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Radical possibilities

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Zaha Hadid recalls the early days of her practice, back in the mid Eighties: 'I lived in a little mews house. There were people working in the living room, the bedroom and the kitchen. The only place I could escape to was the bathroom. I'd lock myself in there for half an hour or more - and think. Often I'd emerge with an idea - then we'd all start developing it.' Fifteen years later, Hadid is famous - for good reason, since she is one of the very few great creative intelligences on the British architectural scene.

Hadid's fame, of course, extends far beyond Britain. She was born in Baghdad, schooled in France and came to London, to study at the aa, in 1972, part of a glittering generation which included Rem Koolhaas, Nigel Coates and Bernard Tschumi. Since then, London has been her home, though her first substantial commission here - the Mind Zone in the Millennium Dome - is only now being built. 'It's frustrating being here and not building,' says Hadid. She is depressed by the mediocrity of much that is being built in London, often on prime sites, by the dominance of developers, the lack of proper strategies for public building, especially housing, and the lack of support for young architects. 'Compare the Netherlands,' she says. 'The state supports architects, commissions them, promotes them abroad. Here, really good people are reduced to fitting out flats.'

I began our interview with a mental note to avoid the issue of the Cardiff Bay Opera House. With some important jobs in hand, and the prospect of a clutch of them being constructed, Hadid has presumably put aside the memories of the brutal treatment she received from the South Wales philistines. This is not the case. 'I get the impression that some people blame me for what happened,' she says. 'Sometimes I think that it has blighted our chances in Britain.' The opera house, she believes, would have been the standard-bearer for radical new architecture, opening up opportunities for younger architects. Perhaps one day the full story of the skullduggery which wrecked the project will be told. For the moment, the loser is Cardiff itself, deprived of a great building which would have had an impact on the level of the Bilbao Guggenheim.

Amongst recent British projects, that for the South Bank was particularly dear to Hadid - last year, she designed the Addressing the Century show in the Hayward Gallery. She loves the 1960s buildings: 'They are tough, not like the Festival Hall, a really powerful expression of a certain strand of modernity. They are the victims of sheer prejudice.' Hadid's proposals - 'about urban architecture, not masterplanning' - would have layered the site, opened it up, transformed it without recourse to needless destruction. The approach was visionary but also essentially practical.

'I've never seen myself as a theorist,' says Hadid. 'I'm really a builder at heart.' Her projects are meant to be built. From the start, each is developed as a structural as well as an aesthetic concept. The late Peter Rice was an enormous influence. 'He taught me about strategy as well as structures,' says Hadid. More recently, Jane Wernick, formerly of Ove Arup & Partners, has been a regular collaborator, while Tony Hunt was structural engineer for the competition-winning Rome scheme.

Hadid has a reputation for being fearsome. She is certainly outspoken, contemptuous of mediocrity and humbug, confident in her own talents. But at heart she is reticent, easily wounded, regretting that, as a woman, she is at a disadvantage in a largely male architectural world: 'I can't just schmooze around with the boys.' She is, none the less, tough and demanding with colleagues, expecting the same total commitment which she gives to the practice. One of the closest of her collaborators, Brian Ma Siy, left after the cancellation of the Cardiff scheme. 'I think he was even more devastated than I was,' says Hadid. The current team of around 20 comprises a group of key associates including Patrik Schumacher, Graham Modlen and Markus Dochantschi. The ethos of the office, currently housed (though it is rapidly outgrowing the space) in an old Victorian school in Clerkenwell, is that of an atelier - intense, committed but clearly inspirational for the young. Hadid herself, 50 next year, is easily the oldest person there.

When Zaha Hadid first emerged on the scene, the inspiration of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism on her work was clear. (In 1992, she paid homage to that tradition with her designs for The Great Utopia Exhibition at the New York Guggenheim.) 'The historical roots are now less obvious,' she says. 'But we have always wanted to explore ideas that haven't been tested - to defy gravity.' Both the Rome Centre for the Contemporary Arts and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati are, in their way, contextual responses to the grain of the city but equally about the creation of new public spaces and amenities.

One of the greatest of Hadid's unbuilt projects, the Dusseldorf Art and Media Centre, epitomises her belief in the city and in urban life. One of the pleasures of the Rome commission, she says, is spending time in Italy, with its dynamic public life.

London is still a cautious place, private and protective in comparison. 'The one thing you have to have to live here is a great sense of humour,' says Hadid. She might have added that you also need a certain fortitude in adversity. But Hadid's mood is optimistic. What looked impossibly radical back in 1982, when her Hong Kong Peak scheme hit the headlines, now looks more like a vision of a new and infinite architecture.

says Hadid. 'I'm really a builder at heart.' Her projects are meant to be built. From the start, each is developed as a structural as well as an aesthetic concept. The late Peter Rice was an enormous influence. 'He taught me about strategy as well as structures,' says Hadid. More recently, Jane Wernick, formerly of Ove Arup & Partners, has been a regular collaborator, while Tony Hunt was structural engineer for the competition-winning Rome scheme.

Hadid has a reputation for being fearsome. She is certainly outspoken, contemptuous of mediocrity and humbug, confident in her own talents. But at heart she is reticent, easily wounded, regretting that, as a woman, she is at a disadvantage in a largely male architectural world: 'I can't just schmooze around with the boys.' She is, none the less, tough and demanding with colleagues, expecting the same total commitment which she gives to the practice. One of the closest of her collaborators, Brian Ma Siy, left after the cancellation of the Cardiff scheme. 'I think he was even more devastated than I was,' says Hadid. The current team of around 20 includes a group of key associates including Patrik Schumacher, Graham Modlen and Markus Dochantschi. The ethos of the office, currently housed (though it is rapidly outgrowing the space) in an old Victorian school in Clerkenwell, is that of an atelier - intense, committed but clearly inspirational for the young. Hadid herself, 50 next year, is easily the oldest person there.

When Zaha Hadid first emerged on the scene, the inspiration of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism on her work was clear. (In 1992, she paid homage to that tradition with her designs for The Great Utopia Exhibition at the New York Guggenheim.) 'The historical roots are now less obvious,' she says. 'But we have always wanted to explore ideas that haven't been tested - to defy gravity.' Both the Rome Centre for the Contemporary Arts and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati are, in their way, contextual, responses to the grain of the city but equally about the creation of new public spaces and amenities.

One of the greatest of Hadid's unbuilt projects, the Dusseldorf Art and Media Centre, epitomises her belief in the city and in urban life. One of the pleasures of the Rome commission, she says, is spending time in Italy, with its dynamic public life.

London is still a cautious place, private and protective in comparison. 'The one thing you have to have to live here is a great sense of humour,' says Hadid. She might have added that you also need a certain fortitude in adversity. But Hadid's mood is optimistic. What looked impossibly radical back in 1982, when her Hong Kong Peak scheme hit the headlines, now looks more like a vision of a new and infinite architecture.

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