Sami Moubayed, editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine, speaks to world-acclaimed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid about what it means to be Number One.
Let us start with Zaha Hadid Architects, which employees 250 people, trained under your watchful eye in London. What are the secrets of success that you are channeling to a rising generation of architects? Would you describe yourself as an “intellectual dictator” that tries to influence style and performance—with the Zaha Hadid hallmark, or do you encourage experimentation?
A lot of the people that work in our office have been taught by us. Maybe the model of the master making a sketch of an idea and having others take it from there is applicable to my early career, but now credit is due to the people who work in the office with me who contribute to the discourse and bring something to the table. Their ambition to improve the project’s impact on society is encouraged. You never know what can come out of the students and workers in the office when they’re given opportunity. They may be scared at first—not of me, of course—but they just need to be given confidence to do their best—with a degree of freedom. I think that’s why people like to work in our office—their only obligation is to work hard and do their best. They feel they’re part of the process, and of the progress we make, and not just doing the detailing of some part of a building. You need to let people grow, and it’s exciting to see them and their work mature, contributing to the development of a project.
In 2008, you ranked number 69 on the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. Do you agree to that, and if so, how has ‘power’ changed you?
Perhaps it was my flamboyance that gave me such determination to succeed, but I have always been extremely determined. Now I’ve achieved the success, but it’s always been a very long struggle. In the early days we were all workaholics—spending all night working, this required incredible focus and ambition. I don’t take the acclaim terribly seriously, I’m very grateful for it, but it doesn’t affect my life. People have always been very kind and nice to me when they approach me; they say good things to me. It’s just exciting that people know about architects. Twenty-five years ago, they didn’t. I believe that when there are good moments, you have to recognize and enjoy them. One always has to look at things in a positive way. But there is a downside: a lot of travelling. and I do get tired of the constant movement.
Forward Magazine is powered by AUBites, since most of our senior staff are AUB graduates like yourself. You were recently granted an Honorary Degree from AUB. Apart from that, are you still well connected to AUB, and if so, are you involved in any of the new projects that are underway to revamp the AUB campus?
We are building the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB. Its designed not only to attract students and academics but also to draw local, regional and international researchers, thinkers and policy-makers. I strongly believe these institutes, which offer opportunities for discussion and discourse, are vital as a forum for the exchange of ideas.
In 2004, you were the first female recipient—and first Arab—of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which is the Nobel Prize of Architecture. Can you tell us about that?
The winning of the Pritzker Prize represents the full recognition of what started 20 years ago as risky projections of a possible future architecture. Whether the honor of winning the Pritzker Prize was the exception to the rule of male domination in architecture is yet to be seen.
On to Iraq, your native homeland that is going through difficult times and political turbulence. Do you visit frequently and do you plan to get involved, one way or another, with national reconstruction once the occupation ends?
I had a very nice childhood in Iraq. In the sixties Iraq was a new republic looking to achieve a new identity by the sorts of buildings that were commissioned and the environment being created. At the time, in Iraq there was an unbroken belief in progress and a great sense of optimism.
I would be very happy to help with the reconstruction. It’s a very difficult situation. Iraq is an occupied cheap replica watches country. I hope that soon there will be a place for people like me to contribute. Work is needed not only for individual buildings, but for urban planning and major infrastructure as well.
Syrian architects seem to be in dilemma, preserving what is old, while adding a touch of modernity. If you were a decision-maker on the fate of Damascene architecture, what legislation would you take?
I can’t really talk about political decisions as I’m not privy to the specific points, but to lose the history would be a shame. It’s a very thin line between saying to people that ‘everything must be preserved’ and yet one also believes in new things. I don’t believe cities should be like Venice and not grow or change at all. It is important to intervene in a contemporary way – but you must do it in a very precise manner.
As mentioned above, you are known as the Queen of Architecture and have forcefully dominated the scene and profession. What made Zaha Hadid the woman she is today?
My parents gave me the confidence to do all these things. When I was a child I traveled every summer with my parents, and my father made sure I went to every important building and museum in each city. I remember going as a child to see the Cordoba, I was seven years old, and that was the most stunning space. Of course there are lots of other truly great spaces but this mosque left a really tremendous impact on me. It’s very dark inside, but then there is the white marble inside the space. I remember visiting the spiraling Malwiya, the minaret of the ninth-century Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. It is a thousand years earlier than some of the modernist buildings that resemble it.
We also used to take along picnics for trips to the ruins of Samarra, in the Garden of Eden, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet in southern Iraq, you stand there and there is timelessness. You see the rivers and trees and you know that 10,000 years ago it was like that.
My personal experience is that of being totally displaced. I am an Arab, but I have not lived there for some time, so in that sense I am maybe not a typical Arab. I am Iraqi. I live in London. I don’t really have a particular place, and I think those in my situation really have to re-invent your world.
Forward Magazine, July 2010