Incapable of boring

Hugh Pearman joins the profession for Zaha's final goodbye

‘Zaha cried a lot. But her tears did not run vertically down her cheeks. They came at you like bullets.’ So said Rem Koolhaas, her one-time AA tutor whom she joined at the fledgling OMA in Rotterdam before setting up her own practice in London. Koolhaas was speaking at Zaha’s memorial celebration in St Paul’s Cathedral on 10 October. Amid all the eulogies and recollections, this rang especially true. As did the observation of her great supporter Lord Palumbo, that beneath her caustic wit and indomitable presence, and despite the recognition of countless awards and honours, she retained ‘the vulnerability of a citizen of everywhere and nowhere.’ And so did the recollection of her niece, Rana Hadid, of how her aunt taught her to draw, who said that for Zaha, ‘everything began with drawing.’ And arguing, of course, which her family recognised as a sign of love.

Zaha’s posthumous Antwerp New Port House divides opinion like most of her buildings. Why does it look like a tethered airship on the point of breaking free from its mooring? What about the sometimes clunky details? Isn’t it supremely disrespectful to the historic building it sits on? Well no: if you go there rather than pass comment via photos on social media, you see what it is about and appreciate how it sits in its context. Anyway, to ask that is to ask why Zaha, so easily bored, was herself incapable of being boring. Rem got it spot on again. Pointless to talk about early, middle or late Zaha buildings, he said. They all amount to ‘one single, continuous utopia.’

Pointless to talk about early, middle or late Zaha buildings, said Rem Koolhaas. They all amount to ‘one single, continuous utopia

We were not friends (critics are better not being friends with those they write about), we maintained a sometimes wary distance and at one point she got very cross over something I wrote. But we made up. ‘I have feelings too, you know,’ were the words with which she concluded that episode.

So why go on about Zaha? Hasn’t she been obituarised enough, in this magazine and everywhere else? And wasn’t her brand of ‘icon’ architecture anyway past its sell-by date? Well, you certainly wouldn’t want it everywhere, any more than you would want Frank Lloyd Wright’s late, fruity buildings everywhere. Architecture operates on many levels and hers was especially rarefied. But Zaha as some kind of life-force: that will go away no more than her best architecture or the controversies it provokes. Because she left some 30 projects that are yet to complete, as her firm ZHA, headed by Patrik Schumacher, moves forward without her.

 

When she had just bought the old Design Museum building and her friend Brian Clarke asked her what she was going to do with it, she replied, tongue in cheek: ‘I’m going to make it into a wardrobe.’

She also left, revealed her friend the artist Brian Clarke, 1,381 dresses, 471 pairs of shoes, and 284 handbags. When she had just bought the old Design Museum building and he asked her what she was going to do with it, she replied, tongue in cheek: ‘I’m going to make it into a wardrobe.’ I hope they do: such a wardrobe would become an important cultural and historical artefact. For now, rejoice that a vulnerable citizen of everywhere and nowhere can receive a final send-off as an architect feted by the Establishment in the mighty reverberative space of St Paul’s, mixing hymns, Arab songs, and Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’. As she would have said (and for her this was often meant approvingly): ‘It’s ridiculous!’