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Happy Birthday Zaha
Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid was born 72 years today in Baghdad, Iraq.
Her passing is still shocking to me. It is still hard to believe she died in Miami at sixty-five on March 31, 2016, exactly six months short of her birthday.
Zaha was so young and had so much more to invent and develop.
Given her vast back catalog of unbuilt works, paintings, and an indomitable spirit, one wonders what marvels she would have gone on to design and build.
I was lucky enough to have had a few memorable interactions with Zaha, which in a roundabout way, led to me writing a poem for her that I want to share with you today on the occasion of her birthday.
The poem, ‘Against Stasis,’ was initially published in 2015 as a dedication to her book Fluid Totality, released to commemorate her Professorship at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria.
I am posting the poem here with a new birthday note to the inimitable Zaha Hadid.
I hope you enjoy them both.
after Le Poeme de L'Angle Droit by Le Corbusier.
Unrestrained across the global platform,
Of effects both imperceptible and yet discernible in their rhythms.
Against convention's pact of solidarity with the mechanical: it is a dynamic outlook
Vertical in front of the horizontal; horizontal in front of the vertical; pan-optical and perhaps pantheistic.
Categorically against the morality of the right angle
And opposed to the imprecision of phenomenology,
We mirror ourselves in this new character
And find ourselves at home, orthogonal vision behind us.
It is open since
All is accessible.
Open to receive,
Open to deliver the New.
One has, with a piece of diamond, traced the pan-optical perspective.
The symptom is really the reply and the conduit; the detail is a rejoinder to abundance.
I sense it will appear:
The magnificence of polished nano-carbon fibers,
And the grandeur which we will have had to think of the wedding of soft lines and weightless forms
Happy Birthday, Zaha
I remember the first time I met you in Melbourne, Australia, in 1995.
You had flown in from London to give a sold-out lecture.
You kept the audience waiting for about an hour. Do you remember the organizers pulling their hair out as people started to walk out or demand their money back?
I recall your friend and my first boss at a university job, the late John Andrews, trying to calm the audience until you took the stage magnificently in some exotic wrap and pointy heels.
I don’t precisely recollect the lecture, but it was spectacular, even if you seemed jet-lagged or a bit depressed or both.
Several of your close friends from the Architecture Association in London, all my former teachers at RMIT, said you were still licking your wounds after your thrice-winning entry for the Cardiff Opera House in Wales was rejected by the Cardiff Council.
Officially the Council refused some Millenium Commission lottery money, but there was noise about the project not being Welsh enough. That always seemed like one of many false pretexts used against you, like the made-up fears of unmeetable construction budgets or bogus structural concerns.
Or just plain ugly sexism, like when the all-male jury for the Peak in Hong Kong introduced you as Mr. Hadid when you took your award because they couldn’t believe the designer was a woman.
It was always the case that your gender and your foreignness, for lack of a kinder term, were prejudices disguised as nonsense about structural concerns, practicality, stretched finances, and “realistic” construction schedules.
The field was never level for you; you had to work twice as hard as your peers because, as a woman— as an Arabic woman— the doors to your success did not open easily in the beginning.
Men: petty, scared, unambitious little architect-men, always tried to stop you, but you showed them all up, eventually, one stunning big flying angle or giant daring curve at a time.
In Melbourne, I went to dinner with you and your best friend from the AA, Sand Helsel, the head of the Architecture Department at RMIT. A year or two previously, I have taken a summer studio with Sand and the late Diane Lewis.
Do you know, thinking about you and all the women who have taught me something about architecture, like Kerstin Thompson, one of my Thesis advisors, made me realize something?
In general, and with some notable exceptions, most of the best teachers I've ever had have been women, and most of my worst teachers (read: abusive and weirdly competitive) have been men. Funny that.
Back to the dinner.
I was barely out of undergraduate school, awkwardly teaching first-year model-making to students just a few years younger than me. Nevertheless, Sand somehow always had me around for drinks or dinner, maybe because we were both American ex-pats, and we both liked to surf down the west coast of Victoria, over the Westgate Bridge, past industrial Geelong, and far away from Melbourne’s gritty inner city.
I also think I was at your dinner because I was Sand’s ex-pat pet slash employee of the month, and you both thought it was cute to have me following you around like a puppy dog. So, I sat star-struck at a sushi dinner with you, Sand, the Tokyo publisher Akira Suzuki, and others.
Later at Sand’s loft, you two smoked and drank and gossiped late into the night about a specific, very tall architect’s infidelities. You made fun of some quite famous male architects, quite deservedly.
You were ribald and rude and mean, in a funny way.
It was almost too much to absorb; I don’t think I had ever met anyone like you. I left the dinner stinking of cigarettes, a bit more than a little drunk but filled with hope for architecture and more than a few stars in my eyes.
Flash forward to New York in the summer of 2003. I moved back to the United States in 1997 to study at Harvard, and then after a difficult first stint teaching in Los Angeles in 1999 and 2000, I found myself in New York working for J. Max Bond and his partners Lew and Steven Davis.
Unintentionally I ended up helping stage an exhibition of yours at Artists Space on Greene Street. Somehow you were convinced by the gallery to do a one-off show in New York.
I curated another exhibition, Sign as Surface, at Artist’s Space that year. Your partner Patrik Schumacher contributed an essay to the catalog. Maybe that was the connection, or if my memory serves me, it was your friends Joseph Giovannini and Bill McDonald who first lobbied for the show.
Do you remember the curatorial meetings that were supposed to happen but didn’t? They kept getting canceled because you wanted to go shoe shopping or have drinks at the Mercer and chat. How many boxes of shoes were your staff carting around for you anyway?
I can still vividly picture how you kept the press conference on hold for hours until the banner with your name was reprinted with just the right red background. Your poor designers absolutely lost it as the journalists started to walk out of the press event. Watching your 20-something employees begin to cry as the clock ticked down while sipping on champagne was somewhat comical, although maybe you were being a bit too difficult.
Today you’d undoubtedly be canceled for being such a diva, but I could see that behind your capriciousness was something like a little bit of fear and a raw sense of how hard you had to work to get as far as you wanted to go. I think, perhaps, I intuited how fragile it all felt to you.
Maybe you were unnecessarily demanding or complicated, but I never sensed that you were being cruel for the sake of being abusive. Instead, you were shockingly straightforward when you were critical of others, enough that it probably hurt quite a few people a lot sometimes.
Men do it all the time, but until recently, they weren’t taken to task for their meanness. On the other hand, you were accused of all sorts of villainies from nearly the beginning of your career.
I also remember you being especially kind to your students, even babying them a bit too much. There was much kindness in you, especially for the frail but talented student.
Anyway, by the time we all got to the after-dinner in NoHo, it didn’t matter. All was forgiven. The show was, again, brilliant—another tour-de-force.
Flash forward to Heathrow Airport sometime in the early summer of 2015.
I was walking in from my flight from Atlanta on my way to work in AECOM’s London office, and you spotted me across the moving walkway.
Patrik was pushing you to your terminal in a wheelchair, although it wasn’t initially clear to me that you couldn’t walk.
You called me over, loudly.
Maybe you had your foot in a cast or didn’t want to walk, so you made Patrik do the hard work.
Seeing Patrik’s lanky frame pushing you in that clunky airport wheelchair was quite something.
Incongruously you were wearing a sparkly black boa— in summer, no less.
Even though you had a flight to catch, you invited me to join you both in your lounge, and we caught up. You remembered that dinner in New York, and I asked after Sand.
You said my divorce saddened you.
You kept your plane waiting. Finally, the gate attendants started fretting.
You asked if I wanted to come to your party in Vienna later that year.
I thought you were joking until a plane ticket and hotel booking showed up in my email a week later.
In the middle of that big party, thronged by students and some well-known fancy Viennese architects, you seemed distant, your thoughts elsewhere, somewhat oblivious to the crowd and a bit bored by it all.
You decided to sit in the corner alone in the middle of your party for a few moments.
I approached you to say hello, and we sat for a few awkward minutes and reminisced (again!) about Australia, and then you signed the book you gave me.
After the party or before it, I don’t recall now, we were on your students’ final reviews together, and there was an after-dinner.
Dinner was at some weird, wood-lined, dimly lit Austrian restaurant.
You were uproarious and a bit fake-rude to everyone at the table; it was charming.
Somehow you could always get away with it, like a naughty child or grandparent.
You kept quizzing me about why I worked at a big global corporate firm, saying that it made no sense and that I should quit.
I couldn’t figure out if you cared or thought it was just bizarre, which, frankly, it was as far as jobs go.
You started being pointedly mean to Patrik at some point and said he should join me at AECOM.
Everyone laughed at the joke; it was so ridiculous. I guess the joke was made at my expense, or maybe his too, or perhaps you were sending us both up.
You also kept calling him “potato.” That was endearing.
And then I never saw you again.
Half a year later, you were gone.
Zaha, you might not know this, but I am not a fan of many architects, let alone the superstar sort.
Famous architects tend to be boorish, awful, self-obsessed, and often less talented than they let on. Many are just utterly appalling people: users, narcissists, fakes, sociopaths, and monsters.
I really dislike them. But I liked you; you were simply extraordinary.
And you were none of those stupid-famous architect things.
Instead, you were the real deal: a brilliant genius-level architect-superstar with incendiary ideas and more raw talent than the next fifty other starchitects.
You were comfortable in your skin and unafraid to be yourself, always.
You were liberated, just like your buildings.
They soar, unashamed of their buoyancy, their fuck-you-to-gravity daring.
For someone so effortlessly capable of pulling off acts of great elegance and daring, you also seemed quite comfortable cracking absurdly crass, body-humor jokes.
This brought it back to earth, grounding you and making you accessible and relatable.
Human, after all.
And you were often kind, fun, and even self-deprecating.
What a paradox you were.
You deserved more time, and the world deserved more of you, too, Zaha.
Happy Birthday, Zaha.
You are very missed everywhere today, I am sure.
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