Architect Zaha Hadid on how YOU can get ahead

Zaha Hadid is one of the most successful architects in the world. She’s the brain behind the MAXXI museum in Italy, the Bridge Pavilion in Spain and the Serpentine Gallery in London. It wasn’t always smooth sailing to the top though.

Here Zaha tells List for Life about the challenges she faces in her day-to-day work, how being a woman can affect careers and why ambition is an essential ingredient in success.

1. Talk me through your career journey

If you look back to the 60’s, when I was growing up, Iraq was a new republic and it was going through a period of nation-building. These ideas of change, liberation and freedom of this era were critical to my development.

I wanted to continue exploring new ideas so I went to the American University in Beirut where I became interested in geometry while studying mathematics. I realized there was a connection with the logic of maths to architecture. I then moved to London to attend the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture. There was such a buzz in the school at the time. Everyone was on the brink of doing something new.  I will never forget that. The students and the staff at the AA school at that time have been seminal to the past 30 years of global architecture.

2. What would your advice be to aspiring architects?

As a student you have to have some sort of aim. You can’t just wobble about. You have to have focus. When I was studying – I did not know what would be at the end of the road of each piece of research.  I knew there would be something, and that all the experiments had to lead to perfecting the project.

It’s always important that students are given the opportunity to contribute to the discourse and bring something to the table. Their ambition to improve society is encouraged. They just need to be given confidence to do their best. I think that’s why people like to work in our office — their only obligation is to work hard and do their best. They feel they’re part of the process, and of the progress we make. I think that you need to let people grow, and it’s exciting to see them and their work mature.

3. Have you ever been discriminated against for being a woman? Or faced any sort of discrimination in your job? How did you overcome it? 

Architecture is a very tough profession. Every architect you talk to, no matter how successful they are – man or woman – has it very, very difficult. It requires constant focus and commitment. As a woman in the architecture profession, you need the confidence that you can carry on and take new steps every time. So I believe in hard work; it gives you a layer of confidence.

In practice, I still experience resistance, but I think that keeps me focused. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says ‘yes’ to me – it’s still a struggle, despite having gone through it for 30 years.  It’s not necessarily always great, but it keeps you in place, and it also makes you think and do things in a different way.

It’s still very difficult for women to operate as professionals because there are still some worlds women have no access to. But I don’t believe that much remains of the stereotype that architecture should be a male rather than a female career.  50% of first year architectural students are women, so women certainly don’t perceive this career as alien to their gender. In our office we have no stereotypical categories that relate to gender at all.

You now see more established, respected female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes the difficulties are incomprehensible. It remains a challenge for women in the professional world. If a man has an opinion, people describe him as ‘opinionated’ or ‘powerful’. However, if a woman in business voices her opinion, she is considered to be ‘difficult’ or a ‘diva’!  But in the last fifteen years there’s been tremendous change, and now it’s seen as normal to have women in this profession.

4. What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?

In every period there is a new challenge. We have a whole section of our office researching new design and construction techniques. The office maintains this principle and there is always a lot of collaboration with engineers and with people doing experiments with materials to work on new discoveries and push them into the mainstream. The next step is obviously more advanced materials and fabrication and we are also collaborating with manufacturers and suppliers. By collaborating with engineers and working with advanced materials and construction methods, we are able to address very important issues in a meaningful way that help contribute to a more ecologically sustainable society. I think the global construction industry is very capable and geared-up to what we are doing.

After many years working on a project, we feel we know every last detail of each design – but what is always exciting is that no matter how long you work on a project, no matter how long you draw and re-draw the building, there are always some fascinating and wonderful moments in every completed project that are completely unexpected. You cannot predict everything – and with each new project I always feel a real sense of discovery; a truly original and uplifting experience.