I may risk a lynching next time I pass the RIBA, but I just have to say: I could never stand Zaha Hadid.
I don’t mean to speak ill of the departed, and I’m sure a warm, humane personality lurked behind the frosty public persona. It’s not just that I don’t ‘get’ her now-hallowed buildings (that in my no doubt philistine view are clever but ephemeral confections) or the fawning veneration she generated from pundits while she lived, and has become near-religious fervour since her passing.
What really lit my blue touch paper was how she and her acolytes came to symbolise the snobbery and sense of entitlement separating many ‘starchitects’ from the Great Unwashed who pay for, build and occupy their buildings.
Her signature hyperbolic curves were matched by the hyperbole of the mountain of post-mortem tributes. Architectural writers sought to out-swoon each other. She even featured in Thought for the Day. The Financial Times’s architectural correspondent intoned “to be in a Zaha Hadid building was to be part of a theatrical moment, to become part of the flow of modernity”. A fellow construction analyst (who I’m sure doesn’t know his architrave from his entablature) even joined the litany.
Penning a warm portrait of his friend in The Sunday Times, Lord Rogers, however, could not resist the hauteur endemic in much of architecture’s rarefied heights towards any of the public’s representatives that do not fall in line. He excoriated the “vicious” press and politicians behind the cancelled Cardiff Bay Opera House of 1994: “She would have given the Welsh people one of the great buildings of the world - but that was lost on the opposition, not that they would have known the difference.”
I was met with the same aloofness when many years ago, as a young journalist on Building magazine, I attempted to interview a partner at Richard Rogers Partnership. “Who let you on site?” my interviewee sniffed before (unsuccessfully) insisting I name every individual architect involved on the job in the credits rather than the norm of one line each for the major consultants.
I asked for his favourite RRP project. It was the Lloyd’s Building. “Why’s that, then?” Airily, he pontificated: “It was an act… of pure patronage.” And that for me has forever defined most architectural superstars’ ultimate prize: a great big blank cheque and an open brief.
A similar vein of snobbery suffused former RIBA president Jack Pringle’s obsequious column in Building several months ago when the institute “at last” bestowed its Royal Gold Medal on Hadid. Dismissing those “lazy” contractors that would prefer to build “more simple constructions”, he wrote: “I suspect some of our more earthly builders don’t ‘get it’.”
At about the same time on the same magazine’s website, Richard Saxon, one-time chairman of similarly mainstream practice BDP, berated a journalist for the cardinal error of referring to a Docklands tower as being the client’s (Chinese developer Greenland) rather than the architect’s (HOK). “You do have a blind spot about architects,” he chided her in the comments section. “That name should come first.”
He signed off “Richard Saxon CBE”. Just a reminder that when it comes to the annual gongs, architects outnumber property chiefs and other professionals by, I guess, three or four to one.
The profession’s inborn self-importance, however, is routinely its own undoing. In every downturn, architects are frequently the first people in the industry to go bust. Maybe that’s because they rush to Architects’ Journal or Building Design every week to see if they’re namechecked, rather than monitoring the way the wind blows in the business pages?
Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and commentator