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Many in the profession still consider Hadid an exotic anomaly

Rory Olcayto
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Why is it that Zaha Hadid, recipient of this year’s Gold Medal, is still thought of as an outsider? asks Rory Olcayto

It has only taken the Royal Institute of British Architects 167 years to get round to it, but finally the hallowed institution has given its top prize – the Royal Gold Medal – exclusively to a woman. Sure, Ray Eames, Patty Hopkins and Sheila O’Donnell have been honoured in this way too, but in partnership with their male partners. Sometimes even being part of a prominent double act has not been enough for RIBA to recognise female architectural talent, as the instance of Jane Drew missing out when Maxwell Fry was given his medal in 1964 sadly proves.

The total number of female recipients until now, then, is precisely three. (And, no, the 800,000 Catalonian women and girls – half the population of Barcelona, which was awarded the medal in 1999, don’t count). So, firstly, well done to the RIBA for taking this important step in recognising Zaha Hadid with the Gold Medal. Secondly, some advice to the RIBA, if I may: don’t let this be a one-off. There are many other deserving candidates. But you know that.

When Hadid receives her latest award she’ll have done the grand slam: she’s bagged the Pritzker, the Praemium Imperiale, the Stirling (twice) and now the Gold Medal. It’s not as if she needs the recognition; but who would argue that she doesn’t deserve it? As she tells Richard Waite in her exclusive interview with the AJ this week, despite her success and her seemingly all-conquering practice, she’s still very much an outsider. There is still a problem, she says, of how women are treated in the profession; but in her case she’s not sure if it’s because she’s a woman, a foreigner, or because, in her words, she does ‘funny work’.

The profession as a whole should develop an appropriate ethical practice

I’d say it’s all three. The British architectural profession is not renowned for its diversity, so many in it still consider Hadid an exotic anomaly. Consequently, she is treated differently from other starchitects. The tendency for the press to put Hadid centre stage when discussing the abuse of workers in Qatar, for example, and demanding she become a spokeswoman protecting their rights, is typical. I cannot think of other leading names being held to account in this manner. Did anyone ask Norman Foster whether he was happy to ennoble Saudi Arabia with its first skyscraper in 1994, when that nation’s track record on women’s rights is among the worst in the world? (And, if they did, did they suggest he might, perhaps, campaign on this matter?) And why did Newsnight anchor Emily Maitlis not challenge Richard Rogers this week over his role in ensuring London’s house prices are among the highest in the world, when he made that point on her show in a discussion about the housing crisis? My view is that none of these architects should be demonised in this manner, and that the profession as a whole should develop an appropriate ethical practice.

Still, dwelling on hard luck stories is misleading, because it’s too simplistic. Let’s face it, Hadid has done alright. But then that is the point, surely. Yes, she’s got friends in high places who have helped along the way, but that is business, is it not? So, for once, in light of her forthcoming RIBA award, let’s merely consider the quality of her work, her ability to inspire, and her strength in building a viable global business and an alluring, sought-after brand. That, after all, ain’t easy. Especially if you’re a woman and a foreigner who does funny work.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • 'The tendency for the press to put Hadid centre stage when discussing the abuse of workers in Qatar' was amply demonstrated on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme this morning - repeating claims of many deaths on her site (despite the BBC's own 'More or Less' programme on 6th June counselling caution in assessing the facts).
    Zaha denied that there'd been any deaths on her site, and was clearly appalled at the BBC's repeat of a claim that had already been discredited in court.

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    I heard the Zaha Hadid interview and was alarmed by the tenor of the questions, the presumption behind them of the architects' responsibility for outcomes that are actually well beyond their reach and influence, as well as the poverty of the research. I thought in the circumstance Zaha responded magnificently in the face of extreme and unwarranted duress.

    I also thought that the focus on her sex, and the accusation that she is 'scary' for a woman was as unhelpful to the audience as it was clearly uninteresting to Zaha. As my psychologist wife pointed out, no-one would have put the same question to Lord Rogers or Foster!

    Remember how architects were at one point routinely singled out for the legacy of the social housing built under successive post war governments? The criticism usually failed to recognise the powerful forces behind the political/industrial complex that gave rise to the worst excesses - just check out the Crossman Diaries to get a sense of what was going on in Harold Wilson's government. There is certainly a job of work to be done to prevent a repetition of this travesty and I can see two major strands:

    Firstly, we should take up the recommendations of Paul Morell's Edge Commission report that the professional institutes should join forces on a code of ethical conduct.

    Secondly, the institutes should support their members who wrestle to deliver the best possible outcomes in less than satisfactory circumstances by clarifying what is, and what is not in their control.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner HTA Design LLP
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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