Zaha Hadid 1950-2016: in an exclusive interview, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas tells Dezeen about his longstanding friendship with Zaha Hadid and hits out at the West's architecture press for acting as a self-appointed Amnesty International towards her projects in Eastern countries (+ transcript).
Koolhaas spoke to Dezeen the day after news broke of Hadid's unexpected death at the age of 65.
Koolhaas, 71, described Hadid as a "combination of beauty and strength" and said she was "incredibly generous and incredibly funny".
"She was really enormous fun," he said. "Obviously not always, but that is the reason that so many people are deeply upset and were deeply in love with her for the contribution, in terms of pleasure, that she made to all of our lives."
"She was basically family," he added.
The two became friends after meeting at London's Architectural Association school in the 1970s, and remained close despite often competing for the same jobs as they became increasingly successful – Koolhaas with his Rotterdam firm OMA and Hadid with her own London-based company, founded in 1979.
"She was somebody with a rare kind of courage," he said. "It was not constructed courage but an inevitable courage, she was just made that way. It was an almost physical thing."
"That was very important, because at the time we were all exploring new ways in which you could be an architect."
Koolhaas said that the fact that Hadid had been born in Baghdad was hugely important to her work, and that he found it strange that her obituaries had described her as a British architect, rather than an Arabic one.
"I see her work not necessarily as an exciting form of Western architecture and a development of Western architecture, but really something fundamentally different," he said. "That is what I think may be her biggest achievement."
And he expressed anger at the criticism fired at Hadid for working in countries like Qatar, which he described as "deeply offensive".
"I'm upset in general by the short-sighted criticism in which the architectural press acts as a kind of Amnesty International in terms of judging local conditions more than local situation, and is therefore fundamentally hostile to making contributions to other cultures that are not as perfect as we supposedly are in the West," he said.
Read the edited transcript from our interview with Rem Koolhaas:
Anna Winston: Can you tell me about some of your early memories of Zaha, how you met, your experience at the AA and what those early years working together were like?
Rem Koolhaas: We met in the 70s at the AA. Nominally, I was teaching, but at the time I think the difference between teaching and learning was not particularly noticeable. I was teaching with Elia Zenghelis, the Greek architect, and he had, in a way, adopted me as his student to teach in his unit. In a very similar way we adopted Zaha. So it was more a meeting of affinities and common interest and common explorations, rather than a classical [student-teacher] situation.
Anyone meeting Zaha at that time would be struck by two things: a combination of beauty and strength. Of course, although she was utterly eloquent in English, she was somebody who was in a deep way influenced by Arab culture.
It was, in a way, the first [Arabic] person that I met really in detail and from that moment I had a great sympathy for the Arab world. I think that if you look at the obituaries the Arab aspect is very much under accentuated or underemphasised. It's strangely as if they are talking about a British architect, but of course the opposite is really true.
She was somebody with a rare kind of courage. It was not constructed courage but an inevitable courage, she was just made that way. It was an almost physical thing. That was very important, because at the time we were all exploring new ways in which you could be an architect.
Of course at some point we worked together but the working together was also not necessarily a formal distinction from the earlier situation where we were teacher and student, it was really an organic continuity. Even when she started her own practice, the relationship really remained very organic. I think it was based on shared ambition, shared empathy, shared interest and a shared motivation to challenge the same things.
I think with her work, particularly when I saw [the Phaeno Science Centre in] Wolfsburg for the first time, I was really deeply excited. I had a feeling that she was achieving something completely her own and also completely compelling in terms of thinking about things differently. I still think it's one of her best works.
I really liked the way – and maybe that was her greatest, unique, contribution – that she was mobilising a part of the past to construct the future in a kind of seamlessness that was almost as seamless as her work became. That is what I would have to say about her work.
No one emphasises the fact that she is an Arab. And I've been particularly waiting for the moment that architecture is no longer defined in terms of a Western value system. That is also why I wrote a book about the Metabolist movement in the 60s and 50s where we witnessed the first moment that another nation with another culture became the avant-garde in architecture and I think that Zaha is really fundamentally in that tradition.
So I see her work not necessarily as an exciting form of Western architecture and a development of Western architecture, but really something fundamentally different. That is what I think may be her biggest achievement in the end.
Given that kind of situation, I've been very upset, I'm upset in general by the short-sighted criticism in which the architectural press acts as a kind of Amnesty International in terms of judging local conditions more than local situation and is therefore fundamentally hostile to making contributions to other cultures that are not as perfect as we supposedly are in the West. For that reason her whole economic involvement in Qatar and the discussions about conditions of building in Qatar must have really deeply hurt her and I think they were also really deeply offensive in that manner and for that reason – almost as if the West is defending itself with all the means at its disposal.
Anna Winston: She had a reputation as quite a fiery character but it seems the people that knew her, knew quite a different person.
Rem Koolhaas: Yes, she was incredibly generous and incredibly funny and also had a very frivolous side, so she was really enormous fun. Obviously not always, but that is the reason that so many people are deeply upset and were deeply in love with her for the contribution, in terms of pleasure, that she made to all of our lives.
Anna Winston: Why do you think it took such a long time for her to get anything built?
Rem Koolhaas: I think it takes a long time for anyone to get anything built, so I think that there was nothing abnormal about it. Maybe the only abnormal thing was that in the time that she didn't, she made such eloquent and strong things, so it was more of a pity that it took so long. But in itself it's not exceptional. In retrospect, I'm sure that long periods of incubation also enabled her in the last 15 years to unleash an incredible energy.
Anna Winston: She started to spread out in to other disciplines as well. There was this very clear vision that spanned everything.
Rem Koolhaas: I think she was able to turn her own sensibility in to almost a theory, and I think that was really interesting. I think that certain people of course really benefit from a kind of eccentric or unusual biography, and I'm sure that being born in a political and diplomatic milieu in Iraq, which at that time was deeply cosmopolitan, and the subsequent sampling of so many different cultures simply made her unbelievably well informed and conversant with so many different values, details, intricacies, that kind of life in itself is of course an enormous stimulation to become an all-round person.
I remember that she told me her parents asked her opinion and asked her to design things for her bedroom when she was a toddler. So it really started early and she was part of a milieu that appreciated deeply unusual talent, or any talent.
Anna Winston: She spoke a lot about the fact that she was a woman and she was Arab, that she felt that she was treated as an outsider.
Rem Koolhaas: I think she was obviously very proud of what she achieved as a woman but in the end, there's no need for special pleading or for treating her architecture on that basis. Yes I think she made an enormous contribution as a woman, but her greatest contribution is as an architect.
Anna Winston: Do you have any favourite memories of times you spent together?
Rem Koolhaas: In a way I think it would be a bit tasteless if I entered in to anecdotes, because I think some parts are there to be cherished and private. But for instance we went a couple of times to the Soviet Union in the mid-70s together and you can imagine all the kind of adventures you would experience in that now totally unimaginable degree of difference that existed. It's really more how almost every event contributed in the end to a better understanding of the world and therefore kind of a great depth of work.
Anna Winston: Do you think in a way her ideas were almost before their time, that technology had to really catch up with her?
Rem Koolhaas: I don't think so. Because I think this comes back to mentioning of how she was able to mobilise things of the past for the future – I think if you look at the work of [Hans] Scharoun or [Oscar] Niemeyer or any other kind of plastic work in concrete, then you see that there already were many earlier alerts of that kind of shifting of language. I think it's more independent of the material execution. I think concrete used to be also an incredibly versatile kind of material before it became kind of standardised and driven to doom frankly.
Anna Winston: As you developed your own practices and became increasingly successful, was there less time to talk in the same way that you had originally or did business get in the way?
Rem Koolhaas: I think that there is a really gloomy part of architecture today, which is the way in which you are competing constantly with your colleagues but also in some cases with your best and most intimate friends. But that never really interfered. She was basically family. She was also very much involved with my children, so that kind of intimacy stayed really.