Most Powerful Women

Transcript: One on one with Zaha Hadid

June 25, 2013: 1:54 PM ET

The architect Zaha Hadid joined Fortune's Stephanie Mehta on stage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women conference in London this week to discuss design, growing up in Iraq, her favorite cities and more.

Zaha Hadid, left, and Stephanie Mehta

Zaha Hadid, left, and Stephanie Mehta

FORTUNE -- Stephanie Mehta: Thank you Tom, and as Dame Zaha makes her way to the stage, let me just take another opportunity to thank Barclays, and our other MPW global partner, Zurich Insurance Group, and our knowledge partner McKinsey & Company. Thanks again to you all. I was going to change into my flats during the break, but now that I see Dame Zaha making her way in these very fabulous shoes, I'm glad I didn't downscale.

Zaha Hadid: I too brought flat shoes in the car (laughter).

Stephanie Mehta: Well, and your pedicure is spectacular, so I'm ashamed. Zaha Hadid really needs no introduction. She is an internationally known architect. Her reputation precedes her. She's known as much for her theoretical work as for her built projects. She's a Pritzker Prize winner, which, for those who are not in that architectural world, that is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in that realm. Her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects is based here in London. She's a pioneer in design and an innovator, and among her well-known projects, the London Aquatic Centre, which was built for the 2012 Olympic Games, the Contemporary Art Centre in Cincinnati, and a number of the Soho Galaxy projects in China, and those are truly spectacular for those of you who've had a chance to see the designs in various cities in China. So, welcome Zaha.

Zaha Hadid: Hi.

Stephanie Mehta: You've just come from speaking to delegates of the G-8 on the subject of innovation. This year you were named Veuve Clicquot's businesswoman of 2013. You're here at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit. Do you feel like a powerful woman?

Zaha Hadid: Well, I don't know. Actually I always thought I was powerful, since I was a kid. A friend of mine, who was a student of mine, was asked by an architect colleague, he said to him, "Oh, you know, has Zaha changed since she, sort of -- between brackets -- became a celebrity?" and he said, "Oh well, no, she hasn't. She always thought she was one." So, you know, I think that with architecture, maybe it's different in other professions, it's kind of such a sluggish business, you know, so you are fighting all the time, you know, and I'm not saying it's not fun, but you forget, you know, so in a way it humbles you. You don't think about yourself as successful or powerful or whatever it is. I mean, I think that the only useful part of it is that, if you are able to help other people in any way, whether other women, or younger women, or people, you know, who want to do architecture, who maybe thought it's difficult, then I think it's worth the while that people see you in that light.

Stephanie Mehta: I want to come back to this idea of using your power as a platform, but you also alluded to the long journeys that architects go through to see a project to completion. There was almost a decade period of time between the forming of your design firm and the first built project. Talk a little bit about how you maintained your enthusiasm and your willingness to press ahead during what may have been quite a period of struggle.

Zaha Hadid: I think, I don't know how we did it. I mean, it was even longer than 10 years. I mean, I finished school in '77, and our first building was finished in '93, so it was quite -- 16 years, or whatever it is. Post that, there was almost some very difficult turbulent years. I think that, I personally, myself, believed in the work. I think it is absolutely possible to have an alternative. I really thought, because, I mean, it was not the first time it was done, there was a kind of a belief in modernism, and the early part of the 20th century, later in the '60s, it was all, kind of modern. Abandoned later, but so I thought there is a possibility. I travelled a lot, and I saw a world where these things were attempted, but I think what were really remarkable were the people that were with me. I refer to them as "the kids," but, you know, not as my kids, but they were all very young people. You know, I mean, it's very difficult for those to sacrifice their weekends, their evenings, their nights, sitting there day and night working. I mean, I didn't ask them, and I think it was that incredible commitment by so many people that made us carry on, and it would've been very difficult without this, kind of, incredible support I had.

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Stephanie Mehta: How did you develop your design aesthetic? Your buildings are quite distinctive. What was the process like to develop what now is very recognisable as a Zaha Hadid?

Zaha Hadid: Well, I mean, they just started off as a branch of modernism, but I think that, when I was a student, I really first of all thought, at the time, in the late '70s, there was an incredible rejection of modernity, and it was over, kind of, everybody thought that to move forward you had to look backwards, and I could not possibly believe that. Somebody thought maybe because I was, you know, as if it was a critique, that I still had faith because I was not a European. Maybe so, you know, I wasn't a Westerner, but I really thought that there were other alternatives. I mean, there were a lot of people thinking similarly at the same time that I was a student. I think that, also, there were certain ideas which I could not represent based on what I knew or I knew how to present, I mean, like existing technique of drawing, so I began to investigate other ways of representing or drawing, and that led to, I may say, graphic techniques, but led to ideas and architecture. So, you know, I think, through these, kind of, graphic techniques, or studies, I began to kind of form differently.

Stephanie Mehta: You were born in Iraq. Tell us a little bit about your childhood, and what your family's expectations were for you.

Zaha Hadid: I had a very nice upbringing in Iraq. Iraq was very, kind of, modern. My father actually went to school in England and first in America, part of the American University of Beirut, the IC in Beirut, in his teens, in the early part of the 20th century, and he went to London School of Economics here in the '20s. So the family had a connection to England, studying abroad, and I went to a nun school, I mean, my parents are Muslim, but none of us practice.

Stephanie Mehta: Was it a Catholic institution, raised by nuns?

Zaha Hadid: Yes, but it was a very good school, and it had, kind of, Muslim girls, Jewish girls, Christian girls, and I had a fantastic childhood. My parents were very liberal, there was never a moment where I thought, "I will not be a professional."

Stephanie Mehta: Did your dad want you to become an economist?

Zaha Hadid: No, actually my father didn't. I mean, I wanted to be an architect, since I was 11. I didn't know what it meant, but you know, I must have seen a building which I liked at the time. So I remember very well asking, "What do you call the person who does this sort of thing?" And my mother taught me to draw. I was, you know, like, I used to draw a lot. Now, my father thought I should do what I want, but then everybody thought, "You know, architecture is very difficult, no woman does it. Why don't you become an artist?" Or something like that.

Stephanie Mehta: That may be the first parent in history to say, "Why don't you become an artist?"

Zaha Hadid: My parents did not mind, I mean, you know, they would have liked me to become maybe a doctor or something, you know, whatever, but it was really up to me, and they never put any pressure on me whatsoever to choose other than that.

Stephanie Mehta: You came to London to study architecture. What was London like for you, coming to school here in the '70s?

Zaha Hadid: It was fun actually, at the time. I mean, I had come before that to London, to go to boarding school, so I had some friends. Then I went to Beirut, and I came back here. You know, London was very severe in the '70s, you know. There was all the, kind of, coal miner strikers, there were three-day -- you know, no lighting. We used to try to draw with gloves on and coats, and we had to migrate from one area of London to the other to avoid the curfew, you know. It was kind of uncomfortable, because you're quite young, and it was fun, but it was very different to how it is nowadays. I mean, London became a great metropolis, I think. It became extremely very cosmopolitan. There's every kind of person here, every profession, every race, every lifestyle. It wasn't like that. I mean, compared to New York, it was like a village. You know, I mean, New York was like that in the '80s, and so London I think became increasingly more diversified and opened up. I mean, they still are, kind of, obviously a very strong conservative element here, you know, but it has changed.

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Stephanie Mehta: Do you have a city that you -- well two questions. Do you have a favourite city? You travel so much. Then, is there a city that inspires you, which are maybe two different things?

Zaha Hadid: I mean, you know, I used to live in Beirut, and I love Beirut, and I love New York, because it's like my second home. I don't have a house there, but I go there a lot, I have many friends. When I first moved to London, people used to ask me why I came here from across the puddle, and it took me a while to understand that a puddle was the Atlantic, but, you know. So these are the cities I love, but of course I spend my summers in Istanbul, maybe not this summer.

Stephanie Mehta: You confessed your other favourite city--

Zaha Hadid: Is Rio, also troubled. No, Rio is an incredible city, and actually, I always thought, I always was very influenced by Brazilian architecture, but these things are sometimes very depressing and very refreshing. When I went to Rio last year, I mean I go there kind of, every few years, but I realized it was very dated. I found that very exciting, because 20 years ago I thought it was very advanced, and everything was amazing, and yet in that, 20 years later, you know, it's like seeing the film again, it's not exactly the same. It's still -- there are some great references of modernism. It's like, you know, going to New York or Chicago. You have these amazing references to 20th century modernism, which only exist in these particular cities, you know, and maybe, you know, definitely in Brazil and parts of America and maybe Italy here and there, but they have amazing pieces.

Stephanie Mehta: Do you design and conceive of projects differently for corporate clients than you do for clients in, say, the arts, or non-profit institutions? Because your portfolio is quite broad.

Zaha Hadid: I mean, I'd like to do more corporate work. I don't have much corporate work. I've done an office building, and we're doing now some housing. It's not because of choice. It's because most of the work we got was through competitions, and in Europe if you do a public building you have to do a competition process. That has helped us a lot, I mean, without it we would not have any. Mind you, the few projects I have done in Europe, like the Vitra Fire Station, was a commission. Strasbourg, the car park and train, was a commission. But all the others, all the other museums, whether it's the Wolfsburg or the BMW, you know, factory, or the MAXXI in Rome, they are all done through a commission process. The commission process in America and England is different. In America, they do it through an interview process, and it's really based on whether they like you or not. I mean, it's nothing to do with whether you do the best scheme or the worst scheme. In France, it's again, of course, everything is very political, but you do a full stage, you know. In France and Europe you do a full stage, I mean, like, you're doing a project for four months. So they pick it based on the project. Anything that's left is very ambiguous, so they pick you.

They have to do the competition process, but they don't tell you they're picking you for the project. They say they pick you for the architect, so it's very different dynamics. I think that yes, I mean, I will try in both cases to do something interesting. There is always pressure on you, I mean, budgets are very important. I don't think you have an open budget. It's very rare to have an open budget, where the, kind of, funds are unlimited. You know, even in the most, kind of, wealthy countries, or somebody, whatever, does a house or something. There's always a consideration, but I think it is, for me, interesting to do corporate work, because if you look at London, the majority of the built work is mostly corporate, or housing. Now they're building modern housing, but before it was mostly offices. So I think it'll be important for us to actually do that.

Stephanie Mehta: We're going to be able to take a few questions from the audience, but before we go to that, Dame Zaha and I had a very interesting conversation over dinner about airline travel and airports. She's in and out of a lot of them. With your keen architect's eye focused on the air travel process and airports, tell us a little bit about what you would change, if you could redesign the process from a whole cloth.

Zaha Hadid: Well, actually we are looking. We are advisors for the mayor's office, for the new airport at the estuary. I just think that at this stage, all form of travel should be slightly more advanced. I mean, the adverts should be nicer, the way you get to them should be better, the way you checked in, the people should be -- well, they can't change people, but, you know, they should wear better uniforms, they should give you better food, you know, everything. I mean, you know, tragic, a salad on British Airways, it's a killer, you know. I don't know where they found this petrified green, so, you know, I mean, forgetting about the service, I was telling her earlier, every time I take a British Airways flight, I lose my luggage.

Stephanie Mehta: You're on the "must lose luggage" list.

Zaha Hadid: I have many assistants carrying all my hand luggage, you know, just to guarantee that I-- no, I'm kidding, but it really is a problem if you're flying somewhere, you have a meeting, you don't want to be spending two days going back and forth to an airport. I mean, to go back to corporate work, for example, if I take an example of the Galaxy Soho in Beijing, the project we just completed a few months ago, where it is, you know, trying to take kind of, a business district site, the monetary aspect is very tight, but you know, we interpreted the program on the grounds. So we said, "They don't want towers, they don't want [inaudible] just like a building around the edge, like a fortification." They wanted retail, so we had to reinvent the idea of retail, or how to move through a building, or how to use the void, or how to make an atrium. So we just made, kind of like a landscape, with many miniature towers, you know, like eggs, and decided that to operate on one [inaudible] to say, from that point down is all retail, and from that, higher up, so you have a completely kind of, an atmosphere and a space which is immersive, that wherever you are, you see something else. You know, it's like going to, you know, the park or something.

So you can actually interpret workspace, you know, in a nice way, because if we're lucky we spend a whole day in an office, if we have a job, and that should have a nice environment, and if you want to go out and wander around, that should also be nice. I mean, I don't think that you should, you know -- so one has to kind of, really study the idea of workspace. You know, we've done that with a few buildings, like the BMW factory, it's kind of, the idea of an open floor plan, but it's not totally open with no division. Divided, like a terrace thing. So you can interpret these things in a kind of interesting way.

Stephanie Mehta: Do you find it easier to launch projects in places like China, where the regulatory environment is, shall we say, looser? Or a place like Europe where the urban codes are much stricter, but the legacy of architecture is perhaps important?

Zaha Hadid: I don't know. I think that, you are meant to do things with more freedom in China, only because I think the client body is more interested in your ideas and to test new ideas. There isn't this kind of phobia about newness, you know, which I think is a very exciting thing. While here, maybe they might build better. You know, I think that in China they're learning faster, they make things much more -- I mean, the time is very short, I mean, this building we did is 350,000 square metres, or whatever it is, and it was done in under three years, while, you know, this might take 10 years here. I don't know how long it would take. So I think there is that. I think that, you know, I think it's more psychological.

I think that the West has to understand there is another standard, or there is another formula. We have to re-look at typology, you know, and typology should be questioned, that not every office building in the world is the same type. It's like saying, "Everybody in the world should be the same," so I think that, you know, once these, not rules, these, kind of, personal rules change, then I think you have much more freedom to do things, and of course you should have urban rules, and planning rules, so that, you know, there is a kind of consistency in the environment. There is not a, like, haphazard running things, doing whatever you like. You can do it in such a way that, you know, you have certain adjustments, let's say, or interpretations in the urban field, and I think it could open up the city much more.

Stephanie Mehta: Can we just do one very quick question from the audience? Is there anybody, right in the back here?

Question: Dame Zaha, you have a fabulous piece of sculpture at the summer exhibition. How do you find time to do art when you're doing all this architecture?

Zaha Hadid: Well, you know, as I said, you know, we have a lot of really enthusiastic people in the office, and we do everything. I mean, people think maybe we do too much of everything. You know, we do jewellery, we do furniture. Furniture I really enjoy doing, especially in the last 10 years when, you know, through computing techniques, it's possible, I mean, I can do that furniture, not in an afternoon, but one can, kind of, 3-D model a piece of furniture. That changed everything to do with the industry, and I can have it milled, you know, like I send it to a machine and it will mill it, and then of course it's out of then fibreglass or painted, but I can get an object done based on a 3-D model, very quickly. You know, it doesn't have to be by hand. It's very precise. We have a very, I think, beautiful glass table, made of transparent material, which is completely milled, so it's like a kind of a chiselling machine.

We have stools and marble, also milled. So this milling technology, it can do it for an object, but it can also vacuum form, so you can do fantastic skin for buildings, which is sculpted, perforated, you know, tessellated like a tile. I think that the advancement in material technology is enormous but also impacts on the kind of concrete and the material, ecologically friendly materials. You can begin to learn from the environment, from certain countries, how you can deal with cooling and heating and all of that. What I think what has been very exciting, there are so many tools that allow you to bring all this information together, and re-use it in a very, I think, new and kind of exciting way.

Stephanie Mehta: Well, I probably will never be able to afford one of your sculptures, but if you ever decide to design shoes, I'll be first in line.

Zaha Hadid: I am designing shoes. We're launching them next week.

Stephanie Mehta: Good week.

Zaha Hadid: I don't think anybody can wear them.

Stephanie Mehta: (Laughter) Art pieces. Dame Zaha, thank you so much for your time. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Zaha Hadid.

Zaha Hadid: Thank you very much.

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