"Architecture is not a medium of personal expression for me" says Zaha Hadid

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Zaha Hadid has rejected claims that her architecture is self-indulgent and wilful, believing that she is "widely misunderstood" by the mainstream.

Addressing an audience during her Royal Gold Medal lecture last night, the Iraqi-born British architect said projects like her Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku were driven by an ambition for architectural progress, rather than personal indulgences.

"Architecture is not a medium of personal expression for me," she said. "To interpret it as striving for individual expression is to misunderstand it. This misunderstanding is often linked to the dismissal of my work as self-indulgent or wilful."

"However, for me there was never any doubt that architecture must contribute to society's progress and ultimately to our individual and collective wellbeing," she added.

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid
The Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku was named Design of the Year by London's Design Museum in 2014

The talk was held at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, ahead of Hadid being awarded the Royal Gold Medal for architecture – the first time a woman has won the prize in her own right in 167 years. The award recognises buildings including the London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre and the Galaxy Soho complex in Beijing.

Hadid said the aim of all her architectural projects – whether private and public – is to address 21st-century challenges and opportunities.

"I have always believed in progress and in creativity's role in progress," she said. "That's why I remain critical of any traditionalism."



It was these challenges, she claimed, that initially led her towards the types of complex and curved forms embraced by the Russian Avant-Garde – yet she insisted that her work has very different goals from visual arts.

"[Architecture] performs and facilitates everyday life. This is very different from art's role of contemplation, expression or provocation," she said.

"Buildings and programmes need to break open and embrace each other, even interpenetrate," she added. "This requires the spatial complexity and openness."

Messner Mountain Museum Corones by Zaha Hadid Architects
Zaha Hadid completed a museum for renowned climber Reinhold Messner at the top of Alpine peak Mount Kronplatz in 2015

Hadid will receive her medal in a ceremony later today. Her nomination was supported by Archigram founder Peter Cook, who described the architect as "our heroine" in his citation.

It comes at the end of a tumultuous year for Hadid. In July, her plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium was scrapped in spite of two years of design work, and she also had a run-in with a BBC Radio 4 presenter over a series of wrongful accusations.

Other projects she has completed in the last year include a museum for renowned climber Reinhold Messner at the top of an Alpine peak, and a mirror-clad facility for the University of Oxford.

  • Concerned Citizen

    “Methinks she doth protest too much.”

  • guest

    History will look kindly on Zaha Hadid. Her architecture has pushed the boundaries of what people thought conceivable.

    • spadestick

      You obviously have not seen architecture far more adventurous and bold than Zaha’s.

      • Tim_

        Name someone more adventurous. I’m not a fan of her or her politics either, but she did push the profession into new possibilities.

        • spadestick

          I will start with Niemeyer from Brazil, and end with Lautner from the US. Too many to count. Saarinen, Wright, Miralles… even the whimsical Gaudi. These were people far ahead of their time. Eladio Dieste. Iannis Xenakis.

          • Roberto Sideris

            Jean Nouvel even.

          • JosephSiri

            All fantastic architects but how about a contemporary? You clearly have a mid-20th century bias.

          • tim-allen

            I think the challenger’s question was rhetorical, but you responded literally with the names of historic architects who were adventurous in their time. I think the challenger’s question requires you to respond with architects in our modern times. Otherwise, you could respond with any architect who shook the establishment in any era.

            Regardless of who is or was, more or less adventurous, I think the point is that Zaha Hadid is pioneering parametric design technology to create adventurous structures today, and using tough negotiating skills to actually get
            them built.

        • Durgen Jensen

          Diller + Scofidio’s Blur building.

    • Think

      I am sure you are right.

  • Durgen Jensen

    It’s clear by the lifeless, soulless, and total lack of expression in her projects that it is not a medium for personal expression for her. Computers have no feelings!

    • SteveLeo

      What if that is her personality though…

  • HeywoodFloyd

    The making of architecture is on some level an artistic endeavour, so of course architecture is a medium for personal expression; it is so for all architects.

    For her to claim it isn’t belies her staggering capacity for self-delusion. If her and her cronies weren’t so hell bent on denying the iconographic status of their buildings they would be free to admit it, but instead we are treated to sophomoric caveats like ‘those who don’t agree with me have misunderstood me’, and the rhetorical cards come tumbling down.

    Come to think of it, coming as it does at the expense of any semblance of comprehensible investigations into physical, tectonic or social contexts, artistry is really all ZHA has going for them. Why not just embrace it?

    • tim-allen

      I’m not sure whether you’ve come to bury or praise Caesar. What I read is, “Zaha Hadid has rejected claims that her architecture is self-indulgent and wilful, believing that she is ‘widely misunderstood’ by the mainstream.” I believe this statement is true as well as diplomatic.

      As I understand it, the structures generated by Hadid’s parametric design technology are a starting point created by a computer algorithm and not the architect’s self-indulgence or will.

      The architect then makes artistic choices from the fantastical possibilities generated by the technology, completes the details, and engineers a buildable structure. Isn’t that what architects have always done?

      • HeywoodFloyd

        What architects have always done is a potentially lengthy and tangential topic, all I know is that to me her statements are rhetorically permeable, just like her work.

        I don’t think she was making a distinction between the parametrically generated form and one arrived at though more traditional means, but if she was maybe the medal should be awarded to the plug-in?

  • Abé Pé

    OK, well… I hope she believes in what she says.

  • fadv

    I mean, even as a Zaha hater, I can say she’s right. Architecture is rarely ‘self indulgent’. It’s only the public’s scary lack of knowledge about design that makes anything ‘different’ seem like it could only fulfil the architects self interest.

    The idea of a progressive culture of design is simply non-existent for many people. More design education is the only thing that can correct this mindset. I myself didn’t know a single thing about architecture or design before I started university!

    • Francis_J

      Well I agree about your point of the design education, but who’s going to take it though? It worked for us because we were actually interested in it.

    • arjunny

      Like what you say there and it indeed is scary! But it has been thus ever since I can remember. General population has always been slow to catch up. Sometimes by centuries.

  • nig bipples

    Dezeen, I appreciate very much the projects and the writing on your site but please have this piece in particular proofread – there are various grammatical errors throughout!

  • traian musatescu

    Nature will be harsh with plastic Zaha, and her clients will look like fools. Just a matter of time.

    • Millionaires have a knack for covering up their blunders. This is Zaha’s safety net.

    • tim-allen

      Do you have a rationale for this opinion?

  • Ralph Kent

    Anyone else have the feeling ZHA are anxious that that game’s up/the world is out to get them? Someone has already posted about perhaps spending more time designing, less time bemoaning.

    Between all of Zaha’s laments and Choo Choo’s rants in BD / Twitter/ evening lectures against his ‘critics’ I can’t help but wonder if it’s all getting to them now that even the Chinese are getting bored of the aesthetic?

    I wonder – if they were just a bit more upfront about it all – it is wilful expressionism ** AND THAT’S OBVIOUSLY FINE ** then there wouldn’t be all the controversy and bitching?

    My impression is that what irks the design community / architecture profession most about Schumacher in particular is his very condescending and high-handed attitude to anyone who doesn’t regard his way of designing as truly the most sophisticated – almost ‘correct’ – way of working. The rest of us are deemed ‘luddites’ who need to get into the digital design age.

    And there’s the rub. I would love to see Patrik and his team with their undoubted fantastic computing skills to use their grasshopper / complex algorithms to solve housing. One would have thought that it would be ideal – apply the various codes, put in the site parameters, put in the budget and then start to arrive at an optimal massing, which would then become an optimal mix, which would the optimal fenestration, cladding and evolve into an optimal building.

    It could be a very rational, rigorous process, a true parametric exercise. It would be fascinating to see the outcome when driven by important and meaningful parameters. They would clear up in mass housing.

    But instead we have this faux- parametricism – where the first and primary parameter is the fluid external appearance of the building – and if there is a parameter for cost / buildability, its ranking is something like 500 in the list.

    I know, I know I just don’t ‘get it’.

    • tim-allen

      No, I don’t think that you “just don’t ‘get it'”. I think your wish is admirable. But I also think it’s harder to parameterize socially responsible housing than you imagine.

  • Vicente Fictício Cruz

    Zahahahahadid!

  • Steve c

    I think it is less about her work being misunderstood, and more that too many people still prefer boring, beige buildings and her stuff looks too “futuristic”, or “out there” for the average person.

    As a Modernist and a Minimalist and a Futurist, I have a profound love for her sinewy architecture. Indeed if I ever won the lottery, she would get the call to design the house I’d build.

    I have searched for years for the “lioness among lions” documentary on her with zero luck finding the damn thing. I was so anxious to spend an hour listening to her talk about the work and see the buildings as opposed to just the photos in the books I have on her.

    If anyone has it and wants to burn me a copy I will pay for it and appreciate the help finding it.

    So I think she is well-deserved of the accolades, and most people just aren’t into the “modern”. My little bungalow is the only modern furnished out of everyone I know, barring one friend. It is hard to find people into it. I think she is just far ahead of her time, and history will show her genius at some point.

  • angela

    Why so many haters? Because she is an Arab woman? I dare any keyboard warrior here to create a structure like hers. Get over it.

    • Ralph Kent

      Yes, that’s right: all the animosity to ZHA is down to her being an Iraqi woman. You’ve totally nailed it with that comment. We – the ‘haters’ (are people still saying that in 2016?) – just try to hide our misogynistic xenophobia under the veil of an architectural commentary.

      • JosephSiri

        Except that most of the “commentary” seems less focused on architecture than it does on her personality and stature. “Haters” seems appropriate. I’m neither an architect nor a designer, but y’all seem like a snarky bunch.

      • JosephSiri

        Except that all the “commentary” seems less focused on architecture than it does on ad hominem attacks. “Haters” seems appropriate. I’m neither an architect nor a designer but y’all seem like a snarky bunch.

  • Roberto Sideris

    By the way, this award seems to be belated. Her popularity (among the public) has waned.

  • friardo

    Like Le Corbusier and numerous others, Zaha is truly accomplished in the narrow framework within which she works. Most architecture has to address a wider field and usually have far more limited budgets, of course.

    Her talent for communication is far more limited than her architectural expertise, but despite such criticism I admire, respect and like the vast majority of her work, I just wouldn’t listen to her with much hope of enlightenment.

  • singa

    She deserves the award. Full stop. This attitude by the protesters greatly resemble the feeling at architectural award ceremonies where absolutely everyone sees everyone else as a competitor. Picture this. You worked five, six years on a project, every day. One day it is recognised and absolutely no one claps, either because of envy or they don’t think you deserve it.

    It is sad that fellow architects and designers cannot seem to just be happy for Zaha and celebrate her achievements.

    If you do not want people to put you down but instead celebrate you when your work is eventually recognised one day, don’t contribute to this cycle. I think its unhealthy. Zaha deserves the award, more importantly the respect for the rest of the profession. I for one, am happy for her.

  • mcmlxix

    Well if architecture isn’t a medium of expression for her, then she isn’t an artist, she’s a CAD jockey.

    That’s fine, but then there’s nothing to “understand” about her work. And if the plebs need to be educated to understand a thing, then that thing has failed.

    It seems everything about her lately is more about her than about her work. Ms. Hadid, you’re getting tiresome.

    • tim-allen

      I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying that being an architect is a binary choice; that you can be only an artist or a CAD jockey? My understanding is that architecture isn’t either/or; it’s an inseparable combination of art and engineering.

      You also sound like you’ve bought into the notion that if you have to explain (art) then it’s failed. That notion has always seemed foolish to me because it means there’s no need for art education or study, all art must carry a message, and all artists must make any such message blatantly clear to everyone. That doesn’t sound like the real world to me.

      I agree that there’s been a lot of news about Zaha Hadid lately. As I understand it, professionals are frequently abused by clients and critics, but the news suggests Zaha Hadid isn’t going to meekly accept abuse from anyone. If the news is really that tiresome, perhaps the best solution is to change the channel.