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Exclusive interview: Zaha Hadid on winning the Royal Gold Medal

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Richard Waite speaks to the London-based architect who has become the first woman to be sole winner of the prestigious Royal Gold Medal

How did you feel when you were told you had won?
I didn’t expect it at all. It was nice. I was in the middle of the Tokyo stadium turmoil, so it was refreshing.

You’ve already won the Pritzker Prize and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale for architecture. Does the Royal Gold Medal matter to you?
Yes it does. I’ve chosen this country to live in and practise, so it is nice to be acknowledged here. And it is for the talented people who work for me as well.

You are the first woman to win the Royal Gold Medal on her own – what do you make of that?
There is still a stigma against women. It has changed a lot – 30 years ago people thought women couldn’t make a building. That idea has now gone.

There is still enormous prejudice though. And while people ask me about women in architecture all the time, I really don’t have an answer.

The women in my office are very hardworking, very diligent. Many of them are in very senior positions. But architecture needs continuity. I suppose many professions are the same. Maybe when women take time off to do things – although you don’t forget to draw – it is difficult to come back.

There are places that as a woman you cannot go to. You can’t go out with the guys playing golf, having a drink or going yachting. Well you can, but you are not included.

When relations between men and women are completely normalised, in the sense that you can go out for dinner with them without people thinking there is a problem with that, then they will overcome that problem.

In the profession it has improved a lot, but there is still a problem. I can’t tell if it is with me – I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner, I do funny work, whatever.

Have you and your architecture changed over those 30 years?
We all change, we should change. But in terms of the ideas, I don’t think I have changed. I’m still aggressive in research to find new solutions and new forms of representing programme.

Of course what has changed is that your skills have improved, you have more knowledge and experience and that changes your perspective. You are not doing everything for the first time. You have to learn from your mistakes.

In architecture people should be allowed to make a mistake. You can’t be perfect every time – especially when you are quite young.

You should be allowed to make a mistake

That’s why I think that people, when they finish their school, should really work with somebody they respect for a while. Because that gives them the time to learn, make that mistake there and find out how to do things; as opposed to going off on your own, where you have no one to talk to and it doesn’t give you the time to breathe.

You are very limited to working on the very small scale. That’s why there is a real divide between those who are doing big corporate work and those who are doing small work.

The way people are educated in English schools makes you more independent – and that independence prohibits you from working for other people.   

This is as opposed to American schools which are more corporate, frankly. When I started teaching at Harvard, I was surprised by the difference between it and the Architectural Association (AA).

They have fairs so the practices can come and pick the best people. It is a completely different focus. So the way they are taught is, well not practical, but aimed more at office work. So these kids by the age of 25 have enormous knowledge. They work every summer, they have a lot skills, they can deal with a client. In the mid-80s in New York all the skyscrapers were designed by recent graduates.

Here the work is very nice, arty maybe theoretical. But despite that, you always have to have an objective – perhaps aiming to change a new area.

Does the profession need to play a bigger role in nurturing this new talent?  
It starts from the school – helping them with the real world.

Alvin Boyarksy [former AA chairman] was an incredibly important figure. I’m embarrassed they have not honoured him in the way they should. OK, we don’t want to be too nostalgic but he was a very important educator.

He didn’t invent the unit system, but he made it work. He influenced not only the AA but many other schools in America and Europe.

Before then, schools had a syllabus where the whole class would do housing. They didn’t have option studios.

He made a radical shift in the late 1970s from what I call esoteric work – interesting research but which wouldn’t create a building. I am very grateful to him. He gave me a platform. That was very important; there was an emphasis on projected reality – something that could be a real thing.

What are your thoughts about London and what is being built there?
It is has become very dogmatic. There is one diagram that prevails across the whole town. And I deliberately drive around to look at new sites. They all have the same diagram.

London, more than it needs new buildings, needs a transport system. This enormous mess on the Embankment, trying to add a cycle lane, has created complete chaos. Should they instead elevate them, or put them on the river? They should do a transport symposium.

You have been very proactive in your defence of the Tokyo 2020 stadium. Why is that?
It is a complete stitch up. People say ‘Cardiff [Bay Opera House] was bad’. No. While it was very bad – and I’m not excusing Cardiff at all – this is worse.

But how can they cancel a project after three years, at the point where it was about to go on site? They want a Japanese architect. That is the bottom line.

It is a complete stitch up

I love Japan – I always thought there would be fair play. But no way, it is not fair play.

Who do you think should get the Royal Gold Medal next?
Mostly European people, like Wolf Prix. Or, say, Steven Holl. It is not about people liking – or not liking – their work. People forget that the 1970s and part of the 1980s was an impossible time to do any work. It was like a blackout.

But they carried on and persevered, and they should be acknowledged.

What is next for you? Do you still yearn to do a project with a social driver?
In all our projects we always have a space that I call the civic domain, even if it is not requested.

But I think social housing [for us] is doable. We should be able to do something really interesting.

However the problem with social housing  is that the subsidies have very strange rules. And that prevents schemes  from being interesting. The rules have to be altered.

For instance I’m curious what they are going to do at Elephant and Castle.

These are vast slabs, they are a mess. But you think you could add something to them.

So you could retrofit them and keep the community there?
I think so. Basically the diagram is not bad. But they are very crowded – that whole problem with minimum existence.

Now they have taken away two of them and the site is so vast.

[Some of the plans] are pushing the people out. It is a problem for London. It means that London will only be a city of bourgeoisie.

What is nice about London is that it is mixed. Everybody is in the centre. There should be some studies on inner-city, high-density projects.

Do events such as the refugee crisis make the profession look at itself again, and what it could do?
The situation is very political so it isn’t reliant on the profession [to solve]. But we need to research these issues so we can come up with better solutions. Maybe this is not fashionable but they should be practised in schools [in case there is a] crisis.

There’s a crisis of social housing everywhere

There is a crisis of social housing everywhere; it is heartbreaking. In Chicago all the slabs have mesh on them so people don’t jump off. This needs to be looked at.

Would you want to do this type of research?
I’d like to if they let me do it properly. It is a very honourable thing to do. For the inner city there are a lot of possibilities. You look at the amount of building going on in London; it is phenomenal. In the time I’ve lived here I’ve never seen so much building work.

But unlike in the 1960s nobody is doing any new cities, like Milton Keynes. They all, in theory, failed.

But they didn’t.

 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • My congratulations for Zaha. She is an intelligent person an incredibly creative. She deserves the price because she is a good architect, being a woman is not and should not be the issue. When are reporters going to stop fussing about being a woman?

    Eugenio Aguinaga
    Architect
    Madrid (Spain)

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  • Nathan Silver

    What is important about Zaha's work is her sovereign ability to understand and characterise expression with outcomes that are never trivial or insincere, and that few can resist. She is Britain's greatest architect today. Beyond more prizes, let's hope she receives the gratitude of being asked to build some consummate works in the country she has chosen as her new homeland.

    Nathan Silver RIBA

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