Unlike many journalists, my original calling was the subject matter I cover rather than the craft itself. From my teenage years onwards, I always had a passion for cities: what makes them tick, succeed or fail.
Three architects did more in my formative years to enrich that passion than any others, among whom Zaha Hadid was undoubtedly the most important.
Richard Rogers provided the first inspiration. On a trip to Paris as a 12 year old with my mum I visited the Pompidou Centre. The building seemed at once surprising and perfectly suited to its location. Above all, it seemed so naughty – a radical addition to central Paris, a city so often wrapped in aspic. I loved it so much that years later I took my now wife there for coffee shortly before popping the question.
Then as a teenager my uncle was heavily involved with commissioning Foster + Partners’ Sage music centre in Gateshead. As a result of his work, he swapped a rambling terrace in the northern suburbs of Newcastle for a flat on the city’s quayside so he could look out of the front window at night and watch as the imposing yet graceful addition to the Tyne took shape.
I had a bed in the flat whenever I wanted one and took vicarious pleasure in his part in bringing such a glorious structure to the North East. I’m sure the wine we shared on those evenings – a rare treat and an invitation into the adult world – enhanced the experience, but was of little consequence. The significance of what forward thinking architects, urbanists and an enlightened public sector were doing for the city was a far greater intoxicant.
Fast forward a decade to 2006 and I found myself six months into a career in journalism and on a trip to visit a friend in New York. He was busy with work during the day, so I took to walking the streets alone and stumbled upon an exhibition of Zaha Hadid’s conceptual drawings at the Guggenheim.
Well, I was captivated. I’d appreciated architecture as art before then, but never had the concept been so demonstrably true. I walked the curving galleries entranced. These were not designs you could simply hand over to a contractor. Rather, they were challenges laid down to engineers: ‘I think these ideas are beautiful, but are you smart enough to realise them?’ They were Platonic ideals of buildings waiting to be plucked from the ether and made corporeal.
From that point on I was smitten. When Hadid won the commission to design the Aquatics Centre for London 2012 I was delighted. When the temporary wings were added to make room for the spectators I sighed. They were necessary, but they were, to quote Prince Charles, carbuncles on the face of a precious friend. Hadid herself reportedly felt the same way.
Once the wings were removed and the building opened to the public, I took my little boy on a trip to the Olympic Park and pointed out Hadid’s contribution in all its intended glory. I asked him what he thought and his reaction was as simple as it was perfect: “Wow,” was all he said.
I can’t add to that except to say that Hadid’s legacy is about more than her buildings. She disliked being labelled as an important female architect; she was an important architect full stop. In death, she has been equally described as ferocious and generous, but on that point she was surely correct to be assertive. Her gender has no relevance to her achievements.
Hadid’s originality and creativity as an architect and artist should be what we celebrate. There can be no doubt of her contribution to cities around the world. Beauty is something often missed in the hothouse of the property market, but it is important. And Hadid proved that more than anyone.