Zaha Hadid was more than a genius in architecture and a beloved ambassador of Creature Entrepreneurs. Carolyn Dailey recalls the Zaha Hadid she knew.
The sudden and far too early death of architecture giant, Zaha Hadid, is still sending shockwaves around the world. We’ve had the privilege and comfort of reading the moving testaments and reflections from the architectural legends of our time, from Richard Rogers to Norman Foster and Frank Gehry.
I wanted to tell another story, from outside the world of architecture. An outsider’s view. Long before Creative Entrepreneurs, Zaha and I had struck up an unlikely friendship, one that could only happen in London, this white hot global melting pot of people and passions. Like so many others, she and I had also been seduced by it and made it our home, although in very different times and circumstances.
While Zaha came from Baghdad, land of ancient high culture and poets, I came from California, land of Star Wars and surfboards. While Zaha reigned in the world of architecture, my career is in film, TV, journalism and fashion. But, as can only happen in London, we were thrown together in a series of fairly random contexts, from business to art, and through mutual friends. And in the end, she became a mentor and collaborator.
It is from these perspectives that I wanted to share a glimpse of Zaha.
ZAHA HADID: THE ‘DIVA’ LABEL
Zaha Hadid had the "Power Woman" thing going on. Obviously. As John Seabrook so brilliantly put it in his New Yorker piece, she “took no shit from anybody, though plenty was offered.” That, apparently, was required in the man’s world of architecture.
It’s true that her facade was terrifying. The first time I met her, over 10 years ago, I was frightened into silence, hoping to avoid her stern glance. I came away thinking she was the most coldhearted person (how wrong I was). Over time, I came to see that, besides having to fight her corner in a man’s world, there were some other things going on.
One was that Zaha was extremely effective and refreshingly authentic. I was once sitting next to her at a Fortune magazine "Most Powerful Women" dinner. On the other side of her was a visiting American banker, who asked the typically polite questions, “where are you from, what do you do?” It became clear with toe-curling speed that she had no idea who Zaha was.
Without a word or excuse but just a brief withering glance, Zaha turned her head and joined the conversation on the other side, never speaking to the banker again. Classic Zaha. Abrupt, yes, but also highly efficient and authentic. That conversation was going nowhere, why not do them both a favour? Life is short.
Another was a very endearing aspect of Zaha. I quickly learned that she was deeply shy in settings outside her normal milieu. At a raucous reception at the American ambassador's residence celebrating International Women’s Day, I came upon Zaha sitting in an empty room in a corner by herself. She seemed relieved to see a familiar face and to have a quiet conversation about all manner of current affairs. This was as Annie Lennox started playing the piano and singing to the enraptured crowd in an adjoining room. Zaha was very happy to stay put.
ZAHA HADID: THE WIT AND THE MISCHIEF
That terrifying façade also often hid the fact that Zaha was funny - very funny – and mischievous. She would change the seating plan when the host wasn't looking, or would leave the appointed room of a function and go into another (where we weren’t meant to be) because she saw something interesting - or just because she could. Reprimands from the officials were paid no heed, which was true to form in all aspects of her life.
Zaha was also the queen of bringing down the elephant in the room with an always-hilarious one liner. With an elegant sleight of the tongue, she would take down in flames the person who was ripe for a send up. Zaha was the person you wanted to dish with.
ZAHA HADID: THE BEAUTY AND THE GLAMOUR
Zaha was stunningly beautiful, in the French sort of way, where it's all about the aura and the whole package vs. the Hollywood skin deep kind. I know we're not meant to say that about her. Given that she was the only woman to enter the testosterone filled heights of the “Starchitects,” we shouldn’t say anything about her that we wouldn’t say about a male architect.
Yet not to remark on her beauty is to miss out on one of the thrills of Zaha. Walking into a room and seeing her rocking a black spandex catsuit or an other-worldly Issey Miyake sculptural flourish, was always a delight. And one made all the more appealing by her magnificent regal face rising above it all, with its sculptural cheekbones and all-knowing eyes. Hers was a one-off beauty. Combined with her deep gravelly voice, exotic accent and clipped staccato delivery, Zaha simply oozed cool glamour.
ZAHA HADID: THE INSATIABLE POLYMATH
Then there was the vast and varied body of work outside of architecture. The first time I went to her studio in Clerkenwell, I expected a hushed ivory tower of architectural models and drawings. Instead, the first thing to hit me, no doubt with an echo from my California upbringing, was….surfboards. Well, actually, it was her furniture collection, all sweeping fiberglass dining tables, swirling sofas and chairs and sleek wall sconces. As it turned out, these were all made in similar materials and processes to surfboards.
Those gave way to wild cascading sculptures coming out of the walls, one looking like a dam of giant crystals had just broken, another like a frozen, spliced and cross-sectioned waterfall. Down the magnificent, gravity defying staircase was another whole floor packed with non-architectural creations: jewellery, shoes, lighting, fashion and a bespoke theatre seat. All of these were besides the super yacht designed for Blohm+Voss called “Jazz.”
The top floor finally revealed the expected models and drawings – a sea of them. One was the famous ‘Peak’ project in Hong Kong that was never built. Instead of sidelining it, Zaha celebrated it with pride of place, a testament to her faith in herself and true grit.
The word “prolific” doesn’t begin to describe this genius who seemed voraciously hungry to express her creativity in every shape and form. It felt thrilling and daring, all at lightning speed. Perhaps, deep inside, Zaha knew she was in a rush.
ZAHA HADID: MENTOR AND PIED PIPER OF THE ZEITGEIST
Besides being an architect in the standard sense, Zaha was also the architect of her own future and wanted to help others be the same. After spending most of my career at a global creative company (Time Warner), a few years ago I started my own company and quickly saw how much I had to learn about entrepreneurship. This was combined with my ongoing bewilderment that, while in New York and LA the global commercial success of Britain’s creative sector (which is filled with entrepreneurs) is self evident, in Britain it is strangely unrecognised.
I felt something had to be done about this, and wanted to start a movement to makestartup resources easily available to creative people, along with advice and inspiration from leading creative entrepreneurs. I needed some major creative entrepreneurs to act as ambassadors, providing a shorthand for what we were talking about and endorsement for the concept. Zaha immediately came to mind. Hers was an exemplary entrepreneurial journey. Starting with a tiny five-person office in a former school building in Clerkenwell, she - alongside her partner Patrik Schumacher – built her practice into a global powerhouse.
I had no idea what Zaha would say - I had absolutely nothing except an idea. And entrepreneurship and business were not things I’d ever heard her talk about. When I asked her, she immediately said, “YES, I’m in! This is very important.” Zaha saw the idea for what it is: self-empowerment. And she also presciently read the vibe of millennial creatives: they mostly all want to be entrepreneurs, but don’t have the models to show them how to do it.
Because of Zaha's encouragement and public endorsement, this movement – Creative Entrepreneurs - was able to move forward. With other founding ambassadors including Anya Hindmarch and Jamal Edwards, on 20th January this year, Creative Entrepreneurs had its launch at No 10 Downing Street, with the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron.
I knew immediately that Zaha had rsvp’d directly to No. 10, as is the normal protocol, when I got the latest version of the RSVP list and saw a new column: cars approved to come through the No. 10 gates directly to the front door. The only car in the column was Zaha’s meticulously described 7 series black BMW. That made me smile: quite right, the ambassador should be whisked directly to the door - and after all she had designed BMW's headquarters.
The New York Times, Variety, The Evening Standard and others covered the launch. But it was Architectural Digest that came up with the witty and fitting headline: Zaha Hadid Can Be Your New Small Business Adviser. Exactly - and just the latest bow in this super polymath's arsenal.
ZAHA HADID: THE FINAL ACT
It was only in early February that I saw Zaha at her party to celebrate her RIBA Royal Gold Medal, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award. Trailblazing as always, she was the first woman to win it in her own right. Her party was at a deconsecrated church at the foot of Regent’s Park. She was in particularly sparkling form, wearing a spectacular Issey Miyake Black plastic cantilevered top and thoroughly enjoying the adulation. How unthinkable that only a few short months later I would be going to her funeral at the mosque just a stone’s throw away.
Zaha Hadid: architect, designer, pioneer, shy beauty, mentor, rule breaker, gossip, wit, dream weaver, sweetheart. She left us far too early. The world is emptier without her.