Zaha Hadid

Zaha Hadid: ‘Being an Arab and a woman is a double-edged sword’

Zaha Hadid on growing up in Iraq, getting the architecture bug, and the legacy of her Olympics Aquatics Centre

Interview by Huma Qureshi, theguardian

Zaha Hadid: ‘As a woman in architecture, you need confidence.’

Zaha Hadid is one of the world’s foremost architects. She was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture. Hadid designed the London Aquatics Centre for the Olympic Games.

It’s still very difficult for women to operate as professionals, because there are still some worlds women have no access to. No matter what you do, because you’re a woman, you cannot enter. But I don’t believe that stereotype remains in architecture. In the last 15 years there’s been tremendous change. Half of architecture students are women, and you see respected, established female architects all the time.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the difficulties are incomprehensible. Architecture is a very tough profession.

In my case, I’m a woman and an Arab. Being an Arab woman and a modern architect certainly don’t exclude each other – when I was growing up in Iraq, there were many women architects. You cannot believe the enormous resistance I’ve faced just for being an Arab, and a woman on top of that. It is like a double-edged sword. The moment my woman-ness is accepted, the Arab-ness seems to become a problem.

I’ve broken beyond the barrier, but it’s been a very long struggle. It’s made me tougher and more precise – and maybe this is reflected in my architecture. I still experience resistance but I think this keeps you on the go.

As a woman in architecture, you need confidence. Sometimes, women feel they have to do everything – work, manage the house, look after the children – but there’s too much to do. So you have to learn early on that you can’t do everything yourself, and you have to learn to trust other people to work on your vision. Teamwork is very important to me, and that’s why things are manageable. I can’t take credit for my projects alone – many people in my office have contributed to them.

When I was growing up in Iraq, there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism. It was a moment of nation building. My father deeply believed in creating a better future for Iraq; he joined the Beirut Group which was the basis of the Iraqi Democratic Party. The ideas of change, liberation, freedom and social reform were so important to me.

I do miss Iraq. The river landscapes are timeless. There is this amazing flow between the land and the water and the wildlife that extended to incorporate the buildings and the people. But unfortunately I have no family left in Iraq now. My parents are no longer alive, so when I return, it will be very emotional for me as everyone I remember no longer lives there.

When I was six years old, my aunt was building a house in Mosul in north Iraq. The architect was a close friend of my father’s and he used to come to our house with the drawings and models. I remember seeing the model in our living room and it triggered something.

I came from Baghdad to England to go to boarding school in the 60s, and then came back again to study architecture in 1972. At that time, London was gloomy. There were strikes everywhere. We only had electricity a few hours each day.

Now, the streets are ablaze. It’s a great place and living here is a very liberating experience. There’s uniqueness to the city and the atmosphere we’ve had this year with the Olympic Games has been amazing.

Almost 20 years ago, I researched how London should be developed towards the east. It’s fascinating to see this become a reality with the Olympics as a catalyst for regeneration. The central idea behind the Aquatics Centre was to design and construct it for long-term use for future generations of Londoners. The legacy that the Games will give the city is breathtaking.

Ultimately, architecture is all about wellbeing; the creation of pleasant and stimulating settings for all aspects of life. Part of architecture’s job is to make people feel good in the spaces where we live, where we go to school or where we work.

I am equally proud of all of my architectural projects. It’s always rewarding to see an ambitious design become reality. But what is really exciting is that no matter how long you work on a project, no matter how often you draw and redraw a building, there are always moments that are completely unexpected. With each new project I always feel a real sense of discovery; a truly original and uplifting experience.

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