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Congratulations, Zaha on your investiture as a Dame

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There is nothing like a dame - especially Dame Zaha, writes Paul Finch

Dame Zaha - who would have thought it when Ms Hadid was a feisty AA student, a teacher and painter, famous for supposedly using Perrier water to achieve certain artistic effects (actually, it was plain water in a Perrier bottle), then the winner of both the Hong Kong Peak competition (abandoned) and the Cardiff Bay opera house (shamefully abandoned).

By the mid-1990s you might have taken a bet that Zaha would leave Britain for a teaching job at a US university, giving up trying to run a real office. But she had a passion not just to design, but to build. And when she found clients of like mind, the architecture began to flow, to take on a life of its own, as happens when building becomes a way of life rather than an exceptional occurrence.

The competition wins were accelerating by the end of the 20th century, with the MAXXI building and major schemes for BMW, and then the Wolfsburg complex cemented her reputation for being able to handle big projects, big ideas and big budgets.

Subsequent growth of the office to several hundred people, with a job list spread throughout the world, may have mystified critics who assumed that theory could not be turned into productive practice, or who assumed that an Iraqi woman (now a British citizen) could never make it in the big league of international practice.

The success of the office, and Zaha’s own reputation, have spawned innumerable stories. Example: competition juror to Zaha: ’ We told you not to bring a model.’ Zaha: ‘Our office designs with models so your instruction was ridiculous’; Gulf client to Zaha: ‘What will the site plan look like?’ Zaha: ‘Like this.’ (Unfurls scarf and throws it on a map where it lands in immaculate parametric form). It doesn’t matter whether the stories are true, the point is that Zaha is the sort of personality who inspires them.

But isn’t she difficult to work with? Isn’t the office a maelstrom of drama and tension? Aren’t people fired and re-hired in the same week?

Well, Zaha Hadid Architects isn’t the civil service. But its success over the years is based on an extraordinary level of loyalty between Zaha and staff - a loyalty which is two-way and which can outlast ordinary employer-employee relationships.

There is also her long-standing creative partnership with Patrik Schumacher, a relationship that has conquered the world.

And, of course, there is Zaha herself - actually quite vulnerable underneath that super-tough professional carapace, somebody who at certain stages of her career has needed support and nurture. Always a pleasure to talk to, knowledgeable, gossipy, generous, witty and fun. Time always passes quickly in her company. Above all she is talented; there aren’t too many great women architects in the world who have had to make their life, office and reputation in an overseas country - and one with no great track record in supporting male architects, let alone women.

So congratulations, Zaha, on your investiture as a Dame this week. You have shown a loyalty to Britain which is reciprocated. With or without the honour, we love you!


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