Curves of steel
People are not used to women speaking their minds, says Zaha Hadid. 'They think you should be mute - if you're not you're difficult and if you have an opinion you are bad tempered.'
A rare woman in the cluster of so-called 'starchitects' whose designs are reconfiguring skylines around the world, Hadid is by turns brusque and bold, unflappable and uncompromising. She is also unstinting in praise ... for many of her own buildings, which is perhaps where she breaks the stereotype of the diffident female.
Mention the luminous bubble-wrapped 'Water Cube' National Aquatics Centre built by PTW Architects for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and she says it doesn't compare with the aquatic centre she designed for this summer's Games in London, where she lives. 'The interior is definitely better,' she says. 'No question about that.'
Ask her about media reports of leaking and other construction problems at the Guangzhou Opera House and she says: 'I don't know where they got this idea that it's leaking and falling apart. The interiors are stunning. It's very close by; go and have a look.'
Hadid, in Hong Kong last week to visit the booth she created for Galerie Gmurzynska at Art HK, is quick to dispel negativity surrounding the opera house, but concedes: 'The tiling on the outside is not done properly; I would like it to be better.'
The stand offered clues to Hadid's success as the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Aside from her nature-defying Liquid Glacial table, the legs of which resemble transparent stalactites, the booth served as a reminder that fearlessness is a trait that goes back to her career beginnings.
One particular project on display at the fair also explained why she considers Hong Kong the place that elevated her name among the greats. In the early 1980s, Baghdad-born Hadid distinguished herself by winning an international design competition for a residential and club development on The Peak's Mount Austin Road. Although never built (the developer apparently went bankrupt), the structure, which seems conceptually to lacerate its surroundings with architectural shards, left a legacy. 'That project was very important and seminal - if I can say so myself - for me and for the profession. It was drawn in such a radical way it made every student want to do something like that.'
The HK$100,000 prize money enabled her to set up an office in London. 'The [Peak] design was very unusual, very abstract,' says Hadid. Suggest that it was deemed fantastical, however, and her response is terse. 'Somebody said it was unbuildable and this became the sentence echoed for 30 years. The person who said it had no idea what he was talking about,' she says. 'What's happened since is that the dogma [of what makes a building] has been broken.'
Hadid has played a major role in turning grand designs into reality, several of which, she says, are close to her heart. Among them are the Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art, in Cincinnati, her only building to date in the US; and the Maxxi: National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, in Italy. 'We can predict so many things about a project, but not everything,' she says. 'Like now in Rome you have people gathering outside the Maxxi. They bring their chairs and sit there.' According to The New York Times, fans sit in the gardens and contemplate Hadid's design in the shade created by giant faux flowers.
Several of her half dozen projects in China underscore her predilection for fluid, curvilinear shapes, which appear light years ahead of her linear first-built project: the blade-like Vitra Fire Station in Germany, now used to exhibit its collection of chairs.
It's not that she has developed an aversion to corners but, as she points out, 'We have 360 degrees. Ninety is only one of them.'
Hadid, who studied mathematics before architecture, adds that buildings can have different geometries and that there is a movement away from the idea of mass-produced structures. Interesting then that, partly because the Arab Spring has halted projects in the Middle East, her focus is increasingly directed towards China, the world's factory.
Among her mainland projects is Shanghai's Sky Soho, an office and retail complex shaped like freehand calligraphy. Then there are the three nodules that make up Beijing's Wangjing Soho, begun in 2009 and also for mixed use. They appear engaged in a dance, the way she sees it, 'each embracing the other from a continuously changing angle'. Also in the capital is Galaxy Soho, which, apart from housing offices and shops, will be an entertainment venue. Perhaps unkindly, that project has been likened to buttocks, a description that doesn't bother Hadid unduly, although she sees it as 'kind of misogynistic'. 'The symbolism is not really necessary,' she says, also castigating as a cliche the description of her former teacher Rem Koolhaas' recently completed CCTV headquarters in Beijing as a giant taking a squat. 'It's a great project, and it's the press that gives them these names,' she says.
As for her first permanent structure to be built in Hong Kong - the Polytechnic University's Innovation Tower, to be completed next year - she shakes her head at a reference to its being shaped like the bow of a ship. The building, which will house PolyU's School of Design, engages with topography, she says.
'Architects always try to emulate nature and this was a way to understand how to do a building as if it were a landscape. It's more like a rock than a boat ... with striation.'
If 'formidable' comes to mind it should be pointed out that Hadid's own rock-hard exterior has soft points. Showing off interior images of her Aquatics centre, and boasting that it helped London clinch the Olympics, she suddenly sounds less than tough when asked whether she will be a proud member of the audience poolside. 'I hope so,' she says, feebly. 'I have applied for tickets. If I get them I will go.'
So the designer of one of the Games main buildings hasn't been invited to see her own creation in use. 'I don't think they've forgotten but I think it's very politically correct: that there is an obsession with doing things right,' she says. 'And I understand that. You cannot satisfy everybody all the time.'
SHE'S GOT IT MADE
Apart from buildings, Zaha Hadid has designed everything from furniture to homeware to jewellery to footwear, much of which emulates her architecture.
Her portfolio even includes the Z-Car, made by British kit-car company GTM Cars. That means she could eat off her own crockery (which includes a bowl designed for Sawaya & Moroni), wear her own bling (Swarovski), read under her own lamps (Artemide) and exercise in her own shoes (Lacoste).
Except she doesn't.
'I'm not obsessive about having everything done by me,' she says. But she would like to have in her 'very white' flat in Clerkenwell, London, the latest piece of kit in her collection: the polished Plexiglass Liquid Glacial dining table (below), designed for David Gill Galleries.
It would fight for space with her Scoop sofa, Belu bench, Crevasse vases and the Wirl sculpture-cum-outdoor furniture, designed for City Art Square at the Sha Tin Town Hall Plaza.