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Originally posted 1.26.2012 at www.Forbes.com
‘The only thing I could have done to make them accept me was to water everything down — and I wasn’t prepared to do that.’
When architect Zaha Hadid walks into the Philadelphia Museum of Art, conversation stops. Dressed all in black,she strides purposefully across the vast exhibition hall, her presence nearly dwarfing even the mural-sized Marc Chagall stretching from floor to ceiling behind her.
Hadid’s larger-than-life persona is a frequent topic of conversation in the architecture world, and in concert with the gravity-defying, curvilinear buildings she creates, has earned her a reputation as the diva of architecture. It’s a term applied by admirers and critics alike, to which she responds bluntly “You wouldn’t call me a diva if I were a guy.”
Born in Baghdad and the first woman to achieve the prestigious Pritzker prize for architecture (awarded to her in 2004 on a stage built for Catherine the Great), Hadid is accustomed to bucking the status quo. The exhibition Zaha Hadid: Form in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, full of her biomorphic, fluid product design, is an apt descriptor of Hadid herself: Dynamic, unapologetic and utterly fearless.
Currently working on projects including the aquatics center for the 2012 London Olympics, she tops lists like the Forbes Top 100 Most Powerful Women, and TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, yet her path has not been as smooth as her swooping designs. She talks candidly and a little ferociously about her rise to the top, and how being a woman has simultaneously challenged and freed her to pursue her own career trajectory.
Westley: In 1980 you founded ZahaHadid Architects out of your London apartment. How did your colleagues and clients respond to your early work?
Hadid: I had a tremendous support system, but I experienced quite a lot of negativity. People said that my work was not buildable because it was too wild — or it seemed too wild to them — and because my drawings were done differently. Everything was challenged.
Was it challenged because you were a woman in a male-dominated field?
People thought that because I was a woman, I would do ‘soft’ architecture. I didn’t let that have an impact on my work, but I also didn’t fit with the status quo. People had no idea what a female architect should or should not do, and so they didn’t relate to my work. I think they thought I should be doing interior design or something — but not architecture.
How did that affect your approach to architecture ?
It gives you freedom but it’s also very challenging; in effect it either suffocates or liberates you. Since there was never a preconceived idea that I had to behave in a certain way,I wasn’t chained by the stereotypical idea of the male architect and could pursue the projects that were interesting to me.In the beginning, people didn’t take me seriously, but in many cases I encountered less prejudice for being a woman than I did for being non-Western. It bothered me, but it didn’t ever deter me. But it does matter… the foreign thing does matter.
How did you deal with the prejudice you encountered?
It really didn’t stop me, but mostly because I wasn’t aware of the prejudices against me 20 years ago. Someone once made a comment about terrorists operating out of the AA [Architectural Association School of Architecture], and 10 years later I finally realized it wasn’t meant as a compliment. I always had tremendous support from my office, but during the mid-’90s we went through some very difficult times when we had no money and felt very stigmatized. I made a conscious decision at that time to carry on, and we made some stunning projects then — even though we were going through tough times.
Why have critics and admirers alike latched onto the image of you as a diva? Do you think it’s an apt description, or an attempt to temper your success by referring to your gender?
Yes, I’ve been called a diva many times. Somepeople say it as a compliment, some tongue-in-cheek, but I think they say it because there wasn’t another woman who was doing what I was doing so that’s how they described me.I suppose I should look or dress or behave like a guy, but I really don’t care about these things. I think whatever I do or say shouldn’t matter; people should only respond to my professional work. Also, people expect women to be docile, but it’s not in my nature and I think it’s a waste of time. I don’t put up with any crap; maybe I would be more successful if I were less honest, but that’s not the way I operate.
You’ve consistently challenged the conventions of your profession and have completed more than 950 prominent projects in 44 countries, from the MAXXI Museum in Rome, to the Guangzhou Opera House in China, to the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center. To what do you owe your success?
Hard work. And what is seen as originality. In the beginning, I did things differently. I think people thought maybe I was refreshing and maybe a little bit exciting. Italso had to do with trying to look at the language in a different way. You can’t reinvent the wheel but you can rewrite certain scripts — and they don’t have to be in line with people’s expectations. I believe in defying convention. And I don’t believe that things can only appear in one way.
Would you change anything about your early approach to architecture?
People thought I should be more flexible. More of an operator. And I probably still should be more of an operator. I can’t say I shouldn’t do the schmoozing, but I don’t like it. Everything is different about me — my language, the woman thing… it took a while for them to accept all these differences. The only thing I could have done to make them accept me back then was to water everything down — and I wasn’t prepared to do that.
After traveling around the world as a professional polo groom, Lindsay Westley landed in Philadelphia as arts & culture editor of a small daily newspaper and then in the communications department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now writing about art, design, architecture, travel and outdoor adventures from my home near Burlington, Vt. Follow her on Twitter at @LindsayJWestley.