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Interview with Internationally Known Iraqi-born British Architect, Zaha Hadid

Aired September 14, 2011 - 05:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN ANCHOR: It's the centerpiece of Southern China's burgeoning cultural scene. On the banks of the Pearl River, the recently completed Guangzhou Opera House is an elaborate addition to a region on the rise.

The $200 million cultural center is expected to stage more than 200 shows a year. And, with its acoustically tuned grand theater, it caters to both Chinese and western opera needs. All this is the brainchild of acclaimed British architect, Zaha Hadid.

It's the first permanent structure in China for the Iraqi-born designer who is renowned for pushing the boundaries of architecture. She has already made her mark across much of the world with her signature style cemented in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. And, while some of her designs have divided opinion, she is regarded as one of the industry's best and was the first female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize.

This week, "Talk Asia" meets Zaha Hadid in Guangzhou to get a close up look at her latest creation.


RAO: Zaha, welcome to the program. It's wonderful to finally have you with us. So, we are here at the Guangzhou Opera House, which is one of yours. It must be an incredibly rewarding thing for you to sit here now.

ZAHA HADID, BRITISH-IRAQI ARCHITECT: It's really very exciting. I mean, I gave a talk earlier and I said it's kind of rare for you to give a talk in your own building, you know, and in an opera space. So, it's very exciting.

RAO: I imagine there must have been plenty of blood, sweat, and tears that went into doing something like this.

HADID: You know, architecture is really very difficult. I mean, it's very pleasurable, but it's also very difficult because you have to be continuously at it, like everything else you do, you know, in any profession. Architecture I think is particularly difficult because it requires so many people.

There are so many teams you have to coordinate. You have to coordinate all the consultants. Especially with a building like that which has a complex program. You have precision. You know, and then, you have to coordinate a site, you know. Yes, so it's quite complicated. It's like making a film, actually, except it takes maybe a bit longer. But still very rewarding.

RAO: This was your first project in mainland China. What were the pros and cons of working here?

HADID: Well, I mean, I'm kind of quite distant from it. I'm in London, you know. Everyone on the ground, I'm sure -- I'm sure there's kind of a learning process or learning curve. But it comes with any kind of job. It's not an unusual thing.

I first came here 30 years ago, when China had just opened up, just beginning to open up. I went from Hong Kong to -- I made a trip across China all the way to Beijing. I mean, it was a very different place. And even when I first came and when I first won this competition, it was also - - I mean, this doesn't exist around this. It was like a site on the Pearl River, so I saw this amazing change.

And, I think, as they build, they learned to do certain things better. And I think it's very exciting watching that, you know?



RAO: With the Grand Theater here, how much more complicated is it to work on something like that, something like an Opera House as opposed to a regular building? Because I guess, acoustics have to be front and center.

HADID: This theater is not asymmetrical and as a hall, just kind of goes about asymmetry in an opera house. But it's about volume. You know why a concert hall is about elongated space. They have a very different kind of quality, and so sound is different. So, I think it's about, you know, volume. How intimate the space would be even if they have many seating.

You have to be able to design a theater which is -- you know, this one has 1,800 seat theater, but it still feels a bit -- it still feels kind of -- when you are in it and watching a performance -- kind of an intimate space, right? You have to be able to achieve that.



RAO: Well, let's get on to your personal story. In 2004, you became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, which is sort of like the Oscars of the architectural world. And the words to introduce you were "Her architectural career has not been traditional or easy". How would you characterize your journey so far?

HADID: I think, you know, there's certain paths you take in your career and, you know, at the time when I finished school, I mean, you know, I was very young and you make a certain decision and away you go. But I really thought, even when I was in school, that there was a kind of a glimpse that there could be another kind of world, you know? In terms of what you build.

And, naively or not, I took that decision to pursue something which required a tremendous amount of research and hoping for a level of invention. And it was very difficult. And I'm thinking there was no one very accustomed to women architects. The first one in the profession and later within the field, so that was another difficulty, but also, the difficulty was that I was a foreigner.

You know, I was a foreigner in the UK, you know, and although I've lived here now most of my life there. So that was another difficulty. But it was really because of the extremeness of the work, you know. That one had to kind of fight. And, of course, these fights makes you not necessarily cynical, or whatever, it just makes you tougher.

You know, and you, you know, certain beliefs and strengthen your beliefs and I think it was an important -- although, at the time, difficult -- journey that was important.

RAO: Yes, absolutely, because you are famous for designing these buildings that, to others, are the stuff of dreams. They cannot possibly exist in reality. Some even said that your designs were outright unbuildable.

HADID: In Hong Kong, actually.

RAO: So you must be referring to your 1983 project on the peak.

HADID: The Hong Kong Peak, yes.

RAO: Right, which was sort of a spa and a sports complex.

HADID: Well, it was, you know, it was kind of a club, in a way. But, with that, part of me did, we thought, it should be more like a civic building. I mean, it's a nice idea. There was a lot of occupation at the time of dealing with a metropolis. And you have a place of release. You know, you release your -- you know, you relax and, you know, whatever.

The thing is, because -- first the way they were drawn -- they were not traditional drawings the way they looked, so, when people saw these kind of beams flying around, they thought, you know, it's not possible to do. But, actually, that project was easier to build than many of the other projects we actually took on later.

RAO: Coming up, we find out how this Bagdad-born girl became one of the world's most sought after architects.


RAO: Can you remember a deciding moment at which you realized that architecture was what you wanted to pursue for your life?

HADID: When I was very young, I was only maybe 10, 11-years-old, and, you know, at that age, you know, it's not really based on some sort of career development. You do it because something intrigued you and I think I started the vision in Bagdad. You know, at the time, also, there was a lot of projects done by major architects at the time.

Like, Frank Lloyd Wright was doing -- did the opera house -- it wasn't finished. And Le Corbusier did the stadium. So, I think that it was topical, you know? And there was a kind of this embrace by the Arab world because it was also the time of nation building and investing in architecture because it's kind of symbolic of their new era.

RAO: Tell me about the Iraq in which you grew up, as opposed to the Iraq that the world now sees on the news.

HADID: I remember very well, you know, when the revolution took place. And so, I remember Iraq being -- I mean, on one hand it was a very nice life. I remember all these kind of political changes. So, at a very young age, you become very conscious of politics.

But it was a very nice place to live. You know, people are wonderful, you know, and had a -- it was kind of -- not as cosmopolitan as Beirut, necessarily, but it was very liberal and open and, you know, I think it was a very good time.

RAO: Your family were well to do and politically active, but then you left after Saddam Hussein --

HADID: My parents did not leave, no. My parents stayed in Iraq --

RAO: Oh, they still stayed?

HADID: Yes, my parents stayed in Iraq. I left to school. I went to boarding school and then I went to university in London. So -- and I used to go back to Iraq, you know, every -- twice a year. Until the Iran-Iraq war, when I -- it was more difficult to go back and get an exit visa to leave.

RAO: You started your own company in 1979. Tell me about those early days of setting out on your own.

HADID: Well, I didn't start a company, I just worked in my house, which was a very small news house. I used to do competitions and do obviously -- early paintings were all done there. I mean, it was a tiny house. We had to kind of do a traffic jam situation to move the drawings around. And some of the friends actually are here whom I'm missing for a long time.

I remember this very well -- who came to the opening. Me, turning my board, which was where I was painting and drawing -- when they came for dinner, I would turn it around, and I would make it into the dining table. And, yes, there were -- then it was kind of still fun, because I was teaching and, you know, drawing, and doing all that. There was no pressure. There was some pressure from the, you know, friends and family, but not great pressure.



RAO: There was a time there when you were better known for projects that you'd worked on that weren't built than for those that were. And I suppose the best example of that was in 1994. It was the Cardiff Bay Opera House.

HADID: Right.

RAO: What, exactly, happened?

HADID: I think it was, you know -- first of all, Britain was not used to doing sort of open competitions where you might have a wild card winner. You know, you don't know who is going to win. The other issue, I think, that the Cardiff Bay people had made promises. So, frankly, they invited four people and then it was an open competition, which was four more.

So, then it was only eight. I was one of the eight. So it could not have been a total shock for me to win, because I was one of the eight. I mean, any one of us could have won it. But, from the first minute I won it, I felt something was not right.

I think also there was a collusion between them and other people in the establishment and I think that Lord Crickhowell, who was the chairman of the kind of opera house really believed in -- that the right thing would be done. That the best scheme would win, the right thing would be done, but I think in the meantime, there were a lot of things going on in the background.

Nobody would come out and say that's what went on.

RAO: Right.

HADID: Because it was -- I think it was awful. But everybody suspects and they know, but they will never say it.

RAO: Because the consensus seems to be that it was Welsh politicians who were very angry. They felt that they were being imposed upon by London.

HADID: Yes, but they accepted a competition and was the law. I mean, it was -- you see, what happened in Europe later -- or the same time -- by law, to do a publicly funded building, you have to go through a public competition process. You cannot do it. I mean, it could be an interview or it could be, you know, a paid competition, whatever. But it has to be done through that process.

Now, the project for the -- for all the Millennium projects had to go through that process, including the Tate, and so on. And I think then, some things went -- because it took so long -- something went around one of the politicians. But there was a collusion between the politicians and the Millennium Commission, which finally killed it by not giving it the money.

RAO: How did it affect you at the time?

HADID: It was terrible, really. I mean, it really was like a kind of a black cloud. A few months after they cancelled it, it was so depressing. I mean, we were all devastated. We had to go back up the next day and do the next competition, you know?

And then we were stigmatized and we couldn't win anything.

RAO: You did get back up on the horse and people did start coming to you again. There were small jobs at first, like a ski jump in Innsbruck and a tram station in Strasburg. But it was the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati that really --

HADID: Yes, the ski jump was a bit later. I mean, it undone all through competitions. Yes.

RAO: It must have been the best "so there" moment, though, when you got the art center.

HADID: I mean, I really don't feel about it that way, but it was really great, you know. You know, it split people off -- you know, those who really did not like it and those who liked it and those who were in between and went either way like in any kind of sort of election. Many people were very happy about it and they felt that, you know, it would be the beginning of something good.

RAO: Your temper has been called volcanic. Do you think that's accurate? Or are you misunderstood?



RAO: This is the BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany. The 2005 Zaha Hadid design integrates office space with three adjoining manufacturing halls. The centerpiece is an elevated conveyor, which carries vehicles in various production stages through this core building.

The revolutionary design earned Zaha Hadid numerous accolades, including her first of four nominations for the prestigious Sterling Award. She finally scooped that top prize in 2010 for the MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Art.


RAO: Take something like the MAXXI Museum in Rome, which you designed. The walls not only curve, they also change depth. When you're working on something as challenging as that, you know, with builders -- with a team, how on earth do you do it without knocking each other's blocks off?

HADID: Well, actually, a lot of builders are quite challenged by these kind of projects. And, you know, these buildings are very modest compared to any sort of civil engineering works, or their motorway bridges, you know, dams, whatever. They really are very -- they don't have enormous spans, they have big spans.

So we try to use that kind of, you know, audacity of structure in this kind of civil engineering way on these projects. In the beginning, when we do the drawings -- because the drawings have a level of complexity. Normal drawings, you know, like even of this building -- early on, they couldn't work out whether it was a drawing which was drawn wrong or the building. I think when you spend time to explain to people, it's not really.

RAO: Which of your buildings are you most proud to put your name to?

HADID: Well, so far, I think, you know, most of them. Because they all came at different times and they also represent different times of my career. So, it's very difficult. It's like asking somebody who is their favorite child.

RAO: I know.

HADID: But, I have a particular kind of affection for Vitra, because it was really my first building.



HADID: We do so many drawings, and yet you cannot predict everything.

RAO: Yes.

HADID: And there are moments, whether in this building or in Rome or whatever, that you see something which you have not totally predicted and it's very exciting. That is really exciting.

RAO: Your personality has been often spoken of in hushed tones. I've interviewed plenty of architects over the years. And it is true that almost all of them do have a very forceful quality about them. I think you're probably no exception. But your temper has been called "volcanic". Do you think that's accurate? Or are you misunderstood?

HADID: I'm funnier than the others, maybe.


HADID: You know, I mean, as I said, it's not seen as kind of strange if a guy would -- how they lose their temper or quiet up on their people in the office or whatever. You know, and also, I don't mince my words, you know? I could be very charming and diplomatic, but I'm not, really.

Somebody once said -- a client, actually -- you could be seen as rude. And I said, "I am not rude, but I realize I don't pander to people". I don't enough compliment and flatter. So, by not doing it, you are seen as rude or have a volcanic temper.

RAO: There was a time in which your staff wore T-shirts that said "Would they call me a diva if I was a guy?" What, exactly, have you faced as a woman in this still traditionally male game?

HADID: It's really changed a lot. I mean, at the beginning, it was very difficult. It wasn't just one thing. It was the woman thing -- I mean, they would never call a guy a diva, you know? But if I'm a woman, oh, I'm difficult. I mean, the worst thing is I didn't know I'm difficult. But if you are a guy, you are opinionated -- you have an opinion. You know, you're not difficult.

There was that kind of -- until this day there is prejudice. So, you have to kind of get over it.

RAO: You're about to start work on your first project in your home country, Iraq. How are you feeling about that?

HADID: I think that, you know, no matter how long you live outside your country, you know, there is something very wonderful about speaking the language, you know? I feel very touched by all these Iraqis I've seen who are actually in Iraq now. The Central Bank in Bagdad -- I mean, you know, they just really picked up the phone and they called. And, you know, we get messages by other people saying, you know, "How much to do this?" and "Why don't you come and do that?" And I say, well how could I do it if I'm not asked to do it?

I'm not going to -- well, I'm not going to go and solicit work. And so the head of the Central Bank -- the governor of the Central Bank -- called us. And then, a week later, actually, he told them, "I called Zaha and she would like to do this job". And they said, "Oh, we've been trying to reach her, we've been trying to contact her, what did you do?" And he just said, "I picked up the phone and called her". And that's all that's really needed.

I mean, they are so thrilled, and it's very touching. And I'm very excited by this.

RAO: Zaha, thank you so much for spending time with us today. It was a real pleasure to meet you.

HADID: Thank you. Thank you very much.