PRINT Summer 2016


Zaha Hadid

Vitra Fire Station, 1993, Weil am Rhein, Germany. Photo: Christian Richters. © Zaha Hadid Architects.

IN 1972, I was a young teacher at the Architectural Association in London, and Zaha was a student. We have been friends ever since. At that time, the AA felt more like a club than a school. It was a period of ferment. There was a rejection of the commercial world, of the way architecture was becoming an establishment practice. Looking back, we were realizing that there were different kinds of modernism. There was the corporate version—say, SOM—which was everywhere by that point, and had been adopted by all the big companies for their buildings. We didn’t believe that was architecture. Instead, it was a time of rediscovering the Russians, modernists outside the canon, and Le Corbusier, who still seemed completely avant-garde.

So the 1970s were a period of rediscovery for architecture, and Zaha was a crucial part of that. She didn’t comply with accepted ways of doing things. She would just reject what she didn’t believe in. People tried to dismiss her as a “paper architect.” But this is what made Zaha a pioneer, because she didn’t go straight into practice. She could have—she was talented enough to get a job with anybody. But instead she did extensive research on her own before she built a single building. And she really developed her career through drawing. No buildings. No commissions. No work on construction sites. Drawing, for me, is the source of architectural ideas. If you think about the Renaissance, someone like Leonardo didn’t build, but the projects he drew became enormously influential. Piranesi built only one building, but his esoteric treatises on Etruscan and Roman architecture created a whole new sense of what a city should look like. There is power in thought, pure architectural thought, and that is what Zaha excelled in. Her legacy is not just the buildings she built but how she got to the point of building them.

This strength became clear in the “Deconstructivist Architecture” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988. I remember wondering, when I first got a call from Philip Johnson, “Should I really participate?” At that time, I didn’t think of Johnson as much more than an impresario of the status quo. But I called Zaha and others and decided to do it, not just because MoMA would be a great forum, of course, but because the museum was interested in exhibiting our work even though we didn’t have any buildings. Zaha showed her 1982–83 competition entry for the Peak Leisure Club in Hong Kong, and I didn’t actually show a completed building at all, only ideas. A few of the other participants had built, but the exhibition was mostly models and drawings and experiments. The show was a recognition of something that had been brewing for a while, a statement that architecture was about to change. As Zaha proved, those ideas wouldn’t stay on paper—soon corporations and institutions and governments were demanding those buildings. She played a huge part in changing the way architecture looks today, and she started it with nothing more than a pencil.

Even though she was such an individual, with a unique sensibility, it was always a joy to collaborate with her. We worked together, along with Arata Isozaki, on the competition for the CityLife development in Milan. It’s a large mixed-use development, right in the middle of the city, and it was a huge competition with major international architects. Many entries were by designers working alone. But the three of us got together because we knew how different we were from one another, and we thought this would create a better urbanism, by adding variety to the city. We won, and although the project is still under construction, it looks exactly as we imagined—heterogeneous, diverse, dynamic. Given the chance, most architects want to apply their hand to everything, to have total control. Zaha could have entered that competition alone. Isozaki and I could have, too. But we said, “No, let’s have fun here. Let’s do something really interesting.”

As told to Julian Rose

Daniel Libeskind is the founder of Studio Libeskind, which has completed major projects around the world, including the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for the World Trade Center site in New York.