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LIFE

Architect Zaha Hadid's distinctive style a hit in China, Hong Kong

The Iraqi-born, London-trained architect's distinctive neo-futuristic style has brought her worldwide fame and is helping shape the future of China, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 11:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 10:03am

Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid is an anomaly in her field and a force in the design world, not least because her fluid designs consistently push boundaries.

"One thing which has always interested me is the idea of the public domain, and I think in a way that is a political space - an open space for anybody to use," she says.

Her architectural practice has tried to incorporate that notion into all its projects from the start.

I think China right now will go down in history as an amazing moment, the same way they built America
Zaha Hadid 

In 1983, she developed a design for a leisure club on The Peak in Hong Kong, but what could have been a major tourist attraction was never built.

"It was such a seminal project," she says, describing the vision as "floating horizontal layers and floating voids".

Three decades later, however, one of those visions was realised at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where the Innovation Tower was completed in September to much fanfare.

Hadid's concept of a deconstructed tower takes on her signature flowing curves and makes an attention-grabbing new landmark against the skyline of Kowloon.

"It was a small tower without any pre-existent idea of how you can do a high-rise," she says. "And I like that it's an institute for education."

Hadid was approached by the university to design the building during her travels to Hong Kong for lectures and workshops.

Dressed in black, as she nearly always is, Hadid sports a striking geometric metal cuff on her wrist, one she designed herself. She has ventured into interior and product design in the past decade, creating installations for private members' clubs and luxury retailers as well as partnering with fashion houses.

On a visit to Hong Kong last month, she was engaged in a flurry of PR brouhaha, including an opening for the Stuart Weitzman store at IFC Mall - which she designed - as well as an event to launch her vase collaboration with luxury glass purveyor Lalique.

Born in Baghdad in 1950, Hadid grew up in Iraq while it was in the process of "identity-making under a new government and a new republic".

"That moment in history in that part of the world had an impact on me," she says. "There was an interest in everything in that period in Iraq. It was post-war but it was rebuilding. And there was a general sense of optimism from that part of the world, so that was very exciting."

She studied mathematics in Beirut, then moved to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association. There she studied with Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, for whom she went on to work at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam after graduation.

Hadid started her own practice in London in 1980, and began developing the fluid lines, organic sensual shapes and almost otherworldly designs that she became known for. (Her concept for a soccer stadium in conservative Qatar has stirred controversy, with some likening the design to giant female genitalia.)

She was the first woman, and first Arab, to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize (the architectural equivalent of a Nobel), in 2004. She also bagged the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011.

Brisk, confident, and no-nonsense, Hadid carries herself in a manner which some find intimidating, but it's an attitude that strikes more chords simply because she is a woman. She believes career prospects for women in architecture have improved since she started, but adds: "I can really only talk about myself.

"In the West, it has progressed for me in the cultural domain, but I think that it is still much more difficult for me to enter the corporate domain, in Britain to be specific.

"You have little access as a woman to the world where the men hang about and network," she says. "They go out and play golf or boat or have a drink… not because they don't want to mix with you; it's just because you're not part of that world. Maybe it will eventually change in other ways."

Her training at the Architectural Association, which she describes as a forward-thinking institution that did not differentiate between sexes, led her to assume that the life as a practising architect would be similar.

But transferring that liberal dynamic into the work environment has been more difficult, she says, because "no matter what, women are objectified".

Hadid believes a lack of confidence is the major reason for the dearth of women at the highest levels of architecture, and is hopeful that can change.

"From early childhood, from school, from university to the workplace, once they build that confidence, they can conquer such boundaries," she says.

Hadid knows a thing or two about conquering boundaries. Her approach has evolved over the decades, but she has consistently pushed into a kind of "sensual futurism". Her buildings often look different from different angles, providing a level of public engagement and vibrancy. Even from the early days, there was the impact of fluid lines (like waves of water or air) on her work.

"When we used to discuss things like fluid space, we didn't really know what that would be. Or 20 years ago, we would discuss liquid space, but we had no idea of what that would imply … obviously, it wasn't actually literal, so it took some time to translate and understand these concepts."

The structures can seem jarring in the way they stand out from the environment, but this is not to say that she ignores the surroundings.

"Especially in the early stages when you look at all the lines through the site," she says. "When you look at [the MAXXI Museum in] Rome, I think it's a really contextualised project, even though it doesn't look anything like the context."

Even with Beijing's Galaxy SoHo, a mega complex of shops, offices, and restaurants featuring four interlinking egg-like towers, Hadid says that the design was interpreted as a reference to "the idea of landscape and how the space could work".

The evolution of Hadid's style is sometimes attributed to a change in medium. In the early years, she mainly sketched out her concepts on black paper; now that process has been largely taken over by computerised design.

"I think hand skills have, in some ways, vanished," she says.

As much as she misses drawing, the sophistication of computerised design has allowed her to resolve some issues of complexity. Increasingly powerful software makes it economical to do the complex calculations required to turn geometric shapes into concrete reality.

In China, she has fast become one of the main architects shaping the landmarks of changing cityscapes. Her most exciting projects have included commercial developments in Beijing with SoHo China, and the spectacular Guangzhou Opera House on the banks of the Pearl River.

Her firm also developed the Changsha Meixihu International Culture and Arts Centre, a sprawling cultural complex overlooking the city's Meixi Lake. Made up of three separate buildings - a contemporary art museum, a grand theatre and a multipurpose hall - the complex will be linked by intersecting walkways.

"It has just gone on site and I think it could be quite an interesting form," Hadid says. "I designed it as a kind offlower of a building … a fresh diagram."

Although she deals with tight deadlines in China, she says it's worth it because the projects are so unique in scope.

Perhaps due to her background in Iraq, Hadid is more forgiving of the challenges faced by a rapidly developing country and culture.

"China became the land of opportunity," she says of the building boom and shifting social ambitions. "I think they are not scared of experimentation. People were always misunderstanding that, and always imposing certain ideas on China. But it's an incredible thing, I think it will go down in history as an amazing moment, the same way they built America."

jing.zhang@scmp.com