About my time and work with Zaha - AC's Interview with Patrik Schumacher
Venice, Italy, 29 May 2016, by ArchiCreation
Published in: Pieces of You : Zaha's Choices - SPECIAL ISSUE ON ZAHA HADID
ArchiCreation 2017 issue 1+2
ArchiCreation (AC): You joined the Zaha Hadid Architects right after graduating? Why did you choose the very firm out of many others? Did you know the situations of other architectural offices then?
Patrik Schumacher (PS): I was a student when I started in 1988. I had looked at the offices of Foster’s and the Rogers’. Foster had about 50 people at that time. Most of my friends went to work there. But I preferred Zaha’s work, it seemed more exciting and original. At that point there was not much of an office, just Zaha Hadid with a few ex-students. It was a very small studio, with may be just 4 or 5 people.
I was a student in Stuttgart, Germany, and I learnt about her work there. She was, of course, not known outside of architecture. But she was already well-known in the discipline and in student circles, after she had won a major international competition, the Hong Kong Peak. She was hot, I mean, lots of students were fascinated with her drawings and designs (nothing built yet then) because her work was so original, unusual, intense and beautiful.
So I came to London as a student, and continued my studies in London in 1987, for one year. I was not finished, but I wanted to work. I saw Zaha at a conference in 1988, the Deconstructivism conference, which was organized in parallel with the Deconstructivism exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By the way, this show was also a major step for Zaha’s fame. There were only 7 architects (in the exhibition), and all the architects became very famous afterwards. I saw her at the conference, and thought her work was beautiful. Also, she was most genuine, talking about her work, not showing off, unlike some of the other protagonists speaking at the conference. So I was convinced I should join her office. I made a portfolio of my work and my drawings and I went to the studio. It was a very small studio with only one room. And we still have that room, and I am still sitting in the same room, even though we have the whole building now. That was 28 years ago. That’s where I started. Soon after I had started, the main designer at Zaha’s studio had left, so I became unexpectedly relatively important, even though I was still a young student. There were others as well, but I was one of the main characters already at that time. Two years later, I went back to school to finish, just for half a year.
AC: By then, did you foresee to continue at the Zaha’s for a long time in the future?
PS: No, I didn’t consider this. I had no clear idea yet about my path. My intention was perhaps to become independent after a few years, or after a while to change to another office. Before Zaha I did not work anywhere else except as an intern in Stuttgart for a few weeks. So I only know one place of work really, Zaha’s, my whole life.
AC: Were there a few difficult times when you felt you could not go on in this Office and must quit?
PS: There were a lot of difficult times full of intensity and pressures, with struggles and fights, normally because it was very hard to satisfy ourselves and the expectation of the world. We were and still are perfectionists, and Zaha was the most obsessive of perfectionists.
I was struggling at the beginning. The main designer had left and there were not many people left that had worked with her before. Her former students and collaborators only came back for short periods to help with competition deadlines. So there was a big burden on my shoulders. I was working very late nights, every night, with the pressure to do something exceptional and to make sure the whole team was doing exceptional work. It was stressful. Zaha was there too, but I was the one tasked to organize and channel the collective effort into a perfect result. At midnight the cleaner came to the office to clean. I envied the cleaners for their calm easy work. The cleaner's work seemed not stressful at all. Certainly, it would be clean after a few hours. Sometimes it was so stressed with the uncertainty of my tasks and efforts that I wished I could become a cleaner, so I would know I could finish my work. Gladly, it was only at the very beginning that I felt this way, for about one or two years.
After we had a number of successful competition experiences, I knew I could manage to deliver with the team and with Zaha. At least I felt confident to deliver a perfectly beautiful project that we all (sometimes even Zaha) could be proud of, even if we mostly didn’t win these competitions. I became more and more confident with my abilities and what we could achieve, and I became much more relaxed as well. And we did in fact also win some competitions in those early years.
AC: But before the Vitra Fire Station, there were no built projects at all, which must have been an issue for the office.
PS: The Vitra Fire Station came very early as a project. Zaha won some competitions earlier on, the Hong Kong Peak and the blade-like design for Berlin’s famous boulevard Ku’Damm. These competition winning projects were not built, so there was some frustrations. After I came we did some more competitions. We lost most of them, but we thought we did great work. Then came the Vitra Fire Station, one year after I had started, and the first sketches were done half a year later. I was the key designer on the project, and there were others coming in and out to develop the scheme with Zaha. It was a difficult design task. As a fire station, it had a big garage space for the fire trucks and several small rooms. It was very difficult to make a beautiful composition out of these incongruent ingredients. On such a small job, we spent an unusually long time to design, for we wanted to do something beautiful that satisfies us and could show our conception of architecture. Meanwhile we did some other competitions.
It was finally finished in 1993 after four and a half years of work, two years of design and two years of construction. But it was a great success. I was impressed and surprised to see the building as it appeared much larger than I had imagined it to be. Despite the surprising sensation of scale, what we had imagined and simulated in the drawings and sketches, all the views that were hand-sketched, became real. The result was very much the same as we had simulated. I was relieved that our design seemed to work and made sense, for I had inarticulate, lingering doubts and was not sure at all before (it was built). It was a good surprise that what we designed was actually well-designed, usable, and looked the way we wanted it to look. From the project we were given confidence that we really can anticipate and simulate what it will be like via drawings and sketches. It was not only a wonderful experience but also a huge success in the media. Philip Johnson, a legendary icon of architecture, who was famous already in the 1930s came to the opening. Sixty years after his legendary “International Style” exhibition at MOMA, he was sitting opposite me and was admiring our work, the Vitra Fire Station. I was very happy.
AC: As the first built project, how was the cooperation with the structural engineers?
PS: We always have structural engineers for the competitions. But with Vitra, it was not a famous structural engineer, but a local guy, however, he was quite a good risk taker. He was courageous enough to go with us, since in the design there were very-long-span walls in concrete, the roof that was spanning far, and an incredibly ambitious cantilevering front roof which was indeed pushed too far and actually started to sag. It was over-ambitious. Then there was a long debate (with him) on how to reinforce the front roof and straighten it out. We did it in the end. Even though the structural calculations were within the safety margin, which means that the roof had no risk of breaking, it was deforming. I realized at that point that material reality is different from calculations, especially if you do unusual things.
AC: So did you ever compromise or sacrifice the design to calculation when it was hard to realise it?
PS: I would not use the phrase 'compromise'. There is such a desire to build that it becomes natural to make it work. Hence, our designs are always conceived with an in-built intuition of what is possible and with the anticipation of later rationalizations. We don't design things that cannot be done. Sometimes our initial designs require a little bit of scaling back. You draw the wall first with a 45 degree tilt and then you pull it up to 60 degrees or so. In the end, the overall design sensation doesn't change much. Adjustments like this may always be required but without recognizably jeopardizing the design intent of the early competition sketches. When you look at the built work, it feels like they are the faithful translation of the designs. You don't notice a compromise, although there have been a lot of adjustments and rationalisations. Usually, I feel in the end that the geometric rationalization (mostly according to fabrication logics) improve the elegance of the design and make it more precise and controlled. So the final realised projects are often more beautiful than the original/initial concept and sketches that in retrospect comparison nearly appear like cartoons. The rationalized precision of the curves or the additional joint-lines or tessellations, add articulation and elegance. Well-designed features that come out of necessities add an intuitively felt conviction and credibility. But these features are intensely composed, according to aesthetic control and resolution. So you cannot just add pragmatic elements without deliberate striving for formal resolution. Everything needs to be composed. I called this the compositional stance, according to which very strong formal aesthetic principles must regulate everything. It plays into every design decision, so the design must oscillate between functional and formal concerns.
Then the building has a chance to be articulated according to a coherent formal language. It is like the legs of this desk here, which are designed, composed and articulated together with the table top. And that's what we spend 90% of our design time on. About 10% of the design time is allocated to know the brief and to make sure that all the programmatic and technical requirements are met. And then comes the work of composition to fit all of these elements together and to bring them under the spell of a ruthless formalism. Bringing the pragmatic features under a ruthless formalism implies a very strong aesthetic will power. However, this aesthetic work of formal composition and articulation is also functional with respect to the final life process of the building. We need to reflect the fact that buildings function socially as communicative visual frames of social interaction and need to be legible.
That's what most of our work consist on: to establish the balance and poise of the massing, to refine the proportions, the flow and tension of the curves. All the elements you need - walls, columns, doors, windows – must be treated as part of an “artistic” projects. These elements are like the brush strokes of a painting, establishing an overall legible composition.
AC: How would you describe the working pattern of Zaha? Did she work very late?
PS: Yes, she also worked very late. Everybody was sketching first. And then some of us started to use curves to translate the sketches into measured hard-line drawings. Zaha’s sketches were free-hand, very fast, fluid and beautiful. They were mostly diagrammatic, conceptual, in plan view. We all tried to emulate her and sketched along too. None of us could surpass her. We picked a version or an idea, maybe a little imprecise first, and then developed the geometry, the plans and the elevations in 3D. I started a lot of 3D visualization, like small perspective sketches, not constructed, just to test different views from different angles, outside and inside, front and back. That's what I did. Zaha sometimes took some of those 3D drawings and composed into paintings. The big paintings were usually created by a whole team. She directed the painting, sometimes painting herself, or sometimes having others to help painting. Those were very large paintings, so big that she never did all by herself. She taught others what to paint and how to paint. And then there were certain difficult pieces she executed by herself. Maybe for the early paintings (before I had joined) she did more by herself. But even then I know she always had the help of her students. Her work was always a collective creative effort. Of course, as a student, she did everything herself. But later when she started to work for the competitions, for those famous paintings, these were all collaborations, although rightly attributed to her as the master composer.
AC: It seems that those paintings are more of designs rather than pieces of art. They are quite architectural.
PS: She didn't look at them as works of art, even though they were inspired especially by the abstract art of El Lissitzky. They were actually tools to develop the ideas and aesthetics, the feeling and dynamism of the spatial ideas, even though some of them were not describing literally or clearly particularly designs. They were giving an abstract expressions, an expressive substitute or vague simulation of what could be aimed for and intended. They were rarely literal descriptions or designs.
AC: How about the clients? Such as the client of the Vitra Fire Station, was he very tolerant and patient? It is such a small building, but you overspent on design time.
PS: How did you know! It is true! He was very tolerant. He was given a design early on and was happy with this early version. But we said no, for we did not like it yet. He then had to wait and was fine with this. We ourselves were unsatisfied with what we had, which was really a struggle. It is difficult to believe now, because now we can design much more complex things very fast and we are sure what we can do and how to do it. But back then we were less swift. I was quite new in the office and slow. It was my fault maybe to spend too much time. But there was nobody else actually. Also, the Vitra Fire Station was a very difficult program comprising a large garages and a bunch of smaller attached rooms. It was difficult to arrange these disparate elements into a satisfying, dynamic figure. Finally we hit upon the idea of big walls which pull across the whole thing and which capture the garage and span across its expanse. The small rooms were elongated and arranged on two levels to match the height of the garage and the primary wall unified the whole composition.
AC: How could you meet such a nice client at that time?
PS: He was somebody who had also hired Frank Gehry. He wanted to use talented, innovative and avant-garde architects to do interventions between his factories. First, the factory itself was initially designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, a London based architect working in the style of Foster. At that time all the buildings in such an industrial corporate estate were meant to share in a unified look establishing a single visual corporate identity. This was still the late modernist era. Later Rolf Fehlbaum – in the new spirit of post-modernism - wanted something more diverse. So he used some of the additional projects he had to build to create a diverse campus, like collection of young avant-garde designers. He was creating a collage of very different things, in different styles, a collage of architectural experiments. So he was curious, open and willing to indulge in a young hot-shot architect like Zaha Hadid. Zaha was an insider star. I don’t know how he discovered Zaha, but he must have had connections to architects and designers who designed furniture for Vitra, and must he must have seen some of Zaha’s work, perhaps her furniture. He had also asked us design a chair, but we never came up with something convincing at the time.
AC: In the hard times, did you do any branding to promote your office?
PS: No, we did not have to do much, because the office had the attention of the architectural media on whatever we did. We had a lot of opportunities to exhibit in exhibitions, to enter a lot of competitions and to publish in magazines, even just drawings and sketches. We won some competitions also. Zaha had won the Peak, the Ku’Damm project in Berlin, a big office project in the harbor of Duesseldorf (Germany), and also the Cardiff Opera House competition. Winning these competitions did attract a lot of attention and interest for our work.
For me, as a very young architect, it was interesting enough at that time to be involved with the famous architects. I was sent abroad with drawings to exhibitions to many countries, and felt good about myself. Very quickly after a few months, I was representing (the office) at exhibitions. That felt all very cool. I didn’t mind so much about the real buildings. I was interested in ideas and the discourse of architecture. I wanted to be innovative and admired by other architects or my students and peers, and to develop design work which got recognition, independently of being built, and I enjoyed the celebrations of winning competitions after many nights of hard, intense work. Of course it was a shame that the construction of the winning competitions didn’t happen. But we kept going and winning new things, enjoying the attention. That lasted for quite a while, and it was good enough for me, but not for Zaha. She was suffering much more from projects being stopped, especially from the Cardiff Opera House not happening. There were many entries for the 1994 Cardiff Opera House competition, about sixty or a hundred. We won that and then there was a second stage. And we won again. We felt like stars. Then we got the project and all our staff worked on it for more than a year, and then it was cancelled in 1995. Zaha was very very upset. But we kept going doing more competitions.
We lost most competitions throughout the 1990s. From 1995 to 1998 we did very beautiful and extreme work, so extreme that we indulged doing drawings and designs which were very fluid, and perhaps too extreme at the time to win. They might have been too difficult, too ambitious or too scary for clients. We lost all of them. That’s the sequence of the most beautiful projects, like the Kunsthaus Graz competition which was won by Peter Cook. The sequence started with the V&A extension, then the Royal Collection competition in Madrid and then came the Reina Sofía Museum won by Jean Nouvel. Then came the National Library of Quebec in Montreal, then the Chicago IIT student centre (won by Rem), then Kunsthaus Graz. There was also the competition for the Museum of Islamic art for Doha. All these competitions were won with simpler designs.
At the end of the 1990s, I also wanted to win and finally build. In 1999, we won the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, the MAXXI and one year later the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg. They were designed deliberately in simpler, rationalized geometries. I wanted to win, absolutely win. And we did. These were to be built, and this was very important. Zaha always wanted to build, but it was at that stage that I finally wanted to build too.
Only later, much later, the more recent works, like the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, have the degree of fluidity and complexity which we had tried to design ten years earlier. Now we have more facilities to make them credible with the computer renderings and fully 3D computer design and more sophisticated engineering support. The computer-aided designs were still less convincing in the 1990s, so we had still used paintings instead of computer renderings or we mixed in primitive computer renderings. This was not yet convincing enough. Also, so I think the market and clients were not ready to accept this level of unfamiliarity. Maybe the completion of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim helped to shift the mood and opened up a space for us.
The Guangzhou Opera House was the first built project that approached the spectacular geometric complexity of our earlier design experiments. China was willing to take more risks with refreshing building designs. Maybe it was out of inexperience. In China, if it is a government project, they know they can do it. It’s not only that they can put more money in or give more time, but the politicians or the leaders can make things happen. On the contrary in Europe, it’s tricky if you (a politician) overrun the budget or have delays, for your (his/her) neck is on the line. It is scarier (in Europe). Also, clients in Europe or in the USA have more experience to foresee if something may be difficult to do. So they are more cautious, more conservative. They look more at the track record, and can distinguish a real track record from those with just media fame like the early ZHA. So China was a wonderful opportunity for somebody less well-established but with a certain fame. It allowed us to get a big spectacular project, while in Europe it was not so easy. The projects in China helped us a lot to build up a track record of large and complex projects. This has given us credibility and a reputational gain, even though we didn’t earn any money in China. Actually we lost money. The fees in China are very low, relatively speaking, if you work with a UK cost base. Now we know better how to avoid economic loss in China. In any case we remain grateful for the great, precious opportunities to build that China afforded us, and we gave our best to make the best of this opportunity.
AC: Ms. Wang, our chief editor, was the leading project manager of the Galaxy SOHO.
PS: I love the Soho Galaxy project. It’s one of my favorite. It’s a very important project for us, which shows that we can do important and beautiful commercial architecture. Zaha and I were never meant to do only cultural buildings or exceptional buildings. What we are showing at Galaxy is meant to be a universally applicable paradigm, which could change everything in the built environment. It also has a good scale, and it is a real generic component of the city, not just an exceptional place.
It is a very strong project, but we lost money on it. I’m not blaming the client, that’s business. We had a contract with a fixed fee but we took longer than anticipated. I think SOHO made the expected profit in the end, but not us. However, we’ve been given a lot of credibility. We are very proud to see the project and enjoyed the opening, and now we have located our Beijing office there.
AC: How did you and do you now choose clients? It is quite an issue for every large and famous office.
PS: Maybe it’s the other way round. We are chosen by clients or they come to us. We are not very selective and nearly take every client. Only if the budgets for the projects or competitions are very tight, we now sometimes turn them down, but this is rare. Clients come to us, aware that they can get something special. We also like small projects. And we do not mind too much losing money on small projects. If there is at least a budget to build them, even if the fees are insufficient, we can manage to compensate this from the large projects.
For competitions, we have to apply and we have to be selected. You cannot just entre a competition anymore today, for you have to be pre-selected. We apply to be selected. We would like to do anything nearly. All building types, sites and briefs are welcome occasions for innovation.
For projects in different countries all over the world, the main issue is that the budget should be sufficient, and the fees, at least for the big projects. We cannot take the risk of losing a lot of money on large projects. Certain countries, like India, pose big problems on fees for us, although we did one project there a few years ago. We realised that some countries are not ready or not developed enough, but maybe we can try again later. We go all over the world, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Russia, and Australia now. We’d like to think our work and creativity could be useful for any project anywhere in the world.
AC: But there is quite a load of work offers, especially after the office got famous.
PS: Yes, and then you can to hire more people, and I like that. That’s why we grew rapidly. There were only 4 people when I started. 40 people in the early 2000s. And then within maybe 4 or 5 years, it increased 10 fold to 450 people in 2008. So from 2003 to 2008, we moved from 40 to 450. This was actually my drive towards expansion, while Zaha was a bit worried about it. I just kept hiring people, knowing that we find new projects and that we can win competitions. Sometimes, I kept all the students from the whole class after they finished to study with me at the AA, and hired them all to the office, or a large part of them every year. And when other people wanted to come, I just said ‘come in’. I was not scared at all and I like this idea of having a larger and larger firm with more and more work. And it went quite well and was a positive, thrilling experience. It worked out.
AC: But that brings you another issue in management of running the whole office, yes?
PS: Well initially, we didn’t manage too much. It was an unusual boom period, particularly in the Middle East and in China. Even in Europe, there were projects all over Spain, Italy and France. We had projects in every city in Spain and huge projects in Dubai, Qatar and so on. We were still a young office, but our earnings went up quick. We made a lot of money yet we wasted a lot of money. It was very much a system of bottom up self-organisation. There was no management at all and no formalized accountability. There was no control of how long it took on design or how many people should work on a project. Everyone was just busy, running around, doing projects, flying around the world in business class and taking taxies all over the place. But the fees were still sufficient, so we did not care. We enjoyed the rollercoaster ride. Everything was fast and furious. But all this changed after 2008 when we lost many projects, first In Dubai, then in Europe. But we managed to maintain the large office through the whole crisis years by changing drastically our behaviors. We started serious financial management. Now our firm is very well managed.
AC: How do you consider your employees’ career path? How to let them grow from a student to a mature architect?
PS: Two of our board of directors - Jim Heverin and Gianluca Racana - were brought in as students fresh from school. The other two – Charles Walker and Mouzhan Majidi - were hired as mature architects. Sometimes we take on very established mature professionals. But most of our staff, who are now very much mature and have done many projects, started as kids, like me myself. We were just kids from school, working hard, not knowing much, learning on the fly, and growing from competitions, via small buildings, to medium sized buildings, to very large buildings. That is the usual pattern which works for us. Young students and professionals have less experience but much more passions and put in long work hours for small salaries. This is what is used to be, but this has also normalized somehow.
We have people who have been with us for 10 or 20 years. They started young and now are experienced, some of whom participate in the management of the firm. And we also hire good professionals with outside experiences from other firms, such as Foster’s. Now we are very organised with a board of directors, three profit centres, a front end design group, an interior department, a design department, and a good financial team. All these are overseen by our CEO Mouzhan Majidi who was the CEO at Foster’s before. We are a very professional, well-managed organization now.
AC: It is said that Zaha Hadid equals Patrik Schmarcher and that you two are the same in terms of designing and managing the firm. But in our opinion, your thinking is quite different from Zaha’s.
PS: Well, I would say my thinking is different, but the things I am thinking about are those things that Zaha had intuitions about. I am writing theory and making explicit arguments and explanations, while Zaha had very potent intuitions. She was a very strong original creator with shocking innovations which were viable andand indeed compelling. My role was firstly to co-design, but now more and more also to grasp and argue for the rationality of these innovations: working with very fluid curves, allowing distortions, helps us to fit buildings into irregular sites, giving dynamism to our spaces, and to maintain legibility in the face of spatial and programmatic complexity. The idea of gradient of fading effects and the idea of landscape or topography as analogies allowed us to make spaces more permeable, also across levels, and to integrate diverse spaces into a seamless whole. These were, I think, potent innovations. I realized early on that they are fitting the contemporary age of a more complex and dynamic society with open and fluid patterns of interactions. So I created some concepts and terms to describe it, and helped Zaha to steer in this direction and to be confident about it. I was helping to select, filter and direct her creativity and intuitions. I also made sure we steered away from and avoided some earlier tendencies like a certain 1950s retro style or a cartoon-like exaggeration in her formalisms which I thought were going in the wrong directions.
I helped align Zaha Hadid Architects with the next generation that was up-coming, i.e. people like Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, Jeff Kipnis, FOA, Lars Spuybroek etc. In the 1990s, I aligned our collective work and architects with work of this new generation. I thought it was a very exciting and convergent movement, and an opportunity to leave deconstructivism behind and to join a new group. I convinced Zaha that this was the right way. This was not something she would have done, as it’s only natural that there was resistance for a great creative genius to align herself with others. And she never admitted it explicitly perhaps, but, in my view, this is what happened. I was doing this very consciously, and I am happy to give credit to the influence of these protagonists (like Greg Lynn etc). And also when I founded the Design Research Lab (DRL) at the AA in 1996, it was fully aligned with this new computationally empowered tendency and what we did at AADRL had a big impact on the work of the office, which was similar yet different from what we had done up till then. It was radicalizing tendencies that were present before and it created a new language through the extensive usage of new software like Maya. These were my contributions and Zaha was not only intrigued but bought into it fully.
The fact that the students who came out of the DRL used computational tools changed our working methods. Zaha was, in the end, very clear that our further progress could no longer be expected from hand sketching or painting. She quickly realized that 3D modelling and then scripting was the way forward. She was always asking for more and more scripters and very much wanted me to hire the most skilled students. She was trying to avoid repeating the signature style of her earlier days. She kept saying that they were old clichés that we had to get rid of. We were totally aligned on this count, we both wanted continuous innovation. Of course this is ambitious, difficult. You cannot throw out your routines overnight. This would be dangerous, indeed impossible. But it was the definite interest from both of us to develop the work and to keep it fresh and new. I was even more determined, as I knew it was not just about being fresh and new, but about pushing a particular direction forward, the direction I later started to call “parametricism”. Parametricism makes all elements of architecture parametrically malleable and thus allows us to intensify relations within and across buildings, and achieve continuous spatial differentiation as well as parametric adaptation to embed our complex new urban figures into the context. All these ambitions were in my view connected to principles which can be made explicit and receive a clearly argued for theoretical direction. That is what I see my role was and is. There was no conflict between Zaha and myself on this count, but this was something she could appreciate.
AC: In our interview with Rem Koolhaas, it is mentioned that Zaha was always implicit and intuitive, never speaking for herself. But Koolhaas argued that Zaha majored in mathematics with her own way of rationality.
PS: Well, explicit rationality comes in degrees. Of course she was thinking, describing, talking and lecturing about her works. If you look at the group of the deconstructivists, it is clear that one can distinguish those who are more theoretically minded versus those who were more intuitive creators. Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenmann, and Bernard Tschumi were writers, reflecting theoretically. Then Frank Gehry and Wolf Prix can be grouped with Zaha in terms of a more intuitive intelligence. Of course they all talk about their work and have their own rational thinking. But it is not equally systematic or theoretical, and there were no writings from the latter group. I think in every movement you find this division of labour. For me, the key is not the inherent talent. Rather the investment in reading and writing makes a big difference here. I benefit from a life-long investment in reading and writing and have perhaps gone further in this than even Rem, Peter and Bernard. That is the way and reason I’ve been able to develop a systematic coherent theory through which a more comprehensive and more coherent orientation can be afforded, compared with a mere collection of articles. That’s where my confidence and courage to lead the discipline originates. The capacity of theoretical reflection and guidance comes in degrees. But it does not come natural. It is the result of a collective discursive elaboration. We all are intuitive. I have my intuitions and my design actions are guided by them. But I cannot make them uncritically the exclusive arbiter of my design choices. I have critically examined my and Zaha’s intutions in the light of my theories which embed our work in the historical trajectory of our civilization and its requirements. For me, in the final analysis there is nothing ineffable or inexplicable in design. I query everything “artistic” in terms of its rationality and instrumentality. In the 21st century this rationality is more complex than it was in the last century. Therefore it is to be expected that my theoretical edifice is a rather expansive theoretical effort, compared with earlier 20th century attempts at a unified theory of architecture.
AC: Zaha did mention mathematics and folding, but definitely not parametricism.
PS: She also never talked about mathematics. She studied mathematics but this doesn’t mean that she was a mathematician. I studied mathematics too, but I also don’t talk about mathematics either. It doesn’t mean much. She didn’t talk about parametricism because she had her own language and way of talking about her works, our works. Like many other architects, there was to some extent reluctance on her part to be associated with a label or a category. Earlier she had also rejected to be grouped into Deconstructivism. Of course, she was proud to be part of the Deconstructivism exhibition, but she never wanted to be described with such a label. It seems that once you are put into a category with others, you might want to differentiate yourself from them. It might seem limiting. But my attitude is different. I think we need to start to characterise and distinguish the directions in architecture through general categories. For example, Deconstructivism is not just one phrase or term. You have to describe its features, and methodology. Here you need theory to start correlating the general features, degrees of freedom and capacities of the style with the features, requirements and opportunities of the societal context. I understand that one may feel inclined to reject a classification if one just perceives it as mere label based on superficial features.
In fact, a lot of people have rejected being classified in terms of a style. In modern architecture, there was a deliberate rejection of the phrases ‘modernism’ or ‘international style’, at the time when Philip Johnson launched this label. And it was claimed that modernism is not a style and has nothing to do with style, but something more principled and timeless. I believe styles are principled, but cannot be timeless, as the built environment must be adapted to historical conditions.
The category of ‘style’ is not loved. In particularly the modernists rejected historicism, i.e. the use of the historical styles like neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, and so on. Modernists were thinking of style as something superficial, relating primarily to ornament. The category of style was given bad connotations. But I see the value and the necessity to make distinctions in terms of style, and try to pin down what the different styles afford the designer. The category ‘style’ also provides nearly the only thing that the general people knows and wants to know about architecture. They always ask, ‘What is the style of your design?’ So we have to recognize that styles exist and mean something. So it is for me very clear that the history of architecture is also the historical succession of architectural styles. The important historical styles mark important progressive steps in the evolution of architecture. The Gothic was succeeded by the Renaissance, then Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Neo-Classicism, then historicism (Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance and so on), then eclecticism, modernism, post-modernism, deconstructivism and finally parametricism. Besides there are many more in-between styles (both transitional and subsidiary styles) between and within these great styles. For instance the epochal style of modernism spawned the following subsidiary styles: cubism, wide modernism, brutalism, metabolism, then high-tech. All of these are forms of modernism, following the general formative principles of modernism: separation, specialization, repetition. And once I tell you what the principles of the modernism are, you can see the same in all the subsidiary styles. Nothing in high-tech deviated from these principles of modernism, but something radically different happened in post-modernism, i.e. the collaging elements, citations from historical motives. And deconstructivism again is something very different. I can describe and compare all these and align them with eras of societal evolution. That’s why the category of style is such an important theoretical resource. New styles are happening not because it’s time for a new fashion, but because society is changing and has very different dynamics. So modernism can rely on socialist central planning of mass-production which is very different from the 19th century and very different agaoin from the 21st century. There are progressive steps, revolutions in style. So I thought what’s next. I call our current societal era post-fordist network society, and parametricism is congenial to this society, while modernism was aligned with era Fordism based on Henry Ford's assembly line mass-production. Now we have post-fordism, with very small product runs, customization, and very fast innovation, computer-controlled economies of scope, smaller companies, network companies, the continuous career development through the whole life, the dynamics of the city, a lot of communications in the city, a very complex city which is no longer centrally plannable and so on. This means that you have to work with market-based dynamics, so the city looks different. And we have to cope with this and adapt our architectural repertoires and methodologies.
Parametricism took over from deconstructivism which, as a transitional styles, is now dead and finished. Deconstructivism started to reflect the complexity of the contemporary cities. Parametricism continued what deconstructivism had begun but much more potent and powerful. It’s been going on much longer, encompasses many more architects and significant completed works than deconstructivism has ever had. Even without a MOMA show, parametricism is firmly established within the discipline and beyond. The last few years of economic crisis and stagnation with no work in Europe have slowed parametricism’s ascent. Although it is a challenge under these adverse conditions, I am very convinced that it will go forward globally.
Zaha was shy about parametricism, also because she knew it would be criticised. And she had the same attitude again like her attitude toward deconstructivism that she didn’t want to be part of something. But she did not prevent me from using the term ‘parametricism’, friendly tolerating my public pronouncements and lectures using our work to illustrate and argue for parametricism, while kept lecturing about our work in her own terms, which I of course respected as well. Hence, we were mutually tolerant of slightly different attitudes, but the work was anyway the same work, with different descriptions.
AC: Zaha became a superstar worldwide after receiving the Pritzker Prize in 2004. Did the fame affect her life or her work in some way?
PS: No, personally, she didn’t change. Her personality didn’t change. We’ve got much more work for sure because of her getting the Prize. It contributed to the rapid growth of the firm together with the booming market conditions.
But she thought she was a star, and she indeed was a star, much earlier. During her studies at the AA, she was a star student. She was Rem’s student, and won the AA diploma prize in 1977. Then she became a teacher at the AA, immediately after graduation, first teaching with Rem and Elia, then taking over their unit. And the next year she did her first competition - the Dutch Houses of Parliament in the Hague - with Rem and Elia’s OMA. In 1979 she set up her own design studio competing against OMA in the competition for the Irish prime minister’s residence.. The project was won by somebody else, but some of the projects were exhibited at the AA, and Zaha’s truly original and powerful project was considered by many the unofficial winning entry. This project and exhibition established Zaha as an original, noteworthy voice in architecture. Anyway, in her mind and demeanor she was a star all the way through, all her life, but especially since Rem Koolhaas had discovered and encouraged her talent, boosting her confidence by giving her a lot of attention while ignoring all his other students (according to Zaha). At least since then she knew that she was a star. However, she was very unpretentious. She didn’t care if the people and friends she communicated with were successful or not. She was very genuine.
AC: It is said that for about half a year after getting the Prize, she didn’t go to the office often.
PS: No, that’s not true, even till the last minute she was fully engaged. She was also very busy with her extensive social life. Nearly every day there was a social event, a party, an opening, a lunch and/or a dinner. Of course when there was a deadline, she worked at night in the office, often all night in the early days. But everybody gets older and cannot keep up with the late night work. She never started before 2.00 o’clock at the office. But she stayed up very late. She was sketching, communicating on the phone, from home. She didn’t think about anything else. She worked in her own way, all the time worrying and thinking about the office, without necessarily showing up every day, or for very long hours, certainly not in the morning. And me too, I rarely show up before 11 or 12, but often work until late. That’s the pattern.
Zaha was always obsessive about design, trying to control everything. She came to the office and worked with the front end design team we created, which we call the ZH Cluster at Zaha Hadid Architects. The team comprises the people she liked to work with, young designers, many of our students, not the technical teams. Sometimes the technical team was frustrated about this, but this system helped her and still helps me know to give a strong design direction to the whole firm. She cared about everything relevant to design, criticised it, and developed ideas. When there were a lot of projects, it's not necessary for her to read the entire report or to understand every project, especially when it comes to giving an aesthetic or a conceptual direction. The team could quickly explain what the constraints are and start massing the program elements. On this basis we could/can imagine and sketch concepts and compositions that might be applicable and let the team proliferate options on this basis. Zaha could immediately see what was not right or what she didn’t like. This process was very intuitive and could be very fast. It doesn’t matter if there were 50 projects to look at or just one. So architecture is different in this respect from the situation of a lawyer who might have to study extensive documents to form an opinion on a case. In architecture a complex, detailed drawing or model can be taken in at a glance.
AC: We understand what the firm has experienced in Tokyo recently. And as an architect, it seems impossible to avoid being involved in the complexity of politics. It is seems to be universal.
PS: Our project for the stadium was professional and beautiful. And our process was professional. We asked and demanded from the client to manage cost conscientiously, as we were aware of the budget risks and the public scrutiny of Olympic projects. We proposed a reduction in the seats numbers which would have been admissible with respect to the IOC and we suggested to take out the cooling for every seat which was an exaggerated and unnecessary provision. But they thought they could keep everything and twist the arm of the bidding contractors to keep the costs down. This was a miscalculation. I’m angry because we wasted two years of our most intense and passionate work effort and our reputation has been damaged. Also, we are very disappointed that some of our Japanese friends and colleagues behaved so outrageously hostile and unprofessional in their public campaigning against our winning project design. There was a ludicrous debate about the size of our design. Ito who complained the most had himself made proposals that were even bulkier than our design. The result was that we had to lower the main structural arches by 5 metres, which resulted in a less efficient and more expensive structure, and it became even more difficult to fit in all the desired seats. This imposition made no sense and did not appease our detractors at all.
We should have never been denied our rightful role in the project. We could have re-designed the project according to new, more realistic specifications. We wrote letter after letter, but to no avail. Maybe there was an unacknowledged nationalism behind this decision. It remains a puzzle to me. That a foreigner should win this competition was probably never intended. I just have to say that Ando was a hero as head of the jury to pick our design, in a climate where a Japanese architect was most probably expected to win. But if you look at all the designs together you can clearly tell the winning project deserved to win. Our design is very organic and beautiful, based on many years of research we did on shell and tensile structures. You feel that the shape is not invented but something that comes organically from the logic of the structure. The problem in Japan is that some architects seem to enjoy a privileged status that perhaps allowed them to expect a win. Their reaction felt as if we took something away from them that was rightfully theirs. I am not sure. Its puzzling. I still can’t believe how unfair and hostile all the criticism was. I’m really disappointed. Zaha was deeply hurt and disappointed by Toyo Ito who had been a friend. She had respected his work and accordingly promoted him, and she fought for his Pritzker Prize. But after losing the Tokyo competition to us joined Maki in very harsh criticism that our design was not the right size, too big. But I don’t think he had the right to criticize the size of the stadium after he himself had proposed a stadium of the same size on the same site. He’s lost the competition, and should have remained silent. It is against any professional ethics to come out against a successful competitor and criticise, with sketches and proposals, to undermine the winning scheme. He should have voiced his concerns that before entering the competition, and abstained from participation. After two years of criticising our project and after rejecting the idea of a stadium on this site, when the competition was opened up again after we had been asked to stop, Ito re-entered the bidding process, in contradiction to all his previous argumenst and criticisms. He made a shameless 180 degree turn once again. I cannot comprehend how anybody of the status and stature of a Toyo Ito could be so blatantly inconsistent and self-serving. Or is it because an elevated status makes those who attain it immune to any criticism in Japan? I cannot comprehend how all this is possible. The competition situation in Japan was irrational in that it excluded international contractors, very protectionist. Even suppliers and sub-contractors should all be Japanese. Under this regime construction inflation is inevitable when preparing for Olympic games. Cost planning in such an environment is virtually impossible. Our attempts to advise our client frankly and to challenge our client’s assumption was very difficult in the very hierarchical communicational culture. Our voice was not heard. Our experience with Olympic projects was not utilized. Finally we heard about our dismissal via the media. The prime minister himself took matters in his own hands and we had no prior warning. It seems our client was equally surprise to hear the news. This was all extremely disappointing. I’m hesitant to express my disappointment here, in the context of a memorial of Zaha, but she was very very hurt. This was the biggest set-back and shock for us, and for Zaha in particular. The Cardiff Opera House was a shock for sure, but this was far more severe. Zaha was devastated and disheartened, on the brink of wanting to give up everything. The fact that she got the RIBA Gold Medal soon after this devastation helped a lot, psychologically.
We never witnessed any major disappointment in China, or elsewhere in Asia. We received a bit of hostile criticism during the design stages and durinfg construction of our Dongdaemun project in Seoul. It looked bizarre and alien to many people, particularly to many other architects. They thought it has nothing to do either with Asia or with Seoul. But I’m glad the government, the client and the mayor went through with the project. After it was finished, everybody loves it, including those architects. It is very attractive, beautiful and makes sense, once you walk through it and experience how the form guides you intuitively through the complex and when you see how calm and quiet the public space looks like, despite the complexity of the form and site. So its important to be persistent with one’s commitments and convictions.
AC: In China, some people think the only contribution of Zaha is creating a ‘style’ which is considered bizarre by some others. Few people know who she was and what she had really done.
PS: I want to say something about the idea of ‘bizarre’. Of course, clearly some of our works look usual, because there is a new rigorous principle at work. But our work is not willful, rather it is based on rational principles, and the rigorous pursuit of an advantageous concept. That’s why the work often ends up looking so unusual. We also have theoretical explanations of the principles and advantages which are the reasons why we use curves to make a more comfortable arrangement of spaces, and a more legible composition of volumes. Curves allow us to articulate very complex paths, to be followed more easily. These advantages makes variable curves very important. Some of our work looks “bizarre” to some because it’s new and innovative. Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building looked bizarre in 1958, but now the whole city looks like it. But at the same time we have to be honest and admit that there ARE many rather arbitrary, truly bizarre designs within contemporary architecture. And it is not easy to distinguish these trivial examples from serious work. There are designs that look unusual because they are principled and original, while others look unusual because they are aiming arbitrarily at a superficial spectacle. These are mediocre works that try to make a spectacle for no good reason. Our work might be confused with such works, as both kinds of work seem initially strange. Our work, however, reveals its motivation and meaning in its final life process, when visitors and users experience it and are quickly able to make sense of it all, because it works in a life enhancing way. The arbitrary spectacle, in contrast, needs to be rejected. So maybe the label ‘bizarre architecture’ is not meant to aim at us, and should not aim at us. And it should, to some extent to, be agreed with. So I have to sympathise with Mr. Xi Jinping, really, and I don’t feel rejected by this personally. Of course I still want to do something new and innovative with every new project and that implies that I may risk being labelled “bizarre” and being rejected. However, I also learned that we can adapt our style to local cultures, and yet add something contemporary to this local tradition. We have learned to adapt to different regional cultural identities. We are doing this in the Middle East and in Asia, which is interesting and adds a new layer to our work. I call this approach “parametric regionalism”. But we should not overdo this. After all, despite the cultural differences and various cultural inheritances around the world we are all converging towards a global culture, sharing the same fundamental societal values and principles of contemporary professional life. Parametricism is global in its principles, but locally unique in its particular formations, because one of its principles is regional climatic, cultural, and contextual adaptation and affiliation.
We are living in contemporary world society, and China can make an original contribution to it, to deliver a unique Chinese contribution, at home and abroad. Chinese architecture is now part of world architecture, winning competitions abroad, and making contributions all over the world. Maybe there remains some recognisability, ‘ah, this comes from China,’ but this might not be due to the use of traditional Chinese motifs. Look at the Japanese architects as an example. Since we've just mentioned Ito, he is a great architect with wonderful work and a well-deserved fantastic international reputation. And I respect that (while I can no longer respect him as an individual). I am not sure it makes much sense anymore to distinguish “western” from “eastern” values and aesthetics. The idea of an “eastern style” is no longer meaningful as a contemporary style. China should be cautious about such ideas. Because it is self-limiting for China. Such ideas are tied up with a national sense of pride which every society needs: a certain patriotism. But it should not get in the way of cosmopolitism, the cosmopolitan spirit. Therefore, I am ambiguous and careful of adapting to this legitimate idea of adapting the new to the given culture. Such an adaptation makes sense only if it does not contradict the global best practice methodologies and values of parametricism. Thus we need to look for synergies between local traditions and global advances. There are such synergies, for instance many vernacular building traditions harbor intelligent adaptations to local climatic conditions that can lead to insights and convincing contemporary translations. So I think we ZHA can contribute to contemporary Chines architecture. After all we have offices in Beijing and in Hong Kong.
No nation should be protectionist about its projects and attempt reserve them for its own architects. It is not helpful to protect local architects from global competition. It means that they don’t have to live up to the global standards and they will never be forced to develop. I am in favor of global competition everywhere, and in all industries. It is never a good idea to protect. This only promotes backwardness. When you start protecting, you are never ready to conquer the world.