Founder of Archigram Peter Cook writing about Zaha Hadid when she was announced as the first female RIBA Royal Gold Medallist in September 2015
In our current culture of ticking every box, surely Zaha Hadid succeeds, since (to quote the Royal Gold Medal criteria) she is someone ‘who has made a significant contribution to the theory or practice of architecture…. for a substantial body of work rather than for work which is currently fashionable.’
Indeed her work, though full of form, style and unstoppable mannerism, possesses a quality that some of us might refer to as an impeccable ‘eye’: which we would claim is a fundamental in the consideration of special architecture and is rarely satisfied by mere fashion.
And surely her work is special. For three decades now, she has ventured where few would dare: if Paul Klee took a line for a walk, then Zaha took the surfaces that were driven by that line out for a virtual dance and then deftly folded them over and then took them out for a journey into space. In her earlier, ‘spiky’ period there was already a sense of vigour that she shared with her admired Russian Suprematists and Constructivists – attempting with them to capture that elusive dynamic of movement at the end of the machine age.
Necessarily having to disperse effort through a studio production, rather than being a lone artist, she cottoned–on to the potential of the computer to turn space upon itself. Indeed there is an Urban Myth that suggests that the very early Apple Mac ‘boxes’ were still crude enough to plot the mathematically unlikely – and so Zaha with her mathematics background seized upon this and made those flying machine projections of the Hong Kong Peak project and the like. Meanwhile, with paintings and special small drawings Zaha continued to lead from the front. She has also been smart enough to pull in some formidable computational talent without being phased by its ways.
Thus the evolution of the ‘flowing’ rather than spikey architecture crept up upon us in stages, as did the scale of her commissions, but in most cases, they remained clear in identity and control. When you entered the Fire Station at Vitra, you were conscious of being inside one of those early drawings and yes, it could be done. Yet at perhaps its highest, those of us lucky enough to see the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku in the flesh, can surely never have been in such a dream-like space, with its totality, its enormous internal ramp and dart-like lights seeming to have come from a vocabulary that lies so far beyond the normal architecture that we assess or rationalize.
We are presenting her with this Medal as a British Institution
So we are presenting her with this Medal as a British Institution: and as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire: thus she might seem to be a member of our British Establishment. Yet in reality, many of our chattering classes and not a few fellow architects have treated her with characteristic faint praise, and when she heroically won the Cardiff Bay Opera House competition, blocking the scheme. Or when we awarded her the RIBA Stirling Prize for the school in South London – her second win in a row - we, the jury, were loudly derided by a number of distinguished architects.
Of course, in our culture of circumspection and modesty her work is certainly not modest, and she herself is the opposite of modest. Indeed her vociferous criticism of poor work or stupidity recalls the line-side comments of the tennis-player John McEnroe. Yet this is surely characteristic of the seriousness with which she takes the whole business: sloppiness and waywardness pain her and she cannot play the comfy British game of platitudinous waffle that is the preferred cushion adopted by many people of achievement or power. Her methods and perhaps much of her psychology remain Mesopotamian and not a little scary: but certainly clear.
It is perhaps a little lonely there up at the top
As a result, it is perhaps a little lonely there up at the top, surrounded now by some very considerable talent in the office, but feared somewhat and distanced from the young. Yet in private Zaha is gossipy and amusing, genuinely interested in the work of talented colleagues who do very different architecture such as Steven Holl, and she was the first to bring to London talent such as Lebbeus Woods or Stanley Saiotowitz. She is exceptionally loyal to her old friends: many of whom came from the Alvin Boyarsky period of the Architectural Association: which seems to remain as her comfort zone and golden period of friendship. Encouraged and promoted at an early age by Boyarsky, she has rewarded the AA with an unremitting loyalty and fondness for it.
The history of the Gold Medal must surely include many major figures who commanded a big ship and one ponders upon the operation involved that gets such strong concepts as the MAXXI in Rome – in which the power of organization is so clear - or the Bergisel Ski Jump in Innsbruck where dynamic is at last captured – or the Aquatics Centre for the London Olympics where the lines diving boards were as fluid as the motion of the divers - made into reality. And she has done it time and time again in Vienna, Marseilles, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Source: Hufton + Crow
Never has she been so prolific, so consistent. We realize that Kenzo Tange and Frank Lloyd Wright could not have drawn every line or checked every joint, yet Zaha shares with them the precious role of towering, distinctive and relentless influence upon all around her that sets the results apart from the norm. Such self-confidence is easily accepted in film-makers and football managers, but causes some architects to feel uncomfortable, maybe they’re secretly jealous of her unquestionable talent. Let’s face it, we might have awarded the medal to a worthy, comfortable character. We didn’t, we awarded it to Zaha: larger than life, bold as brass and certainly on the case.
How lucky we are to have her in London.