery-grey cement in cathedral-like proportions, it is like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. On top of the Aqua table sit two silver tea sets that Zaha Hadid keeps but never uses–on that she designed for Sawaya & Moroni, the other for Alessi–showing how her architecture has become more fluid as she draws closer to nature. The cluster of four tilted pouring blocks for Sawaya & Moroni is more macho; the tea and coffee set for Alessi more topgraphical and organic. Her sharp-angled shards have morphed into voluptuous curves. Like a fissure, Hadid’s Crevasse vase for Alessi runs long and deep. She has clustered seven of them on the table. On three sides of the vase’s mirrored-steel surface your face is reflected normally. On the fourth, concave side, it swivels sideways.

On top of the Aqua table sit two silver tea sets that Zaha Hadid keeps but never uses–on that she designed for Sawaya & Moroni, the other for Alessi–showing how her architecture has become more fluid as she draws closer to nature. The cluster of four tilted pouring blocks for Sawaya & Moroni is more macho; the tea and coffee set for Alessi more topographical and organic. Her sharp-angled shards have morphed into voluptuous curves. Like a fissure, Hadid’s Crevasse vase for Alessi runs long and deep. She has clustered seven of them on the table. On three sides of the vase’s mirrored-steel surface your face is reflected normally. On the fourth, concave side, it swivels sideways.There is something unsettling about these desirable household objects. They seem to be on the move or, at least, never static. ‘In Italian,’ says Paolo Moroni, ‘we say her designs are scottante, edgy,’–rather like their mercurial designer.

Each piece is placed in her apartment with the precision of a Zen master landscaping boulders in a garden. It’s all about harmony, proportion and scale. And like everything Hadid ever designed, her furniture comes with attitude. As she describes it, ‘It’s a built manifesto towards the potential for a new domestic language of architecture, driven by digital design and new manufacturing capabilities.’ On the walls her astonishing canvases appear to have been painted from the cockpit of an aircraft, diving and swooping at speed, so the landscape is distorted, throwing up buildings and bridges, ocean beds and chasms in blocks of vivid colour. Hadid re-hangs the four paintings in her Silver Paintings series in a new order almost every week, but the one canvas that never changes on the wall big enough to take it is Malevich’s Tektonik, her homage to the Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevich. The original, painted in 1976-77 for her final-year graduation project at AA, hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but when the museum refused to lend it to the Guggenheim for her retrospective in 2006, Hadid recreated the seminal work at the Guggenheim and then shipped it home.

The only object on a pedestal in her house is her 2006 Icone bag, designed for Louis Vuitton. The bucket bag, made in ceramic with a red lining that doubles as a pocket or clutch, has the LV logo all over it, etched out of the bag, then raised in relief–it looks as if a huge force is sucking out its contents. It’s shocking to think that only 15 years ago Hadid still hadn’t built anything. The first building off the drawing board was the little fire station at the Vitra furniture factory in Basel, completed in 1993. For years people tried to fathom what made her undertake the gruelling challenge of making it in the testosterone-fuelled world of architecture. As she told me then, ‘Architecture is worse than brain surgery for being an all-male club. Women aren’t expected to do it. But I don’t even think about it. I had too many disadvantages, being non-European and called outrageous. Being a woman was the least of my problems.’

Born in Baghdad in 1950, she had a charmed childhood: her mother was from an enormously rich family; her father, Muhammad Hadid, an eminent Iraqi politician and industrialist. He went to the American Universty of Beirut (where he later sent his only daughter) and studied at the London School of Economics. Eager to raise a new social order from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, he sought genuine democracy in Iraq, where British influence was immense. When Zaha was eight, the British-sponsored monarch Faisal II was shot by a firing squad. Her father was appalled, yet his strong convictions about an Iraqi independence and Iraq’s emergence as a republic kept him going. But when the Baathist dictatorship seized power in the Sixties, his political career ended. A hyperactive child, who was given a sketchbook rather than Ritalin, Zaha Hadid grew up with the wonders of the world spread before her. Now that pillage and damage caused by military vehicles is desecrating the friezes of the fortified city of Hatra, the ancient Ishtar gate and brick pavements in Babylon, even the Ziggurat at Ur–reputedly the first urban civilisation in history–it is very difficult for Hadid. After all, every architect wants to build, not destroy, and this is her homeland. Asked at a press conference before her show ‘Zaha Hadid: Architecture and Design’ opened at the Design Museum if she would be designing a monument to truth and reconciliation in Iraq in 2012, she replied, with massive understatement, ‘Certain issues need to be ironed out first.’

Zaha attended the American University in Beirut, where she read maths and shared digs with Hayat Palumbo (now Lord Palumbo’s wife), who read political science. ‘We hear a lot about her being a diva. But she has such sweetness,’ explains Hayat. ‘She would cross the world to help a friend in need. Gregarious if she likes you, she has a sense of fun and a great loyalty. And she’s doing too much–on her own. She travels too much, there is a lot of strain on her and she wants to excel. All along she has been very true to herself.’ Architecture requires 100 per cent dedication. ‘Really you have to go at it full-time, not dip in and out. When women break off to have babies, it is hard for them to reconnect on the big scale,’ says Hadid. Palumbo says, ‘I think that if she had met the right person to share her life with, she may possibly have given up architecture, but I’ve never discussed those things with her. I took it for granted that it was her choice.’ When Zaha left Beirut in 1972 she joined the Architectural Association, that hothouse of talent in Seventies London, where she me the two most influential people in her life after her parents: Alvin Boyarsky, the chairman, and the engineer Peter Rice, the mentors who enabled her to realise her paintings as buildings. Her competition entry to design a club and accommodation on the Peak above Hong Kong (1982-83)–which she won, although it was never built–portrays her architecture as cutting like a knife through butter, defying nature but not destroying it. On her entry she wrote, ‘Moving towards the end of the twentieth century a certain degree of invention and newness is necessary.’

Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, believes that years out in the cold entering competitions without getting anything built turned out to be a good thing for Hadid. ‘She kept up her research, exploring ideas exhaustively in a way that other young architects, bogged down in the design of brown-brick building, never did,’ he explains. Sudjic also thinks it shaped the way she runs her practice now–‘like a student, making her team work through the night.’ Yet they are famously loyal to her. At the end of a long day, Zaha has a lecture to deliver at the Festival Hall. ‘You must go,’ she says. ‘I’m too tired to talk now. There’s a dinner arranged, but she can’t contemplate it. ‘No I can’t. My eye is sore. I feel dreadful.’ And suddenly she looks it. Yet, an hour after the lecture ends, her chauffeur pulls up in her BMW 5 Series outside the Wolseley, where we are having dinner. Hadid makes a grand entrance, stepping out tall, her faced defined by a slash of red lipstick. She is ushered in by the maître d’; a Diet Coke with ice and lemon miraculously appears. She never drinks. Despite having lived in London for 35 years, Zaha Hadid has had only one building realised in the UK: the exquisite little Maggie’s daycare centre for cancer patients in Kirkcaldy, for which she waived her fees. It turns its back on the ugly NHS Sixties hospital and offers a crooked arm (literally, in its ramp-like form), sheltering its occupants who come in for nutrition, relaxation and counselling.

Her next British building, also in Scotland, will be the £54 million Transport Museum in Glasgow, which will be completed in November 2008 and has already won over that most canny of costcutters, the Scottish Quantity Surveyor. Inside there will be a wall of cars suspended from the roof, a steam train shipped from South Africa and boats moving majestically on conveyor belts. Glasgow’s council hopes that it will regenerate the riverside in the way that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did for the polluted wastelands in Bilbao. Bilbao itself is the site of a major new Hadid project, due for completion by 2030–to convert the neglected Zorrozaurre peninsula into an island, with new houses, parks and technology centres, costing an estimated £1 billion. When the world shrinks into 15 or so major cities by the year 2025, will we be stacked in pods with sloping walls that curve and slink around its inhabitants, as revealed in Hadid’s life-size Future House on permanent exhibition in Beijing? Will floors grow protuberances to serve as tables and beds? And will we sink into hollows for baths, making furniture obsolete? Whatever the future holds, Zaha Hadid’s radical designs will influence the way we live.

See also: Zaha Hadid Architects

Zaha Hadid, Wikipedia

Design Museum London

The Pritzker Architecture Prize


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