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AJ exclusive: interview with Zaha Hadid

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After four nominations, Zaha Hadid finally picked up the UK’s top architecture award on Saturday night. Does this mark a new era of home-grown support for the London-based architect?

‘I’m sorry for the guys and gals doing the schools, but your time will come,’ said Zaha Hadid about fellow finalists DSDHA and dRMM, as she picked up the Stirling Prize for her ‘uplifting’ MAXXI museum of modern art in Rome on Saturday night.

It was a generous, gracious comment from the Iraq-born architect, who has spent a frustrating 30 years trying to win recognition and work in the country she has made her home.

Until the recently completed Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, London, Hadid had not built anything in England, and despite being shortlisted three previous times for the Stirling Prize (with Nordpark Cable Railway, Austria, in 2008; Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2006; and BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, in 2005), she had never picked up the UK’s most prestigious architecture award.

But at the Roundhouse in Camden, London, on Saturday it was finally her time.

‘You always have to have some faith, you know,’ said a thrilled Hadid. ‘Otherwise I would have packed this up a long time ago and migrated somewhere [else].’

You always have to have some faith, you know

Yet there is no sign of bitterness from Hadid. The Pritzker Prize winner, who has a reputation for being difficult, is again magnanimous when she talks about how living and working in the UK has inspired and driven her architecture.

She said: ‘The British people are so apprehensive about anything new… they think the fantastic is not possible. But you have to understand that this kind of work [MAXXI] emerged from being here and is a response to the English condition.

‘Even from the early years, I was looking at the response to the historic city and how you add new work to it by superimposing or juxtaposing.
It was not about obliterating.

She added: ‘This kind of work is relevant to London in particular.’

Although David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin was heavily backed to win the Stirling Prize, MAXXI, which sits on an urban plot just outside Rome’s city walls, was allegedly the judge’s unanimous choice. The 150 million euro project was an incredible 12 years in the making and effectively ‘initiated the parametric work of the office’.

Unlike its location’s successive Italian governments, the design has changed very little since Hadid won an international contest to design the ‘baroque and monumental’ building in 1998. Then, the practice was a ‘very different place [where] we all worked on the same project’.

Hadid said: ‘The building came out exactly how we thought. I remember every drawing. It is almost like the competition project.’

For Hadid and her long-term collaborator Patrik Schumacher, the success of the building is in its layering, its discovery by the visitor and its ability to make a public building truly public.

‘The way the spaces overlay, it really does work, like winding streets compressed into one single site in the building… the connectivity and the adjacency between the space next to it and the one below it. Complexity is sucked into the building.’

Schumacher adds: ‘Each step, something new comes into view.’

So will MAXXI’s victory at Stirling mean more work for Hadid in the UK? She’s not sure. However, she does know what she wants to do next: city-scale development.

I’m still curious about how to design a very large, city-scale ensemble with a single hand

She said: ‘I’m still curious about how to design a very large ensemble with a single hand on a city scale and dealing with all the problems with transportation or whatever it may be.

‘That project has not yet happened – and not just particularly for me. But it would be interesting to see our take on very large sites.’

She added: ‘I live very close to a social housing development in Islington done by Tecton and the planners at Greater London Council. But they are totally isolated islands.

‘I’m interested in looking at large sites like Middlesex Hospital [in central London], and how new thinking can go into these sites… integrated inner-city development with none of [the divide between rich and poor].

‘In the early part of the 20th century, people were thinking about how we will live in the future, how we will move in the future, how we will work in the future, and I believe we need to ideologically think that way, because there are problems.’

Hadid also has her eye on existing issues in the capital and how to grow it in an organic way.

She said: ‘[I’d like to design] a remedy for the South Bank. People always criticise it but I think it is a great complex.

‘Not all of it was done at the same time but the [elements such as walkways] have a similitude. With certain techniques you
can easily resolve some of those issues.’

So if it hadn’t been her, who would she have wanted to win?

‘All the schemes were very different. It’s very difficult. But any of them could have won.

‘Many of them are friends of mine,’ she concluded diplomatically.

Hadid on how the original MAXXI design evolved

‘The way the design developed was through the engineering and about making it work, with the idea of the walling and engineering working together at the same time. It is a naturally lit space, that’s why [the roofing] is horizontal and brings light all the way through. MAXXI doesn’t only have one single ambition – it has a few ambitions together.

Hadid on the Italian planning process

‘It is a public building and all the delays were at the start. It is a national project and the government changed. Every time they changed, luckily they all supported it. [In Italy] it is a slow process. We are working on a ferry terminal in Salerno which was won at the same time as Wolfsburg and [that] was finished five years ago – and this one is still on the first floor.’

Hadid on the lost art of drawing

‘There was an incredible repertoire in the 1980s in drawing – not probably in our office but in many other practices and schools – from that moment that repertoire hasn’t developed.
‘MAXXI cannot be drawn. Nobody has that technique. It’s lost. You rely on very steady hands, inking and transfers. All these techniques have been substituted by other things.’

The Stirling Prize judges on why they chose MAXXI

Mark Lawson, TV presenter

‘I voted for MAXXI. The other two museums had the complication of what was there before. But Hadid’s was radical – a whole creation of her imagination. Clapham Manor Primary School was probably the runner-up, again, because of the boldness of it. With a school you really have to engage the public.’

Edward Jones, Dixon Jones

‘There was a David and Goliath aspect to the competition. The main criticism of MAXXI is that it doesn’t perform as an art gallery. But the project manages to work
in its setting with the most flamboyant and baroque architecture you could think of.’

Ivan Harbour, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

‘MAXXI is a fantastic piece of architecture and it very much reflects Hadid’s great ideals and work over the years. It has a big impact beyond the site boundaries and it has an emotional impact.’

Lisa Jardine, author

‘I voted for MAXXI and was delighted when it won. Our visit to the building was memorable – for a lay judge it brilliantly combined the wow-factor with scrupulous technical execution and innovative design. I’d probably have put Rick Mather’s Ashmolean second, for its sensitivity and subtlety.’

Ruth Reed, RIBA president

‘MAXXI is an extraordinary building and it takes Rome into the future. This is a phenomenal statement and it’s such an extraordinary sculptural experience as well.’


‘MAXXI is a beautiful, uncompromising, modern building.’ Richard Rogers, 2006 and 2009 Stirling Prize winner

‘Even if it was Hadid’s first time on the shortlist, she would still deserve to win it.’ Alison Brooks, 2008 Stirling Prize winner

‘I went to Rome last year and was blown away when I saw MAXXI. It’s a fantastic bit of urban architecture. Second place is irrelevant with the Stirling Prize.’ Deborah Saunt, director, dsdha

‘It’s about time. [As for a runner-up] there can be no second prize. It’s all or nothing.’ Pascale Scheurer of Surface to Air

‘Hadid has developed a unique architectural language with complete consistency that no other architect has done. It’s fantastic to see something that represents such strong conceptual and technical challenges.’ Niall McLaughlin

‘It’s not a case of Stirling rewarding the architect. MAXXI is a worthy winner because it demonstrates a lot of exciting new ideas.’ Chris Wilkinson, 2001 and 2002 Stirling Prize winner

‘Hadid’s buildings are very strong, very thoughtful. [However] I was all for David Chipperfield.’ Angela Brady, RIBA president-elect

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Readers' comments (1)

  • ‘MAXXI cannot be drawn. Nobody has that technique. It’s lost. You rely on very steady hands, inking and transfers. All these techniques have been substituted by other things.’

    Oh, really.

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