Ten years ago she was the architect who couldn’t get anything built. Now, from the Olympic Aquatics Centre to a new Serpentine gallery, from Beijing to Baku, Zaha Hadid’s buildings are everywhere. But she divides opinion: she’s a genius, say some, but to critics she has lost touch with her original ideals
Zaha Hadid was flying to Frankfurt to give a talk, in which I was her interlocutor. Her plane taxied from its stand, developed a minor fault, and stopped. She refused to believe the reassurances that the delay would be brief, and demanded that she be put on another flight. Her wish was impossible – to return to the stand, to unload and reload her baggage in the hold, it couldn’t be done – but Hadid insisted, vigorously. The cabin staff tried to calm her, warn her, admonish her, until a stewardess noticed that this was the same woman whose picture was in the current edition of the in-flight magazine, attached to a profile of the Pet Shop Boys, for whom she had designed a set. “Are you Zaha Hadid?” she asked. Then the impossible became possible, and the architect got to change planes.
There are hundreds of stories like this about Hadid and they tell the same story, which is also that of her life: the testing of boundaries, the determination to get her way, the fury, the indifference to practical constraints, the opposition of conventional society, here represented by the cabin crew. And then the ultimate victory aided by fame, a fame earned through personality and talent.
To say she divides opinion is to put it mildly. To some, including several fellow architects that I spoke to, she is a tyrant; her work is “unbelievably arrogant” and “oppressive; I don’t believe she cares what it’s like actually to be in one of her buildings”. To others she’s a genius, and a hero, the only ground common to all these views being a remark once made by her mentor, Rem Koolhaas, that she is “a planet in her own inimitable orbit”. The truth is that she is all these things, and more. She tests everyone – her staff, her clients, the users of her buildings, and herself – and offers an unspoken deal. If you survive all this, I will make something fantastic, and you could be part of it, is roughly how it goes, and people’s view of her will depend on which part of the deal they experience most.