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Zaha Hadid was one of architecture’s greatest narcissists

4 April 2016

1:50 PM

4 April 2016

1:50 PM

Don’t speak ill of the dead and all that – but, after Zaha Hadid’s sad, premature death at 65, we’ve only had oceans of praise. Over the last few days, the usual suspects, Richard Rogers and Anish Kapoor, have weighed in to testify to her genius and charm.

Well, they would praise Hadid, wouldn’t they? They were her close friends, from the same clique of megastar modernist architects/sculptors, whose grand-gesture works are all the rage these days. If you weren’t in that clique, the truth is rather different – as I found out when I interviewed Zaha Hadid five years ago.

In my 16 years as a journalist, she was the rudest interviewee I’ve ever met. She kept me waiting for an hour at her Clerkenwell office, before rearranging the interview for another day. And then she rearranged it twice more. Not that she did any of the rearranging – her extremely polite assistant did all that sort of thing.

When I finally got to see her, she never apologised for summoning me to her office and then putting me off. She was like a spoilt, medieval queen: grumpy, humourless, entitled, used to her orders being obeyed instantly, careless of the disruption those orders created.

Narcissistic, too. Her flat was empty, except for objects she’d designed herself: a curved sofa, a swooping table and a futuristic tea set. There was little sign of pleasurable human occupation: no books, no CDs. A lone iPad on a table displayed revolving pictures of her own works. The walls, floor and ceiling were monochrome white, with black metal-framed windows. A rectangular cavity housed a fireplace, filled with identical beige pebbles. 

Some critics say she had to be imperious in order to get her work done, as a foreign woman working in a man’s world. I don’t agree – rudeness is rudeness, whatever the putative qualities of the rude person. Rudeness wouldn’t matter so much – although it still does matter – in a genius. But she was no genius.


You can see that same disregard for people in her buildings – flights of fancy with no regard for the poor inhabitants who had to live and work in them. 

As Stephen Bayley courageously wrote in The Spectator last year, her first real building, a small fire station in Germany, never really worked for its intended purpose: ‘Its shrieking concrete angles and disruptive interiors photographed very well and were dutifully recorded in the magazines, but were not much liked by the firemen. It was decommissioned and is now an exhibition centre.’

Yes, some of her buildings made for dramatic, swirling sights on the outside. But the inside of buildings is just as – if not more – important. 

When the internal use was pretty straightforward, then her pretty shapes made sense. So her one triumph – the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics – only had to be a great big hall to enclose some swimming pools. She couldn’t really go wrong with the inside – and she made a lovely shape, at a hugely over-budget cost, for the vast, furling roof outside. But, when – as in most buildings – the ordering of the inside really mattered, she failed.

Her Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton was praised for its bold, zig-zag shape, with a running track piercing its heart. I thought it was certainly original enough when I went round it, with the usual Hadid trademarks: curves, skewed angles and asymmetrical shapes. Inside, though, the classrooms, gym and dining area were a dreary mass of concrete, steel and glass planes, with a few zig zag motifs and primary colours slapped on. I’d have much preferred to be taught in one of the elegant Victorian terraced houses flanking the academy – with their brick, plaster and stone, full of history and detail. The Evelyn Grace Academy wasn’t much different from the 1970s Grange Hill School of Education Architecture – which also did nothing to please the poor children inside. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised. In our interview, Hadid professed to admiring Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens tower block in Poplar, built in 1972.  Robin Hood Gardens is the perfect example of a concrete and glass horror, loathed by the public at large, but adored by modern architects. Hadid called it ‘a wonderful modernist haunt for me and my students’. Richard Rogers also loves it. The rest of us would prefer to live in one of those handsome Victorian terraced houses, as indeed Richard Rogers does – he’s knocked two of them together to form his own enormous home in Chelsea.

Her attitude was a perfect example of the modern architect’s attitude, as summed up by Kingsley Amis in his ‘Sod the Public – A Consumer’s Guide’, published in The Spectator in 1985. 

‘Most artists, or people who think of themselves as such, have to get the public to watch or listen before they can sod it,’ wrote Amis, ‘Architects are different. They have the unique power of sodding the consumer at a distance, not just if he lives or works in the building concerned, or just when he passes it a couple of times a day, but also when he happens to catch sight of it miles away on the skyline.’

Architects are also, Amis added, deeply subject to the principle of how it will go down at the club – ‘i.e. in the circle of his colleagues, his friends in the profession, certain critics and a more or less specialised and expert section of the public. The effect of this is to drive him towards the technically stimulating, the obscure and the ‘sophisticated’ and away from the older goals and values of whatever can be called pleasing, straightforward, entertaining, popular.’    

Zaha Hadid went down extremely well at the club; not so well with the people who have to live and work in – and pay for – her buildings.


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