ZAHA HADID: 'I'm Sure That As A Woman I Can Build A Very Good Skyscraper'

zaha hadid

Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

In a damning indictment of the prevailing culture of her own profession, Dame Zaha Hadid, the world’s leading female architect, says she has faced “more misogynist behaviour” in London than anywhere else in Europe and that things are not improving at all for women in architecture.Speaking to the Observer in the wake of the disturbing findings of a survey into the working lives of women architects, Hadid said: “I have noticed it is easier for me in European countries than it is here. There is a different dynamic. In the UK it is more difficult. They are very conservative. There is a scepticism and more misogynist behaviour here. Although, while there were people against me, there were also people living here who were incredibly supportive.”

The British Iraqi, who is a former winner of Britain’s Stirling prize and the international Pritzker prize, said it was frequently assumed that a woman architect could not take on a big commercial project and that she was better suited to residential properties, public buildings or leisure centres. “I am sure that as a woman I can do a very good skyscraper,” she said. “I don’t think it is only for men.”

The acclaimed architect, best known in Britain for the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park, recognised a bias that pushes women towards designing interiors. “It is thought they understand interior shapes, and I am sure they do understand them better than men actually, but the idea is that they will prefer to deal with a single client, rather than with corporations and developers.”

Her remarks this weekend were prompted by research carried out by the Architects’ Journal that revealed a “sinister and rotten kernel of inequality” in British architecture and the shocking fact that two thirds of women who responded reported “insidious” male bullying at work. 60 per cent also said that clients in the building industry failed to recognise their authority.

While the cover stars of the new AJ are Walters & Cohen, joint winners of last year’s AJ woman architect of the year award, Hadid gives no credence to the idea that things are getting better: “No, I don’t think so. What AJ is doing is very good and the editor, Christine Murray, has been very active, but I doubt anything has changed much over the last 30 years.”

In 2003 The Royal Institute of British Architects raised the issue with its report Why Do Women Leave Architecture? but Hadid believes it has not done nearly enough, despite having had two consecutive female presidents since September 2009, Ruth Reed and Angela Brady. “In my view the changes within Riba are nonexistent,” she said. Last year Hadid won the Jane Drew award in recognition of her influence on the industry. Her acceptance speech dealt with the high-profile row surrounding the competition to build Cardiff Bay Opera House. She still sees the incident as typical: “I had a very bad experience in Cardiff and then with the foundation building I was designing in London. There was just a reluctance to go out of the box with thinking.”

While numbers of male and female architecture students are equally balanced, only just above 20% of qualified architects are women.

“It is a very tough industry and it is male-dominated, not just in architectural practices, but the developers and the builders too,” said Hadid. “I can’t blame the men, though. The problem is continuity. Society has not been set up in a way that allows women to go back to work after taking time off. Many women now have to work as well as do everything at home and no one can do everything. Society needs to find a way of relieving women. It may be a little easier now, with new technology, for a woman to take off six months or a year and then come back.”

Drop-out rates following motherhood may also be related to the lower rates of pay for women architects that make it hard for them to afford childcare. The AJ survey showed that almost half of women were paid less than their male equivalents for the same job.

“Like men, women have to be diligent and work hard. I have quite a few senior architects in the office and they are extremely reliable and very talented, but, when I taught, all my best students were women. Then they drift off,” said Hadid, who has designed the Middle East Centre, or “Softbridge”, now being constructed in Oxford.

She believes women need to be encouraged and to have their confidence built up. “I was very lucky because my family always believed that I could do it.”

Although AJ warns that British urban design may be damaged by the lack of women architects, Hadid welcomes the “exciting” changing skyline of London. She has two provisos though: women should be allowed to handle major projects and there should be an overall strategy shaping new developments.

“People used to think women did not have enough logic. Well, that is absolute nonsense. I don’t know the ego of a man, or how their mentality works, but there is no difference at all in capability, not formally in terms of the buildings at least. There might be differences in women’s leadership qualities or in their ego issues, but we can design in the same way if we have the chance.”

She argues that London should consider copying Paris by designating specific areas for skyscrapers. “London has to decide where it is going,” she says.

Such issues should be debated, Hadid argues, “not to nit-pick, but because it affects the amount of light and shadow in the city.”

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