London-based, Baghdad-born Zaha Hadid has three F words working against her as an architect: she's female, she's a foreigner, and the buildings she designs are fantastical. All of which for many years trapped Hadid beneath architecture's glass ceiling, the big emblematic projects she put in for going to the head boys of the profession. But Hadid, 52, now employs more than 40 architects in her studio in a converted London school, and none has time to doodle: she has projects underway in Germany, Spain, Italy, the United States, Abu Dhabi, Singapore ...
Surrounded by young men in T shirts and after chiding a secretary about where the hell are her airline tickets for Paris the next day Hadid is philosophical about the turnaround in the fortunes of her designs, which were flowing and flamboyant decades before Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum became the icon of Bilbao in Spain. "It took a long time for people to understand that what I do is not in the realm of the impossible, but the realm of the possible. I also live in Britain but am not of it, even though I have been here 28 years. And those who award the commissions are not used to women architects. All barriers, but fundamentally it was because my work was not normative." Normative? "Well, ordinary, everyday stuff." Bilbao has helped. "Clients see it's possible to do something extraordinary that is not repetition."
Hadid's extraordinary designs are now on order in Barcelona (the Arts Plaza in the city center); Leipzig (a car plant); another German city, Wolfsburg (a science center); Rome (a museum of modern art); Salerno, Italy (a ferry terminal); Cincinnati, Ohio (an arts center); Innsbruck, Austria (a café-topped ski jump, which opened last month); Abu Dhabi (a sinuous bridge); and, biggest of all, Singapore, where her team drew up the master plan for a high-tech city on a 200-hectare site, a sort of Singapore Silicon Valley scheduled to take 20 years and something like $15 billion to complete.
The diversity of her projects springs from Hadid's ability to marry florid form to nuts-and-bolts function, as in the Leipzig car plant for BMW: Hadid has designed the building around its product. "The entire work force will have to move through one zone to their respective parts, the cars also going through it. There is no split between management, design, manufacture. It's a new work landscape that ends the blue collar-white collar divide. You will even see the cars from the cafeteria."
But it is not always easy for clients to envisage the working parts within Hadid's broad-brush drawings. This was the case with a science center in Wolfsburg, the German city best known for making Volkswagens. The head of the jury that chose Hadid's design, architect Walter Naegeli, says the site for the museum now being built and due for completion in 18 months was difficult, basically calling for "a black box plus a car park." He says Hadid's winning solution raises the box on columns, opening the area underneath to the public. "She understood the site and its context," Naegeli says. But he admits the city fathers of Wolfsburg could not understand Hadid's proposal. "Once we explained the drawings, they were happy."
The authorities in her adopted home may have similar problems: Hadid has not had one project get off the ground after nearly three decades in the U.K. The closest she came was with an opera house for Cardiff; she won the competition, but her design got buried by Welsh political intrigue. "It was a nightmare," says Hadid. "Nowadays it's less the open competition system. They get you to do a sketch and you go to a meeting and they decide whether they can work with you or not. This doesn't help those who are not part of a clique, and in my case, who are not part of the boys' network. I can be accepted up to a limit, but there's a point beyond which I am not going to have access."
One old boy without need of networking is Saddam Hussein. Hadid has not been back to his realm for 20 years, but would love to design something for her birthplace. "I know they would like me to, but it is just too difficult to work there now. You can't even fly to Baghdad since the Gulf War. You have to go to Jordan then cross the desert in a taxi." Still, residents of London and Baghdad should not despair: Zaha Hadid is used to long hard routes.