I FIRST MET ZAHA in London in 1976. I was a visiting critic in Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas’s studio at the Architectural Association, and I was asked to set a mini-exercise connected to my work on eighteenth-century utopias. I presented the students with a series of passages from the Marquis de Sade describing the spaces of debauchery. Their task was to find a mode of representation appropriate to the textual description. The responses were predictablesome overillustrative, others soberly diagrammatic. Zaha came into the review late, right at the end, carrying a small origami cube that folded in and out in triangulated colored sections. She calmly sat down before us and proceeded to fold and unfold the cube, first one way and then the other. We waited. Ten minutes passed. She suddenly stopped, summing up the Marquis de Sade in one sentence: “B-o-o-o-ring, isn’t it?”
She recalled that moment many times over our long friendship. For me, it was an indication of her love of mathematical puzzles, a passion she never ceased to explore and exploit. That day in London, she demonstrated what was to become her leitmotif in practice: the ability to cut to the heart of a problem, remove all mystification, and develop a response that was both mathematically elegant and spatially representative of the subject. In a world of publicity and image, her honesty and unpredictable directness were always refreshing.
Anthony Vidler is a Dean and Professor of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union, New York.