Dezeen Magazine

"Zaha went from tricky architect to bright star"

Zaha Hadid 1950-2016: Zaha Hadid, who died unexpectedly this week, deserves to be recognised as one of architecture's greats. But she was also difficult, even when you were on her side, remembers Amanda Baillieu.

When Zaha Hadid walked off the Today programme during a calamitous interview with Sarah Montague I thought, good for her. But it was typical Zaha behaviour, prickly, defensive and intolerant of fools.

She was always a difficult person to deal with, even if you were on her side.

When UK weekly architecture magazine BD was running its campaign to save the Brutalist Robin Hood Gardens estate designed by the Smithsons, Zaha offered to lend the newspaper her support. We had several strange text exchanges when she asked me what she could do to help.

During one of them, I asked her to lobby anyone she could and the higher up the establishment, the better. One evening a text appeared on my phone: "Seeing Gordon tonight". I don't know if she ever raised Robin Hood Gardens with the then prime minister Gordon Brown, but I wouldn't have put it past her.

During the time I was editor of BD, Zaha went from being the tricky architect of the un-built Cardiff Bay Opera House to the brightest star in architecture's glittery firmament.

But it wasn't all plain sailing.

I remember her fury when she didn't win the Stirling Prize in 2005 for the BMW Central Building in Leipzig. When I went up to offer my condolences she was silent with rage and I could see why. It's a breathtaking building in many ways.

At the opening Zaha was standing on her own surveying the office levels, which were open, vast and predominantly grey. When I pointed out that the staff had already personalised their desks with teddy bears and photos of their family and plants she shrugged, "What can I do?". But she found it amusing that having designed a building that was all about making staff behave differently, they refused to do so.

She went on to be nominated five more times for the Stirling Prize, finally winning it in 2010 for the MAXXI museum in Rome, and again in 2011 for her most disappointing building, the Evelyn Grace Academy.

My other memorable encounter with Zaha was over lunch at the Design Museum at the opening of her blockbuster show in 2007.

I had done a tour of the show beforehand and seeing her early drawings and paintings was revelatory. Unlike the smooth, shiny furniture upstairs, which I never really liked, her art was raw and explosive. While it was difficult to decipher the abstract shapes they had an energy that she transferred to her architecture. Step into one of her best buildings, and you feel anything is possible.

When I found myself sitting next to her at lunch I clammed up. I couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't small talk – which she hated. I knew too she didn't like talking architecture (just as well, as neither do I) so we sat in silence while she pushed her food around her plate. I decided this was ridiculous. "That's a great bag," I said. It was fringed, brilliantly coloured and dainty. She broke into a big grin. "Yes, I have three all in different colours," she replied and the conversation rolled from there.

Although she'd won the Pritzker Prize in 2004, the Design Museum show was important to her because it was in London, where she'd lived since 1972.

But according to friends, it was the Gold Medal that she wanted above all and which she won last year, because it put her on an equal footing with architecture's greats – Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto – which is exactly where she belonged.

Amanda Baillieu is the former editor of UK architecture titles BD and RIBA Journal, and founder of Archiboo, which hosts talks and networking events for architects.