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I first came across ‘Zaha’ when I was a student at the Architectural Association (known as the AA) in the early 1990s. She was always known just as Zaha. She never required a last name as everyone knew who she was. She had rock star status even then, although she had never built anything. With her forthright opinions, she imposed herself fearlessly on student ‘juries’ (that peculiar method of an architect’s training where terrified students publicly present their work to tutors and critics who smoke, drink and debate their projects into the early hours of the morning). Her fame rested on her brilliant Diploma thesis of breath-taking draughtsmanship and her winning entry for the Hong Kong Peak competition. She was also one of six star architects in the Philip Johnson curated show ‘Deconstructivism in Architecture’ at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988. (Although she distanced herself from the French philosophy of similar name, she did, however, draw inspiration from some of the early Russian constructivists, such as El Lissitzky.)
Zaha was a product of Alvin Boyarsky’s revolutionary takeover of the AA which, before it could be (and fortunately wasn’t) absorbed into the larger Imperial College, London, produced so many notable and exciting architects from 1977 until Boyarsky’s untimely death in 1990. Some have argued that Boyarsky’s AA was more creative than Black Mountain College in its heyday and others have compared it to the Bauhaus. Ultimately though it was not Zaha’s surroundings, but her physical presence and enormously strong will which enhanced her fame. You couldn’t fail to notice her when she walked into the room.
My second experience of her was when I was offered a job by her and Patrik Schumacher (her long term colleague and co-director) after my own graduation. My final question in the interview was ‘How much might I expect to be paid?’. The answer was frank. ‘Occasionally one might receive three hundred pounds in a month but sometimes that doesn’t happen if the office receives no fees that month.’ I accepted another job that would at least guarantee a monthly wage. Having studied for so long, it seemed preposterous for me to work for nothing. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone into debt just to get that complete Zaha experience. She was reputed to have a very short fuse and a particularly fiery temper in her office. This is the nature of a profession whose fastest rising stars are unable to build and can only take on staff if they are prepared to work unpaid.
Zaha’s first building was a fire station in Vitra, completed in 1994, and for years that is all she had built. Gradually she started winning competitions. Architectural competitions are a law unto themselves. Large and small architectural practices spend large amounts of money (often using students who work for no pay) to prepare a design to the competition brief. One winner is selected from sometimes hundreds of entries. An architect may ultimately be successful in one out of ten architectural competitions entered, but this is never guaranteed. Even then, the winner will receive the prize money (usually barely enough to cover the costs) but the building may never be built. Worse still, it may be built but by someone else to a different design. This is what happened in the case of Zaha’s winning entry for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Shamefully, the Millennium Commission did not have the courage to back Zaha’s radical design.
It was not until the turn of the century that real commissions did start rolling in for Zaha. All of those were abroad, as no-one in this country dared to risk her often controversial designs. So what were her designs? She seemed to take great delight in imposing her own character on her buildings and in wilfully ignoring the site context. In most cases her designs deliberately stuck two fingers up to their neighbours. Her buildings used large amounts of concrete, glass and steel and their form was often curved and swirling with movement. Understandably her designs did not fit into a British sense of politeness and respect for others. They were made from newly invented shapes and were not embarrassed about themselves. Plus, their materiality spoke of that dreaded era of mass social housing that has seeped deep into our conscience – although the reality was that her buildings were not cheap to construct.
Surprisingly, it was the Germans and Austrians who indulged her first in a big way with the BMW factory in Leipzig and other unusual structures such as ski jumps. The irony, that it was a conservative people who were enlightened enough to buy into her avant-garde designs, should not actually have surprised us. After all, it was German collectors who bought up much of the work of Picasso in his early years, work that was deemed too avant-garde even in France.