By Aditya Chakrabortty
Published: August 26 2005 10:32 | Last updated: August 26 2005 10:32
Fifty thousand Queen fans have mobbed Hyde Park this evening to see the kings of stonewashed-denim rock in concert. Over the road is another sold-out show. It may number only 250 and be more genteel, but the audience for architect Zaha Hadid is in its own way just as ardent. We are in the Serpentine Galleryâ€™s summer pavilion, a hump-backed grid of windows and timber slats that from a distance looks a bit like an angry giant beetle. At the front, where true fans always congregate, they refer to Hadid constantly - but only by her first name and stretching the syllables into the politest of terrace chants: Za-Ha, Za-Ha.
â€Sheâ€™s a superstar,â€ the American man behind me tells his son, who looks as if heâ€™d rather listen to Green Day than some high-fibre talk about buildings. When she comes on stage, suitably late, the sunlight bounces off her studded shoes and Toblerone-like ring, forcing the faithful to squint. Such fuss over a woman who, until recently, had so few buildings to her name. Even they were decidedly minor: a ski jump; a fire station; a car park.
The Baghdad-born, London-based architect still doesnâ€™t have an important public building in her adopted country, after a plan in the mid-1990s to build an opera house in Cardiff ended in acrimony. Dubbed (almost by default) the worldâ€™s most successful female architect, she seemed at one point in danger of having her reputation outweigh her achievement. Yet over the past couple of years she has completed her two biggest buildings, a factory for BMW in Leipzig and an arts centre in Cincinnati; won the Pritzker Prize, architectureâ€™s most prestigious award, for the latter; and consequently shed her name as a â€œpaper architectâ€.
Hadidâ€™s success is partly down to the fashionable belief that big-ticket buildings, such as Bilbaoâ€™s Guggenheim Museum, can revive run-down cities. But it also reflects a change in Zahaâ€™s approach. Once jagged and confrontational, her designs are now far less alienating. But never dull: the BMW plant pokes fun at Germanyâ€™s staid business culture by putting the suits and oily rags in the same building - and placing the car assembly line over everyoneâ€™s heads.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, a Paris-based museum curator, is interviewing her tonight and he wants to know about concrete. â€œItâ€™s good to talk a little about concrete,â€ he says, observing that it is â€œbrutalist, but also very humanâ€. Why use it? â€œConcrete isnâ€™t a political thing or a fetish,â€ she replies, archly enough to make the audience laugh, â€œItâ€™s an appropriate material.â€ As persistent as a bluebottle, Obrist tries again. â€œYour buildings have a lot of â€˜strollologyâ€™,â€ he says. Seeing blank faces in the audience, he gives us the word in German: spaziergangswissenschaft. The confusion deepens. I look back to see the American teenager drooping like a sunflower. â€œLet me translate that one,â€ laughs Hadid before answering that, by having so few right angles, her structures donâ€™t split one room off from another but pull people through each zone. â€œThatâ€™s super interesting,â€ says Obrist.
Wrapped in a caramel shawl, Zaha speaks in a tobacco-stained drawl that gives the most straightforward statement the suggestion of a one-liner. She has a reputation as a diva, which is enhanced when she admits to being an SMS â€œfreakâ€. â€œIâ€™ll text someone at 3am to set up a meeting - and wake them up of course.â€ On Planet Zaha, there arenâ€™t office politics so much as an office dictatorship. â€œI gave up smoking; banned smoking in the office,â€ she says. Seeing the interpolation the audience is making, she explains that there was a pregnant woman in the office. The ban met resistance. â€œThese guys puff away and put ash under their PCs and in their coffee cups because they think someone else will clean it up for them; I thought about pouring it all over their clothes.â€ There is shocked laughter before she admits, â€œBut I didnâ€™t do it.â€
Hadid doesnâ€™t get everything her own way, as she reveals when discussing a project to build a science centre in Wolfsburg, Germany. Whatâ€™s going to be in it? â€œThatâ€™s going to be my biggest nightmare. We wanted to do it [direct the content] but they said no. Now of course they regret that.â€ Obrist asks her about China which, as it urbanises, is commissioning architects that the west deems too radical - including Hadid. Surprisingly, she is less than excited about its building boom. It almost sounds as if she would like to freeze industrialisation in its tracks. â€œIn the middle of these cities you have farmland where they are growing mushrooms or sprouts next door to a factory. Those are the moments they should keep.â€
At the end there is an upmarket stage invasion, as audience members charge to the front. A white-haired man asks Zaha to sign his autograph book. Behind him is a group of young Japanese, taking pictures of her with their phones. â€œItâ€™s always like this with Zaha,â€ sighs one of the staff. â€œYou have to launch a pincer movement to get her into a cab.â€