Zaha Hadid, the most prominent female architect in Britain, is now designing the Mind Zone in the Dome. Will Self was stunned by her elegant works - and baffled by her sweeping statements
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THE HINTERLAND around the Cromwell Road in west London is a peculiarly anonymous area of our capital city. The houses may be typical mid- to late-19th century terraces, but the successive waves of gentrification have, over the decades, eroded whatever character these wide boulevards and gardened squares once possessed.

Nowadays, this is 7-Eleven territory, where gaggles of international students congregate outside bureaux de change to drink Coke and eat hamburgers. In the immediate vicinity of the Cromwell Hospital you can be almost certain to see Middle Eastern families promenading, the men flicking worry beads, the women shuffling along in their dun, individual tents. It's impossible to tell whether their leisurely pace is a function of cultural proclivity, or recent and expensive surgery.

This seems an entirely appropriate district for Zaha Hadid to inhabit. For the architect, whose controversial designs have catapulted her into public awareness, is herself a strangely compound figure: Iraqi-born; Muslim; female; visionary Modernist - Hadid seems, potentially, so much more than the sum of her parts; and yet the British media, that world-beating reducing valve, is determined to try to make of her so much less than the full addition.

In 1995 Hadid won the competition to design the new Opera House in Cardiff, but following a media-generated furore of bigotry - the design was by a misfit and would never fit the site - the commission was withdrawn. It was an unprecedented piece of populist prejudice-mongering; and while one might wish that the Welsh would redeem their resurrected nationhood by reinstating the project, it now seems that simply being denied Hadid's creation will be a sufficient punishment for them. For, while the so-called arbiters of architecture in Britain have been slow to recognise her status, the international community of constructors has tightly enfolded her in its pre-stressed bosom.

Yet in a world in which hardly any architects have public name-recognition (I've heard it quoted that only 1 per cent of Britons asked could name a single one), Hadid is an architects' architect. When I told my half- brother, Dr Nick Adams, Professor of Architectural History at Vassar, that I would be interviewing her, he enthused: "She's the only architect of her generation who was invited to Philip Johnson's birthday party!" And while on the face of it this would appear merely to be a snobbish apercu, the truth is that attendance at the veteran architect's celebration is as nice an indication as any that Hadid is regarded by her peers (among whom we might place Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, IM Pei, Rem Koolhaas and Daniel Libeskind) as belonging incontrovertibly on the global "A" list.

Still only in her early fifties and now with two major international commissions (an art centre for Rome, an art gallery for Cincinnati) moving off her drawing board and into the reality of the new millennium, it's safe to say that those of us who stay alive for the next few decades will find ourselves literally in the shadows that Hadid has created. And, while it's often said of artists generally that "they think they're God", architects have the example of Ozymandias and know they are. Charles Windsor and his twee Little Englanders may wish to believe that the future of the built environment should be determined by vernacular considerations and the constraints of "human scale", but it is Hadid who grasps the tempo of the times with her vaunting arabesques, her abhorrence of the rectilinear, and her soaring confidence that "technology can do almost anything".

Hadid has, to put it mildly, a "difficult" reputation. Friends and acquaintances in the architectural community muttered about her abrasiveness, arrogance and downright contrariness, but they were reluctant to go on the record, and anyway I was unwilling to provide one for them.

However, I was more than prepared to give Hadid the benefit of the doubt. I was intrigued to meet this woman who dared to create on such a massive and permanent canvas. It's said of male architects that their compulsion to build is an "edifice complex", a clear expression of phallic potency. But what could the underlying psychology be of a woman who undertook such imposing endeavours? The fact of gender may be no longer relevant in the understanding of many - or indeed most - people's work, but while there may be many brilliant female architects on their way up, Hadid is the first to occupy such an exalted pinnacle. She stands atop it, entirely sui generis, the first of her kind, ever.

When I turned up at her flat in the Cromwell Road hinterland, I was admitted by a whey-faced young woman (Cleaner? Assistant? Companion? I never discovered), "Zaha's..." she gestured vaguely toward the inner recesses of the apartment, and ushered me in the opposite direction, before herself evaporating. I was abandoned for 10 minutes in the front room, free to examine Hadid's effects. It's a room like a set: high-ceilinged and sash- windowed, with mouldings still intact. But within the Victorian carapace a Modernist body has been insinuated. There are three large divans, in primary colours, designed by the architect herself. These curve parenthetically to enunciate the bibelots that are ranged on top of two coffee tables: a collection of hand-shaped candles and an assemblage of sculptural glassware. By the windows a petrified convolvulus leans in a wastebin-sized vase, and scattered around it are a small collection of inflatable globes, including one of the moon.

In the far corner from the window there's a circular glass table piled with books and architectural journals, and on the wall above it are three of Hadid's own paintings. These are bizarre elaborations upon the concept of architectural drawings, which incorporate the plans, the elevations and even the time lines of a Hadid project, into Surrealistic - almost science-fiction - panoramas. Beautifully executed and peculiarly haunting, they appear to be incarnate myths of the near-future and are already highly collectable.

In among all the arty facts the room revealed, there was a small music centre and next to it a meagre stack of CDs, two of them by Whitney Houston. I was idly reflecting on whether this indicated a more significant orientation than mere bad musical taste, when the owner herself swept on in.

To say to her face that Hadid is imposing would probably be a mistake, for she looks as if she'd be quite capable of decking you for such impudence. And to say that she's striking would be to downplay the majestic eccentricity of her manifestation; appearing, as she does, to be the bastard offspring of a mesalliance between King Farouk and Edith Sitwell. Standing at around six feet in backless black slippers, Hadid was wearing her trademark Issey Miyake couture: a black, corrugated silk jacket and beneath it a big black dress. Her black hair, lightly hennaed, was loose and shoulder-length. When she sat down next to me on the sofa a waft of emphatically Eastern perfume came with her. Her face is awesomely beautiful, with a big buttress of nose, and eyes of near-bovine size, limpidity and darkness. The overall impression she gives is of a monument that has seldom been scaled.

Hadid was polite but not effusive. Coffee was offered and then served in glass cups on a glass tray. Her voice had a deep, gurgling, mucilaginous undertow, as her cold was enhanced by the serried ranks of Marlboro Lights which marched through her lips. But the cigarettes were the only small things which came out of that large mouth. Without more ado we discussed architecture - and indeed Hadid seemed almost incapable of discussing anything else. Whenever I attempted to angle the conversation in a more personal direction, she ignored my questions, or replied to them with the interlocutory equivalent of a drop-lob. In this I detected that most odd of human characteristics, the coexistence of monomania and shyness.

To begin with we discussed London, a city Hadid feels "at home in". She's lived here for 25 years, arriving in the early Seventies from Baghdad via Beirut, to study at the Architectural Association. Yet her grasp of the city's geography seemed curiously vague, as she spoke blithely of redeveloping the whole Thames littoral "from Wandsworth to the Isle of Dogs". Clearly, for Hadid, being "at home" in London doesn't imply cosy chats with the man in the corner shop. Rather, "I'm left alone to think here," she told me, "and I have a good relationship with many different constructors. I think London has the best structural engineers in the world." It was as if Joyce had said he loved Paris because there were excellent stationers.

Understanding that she maintains her practice without partners (although she brings them on board for individual projects), I asked her about the business of working in a team - surely this compromises the singularity of her vision? "They don't stop you projecting your ideas, that's the whole point. It doesn't matter whose idea it is - it happens sometimes to be mine, sometimes someone else's - the point is that in a complex project you need many people to operate at the same time. It's not about having an idea and then someone else gives you an idea about structure, or mechanical ... the idea is that you have to find kind of systems which are appropriate ... early on ... so the idea of structure is really integrated into the project."

This final, deliciously vapid statement is so entirely like the woman that it could justifiably be termed a "Hadidism". Time and again such Hadidisms would provide inadequate full stops for her answers, and I would be compelled to observe that: "You haven't answered my question." Whereupon she would grunt, equally gnomically. I asked her whether she was afflicted by any of the pessimism regarding the progress of technology, which is so much part of the climate of the age. "Right now there is nothing about engineering which is not possible," came the unrepentantly Modernist reply. "There are so many new materials. At this point in time we cannot defy gravity. We can make buildings seem lighter ... but how d'you present that? D'you present it formally? Materially? D'you talk about light structure? For example, when we talk about anti-gravitational forces, it's not only about deliberations on structure ... it implies more fluidity, it implies non- Euclidean geometry, it implies a different kind of space..."

And so she went on, triumphantly articulating her inarticulateness, until she managed to amble out of the architectonic of the interview and into an annexe of digression, where she animadverted that: "Architecture is very like writing." A Hadidism which called forth my only possible response: "You haven't answered my question."

I tried to enlarge on the theme of pessimism in relation to the built environment by remarking on the fact that shares in German construction companies were already rocketing in anticipation of contracts for the rebuilding of Belgrade. Hadid thought this "pessimism" was about the quality of said rebuilding, rather than anything less material: "I think in any rebuilding situation there is always the ambition to do it quickly ... OK ... Let's look at London in the post-war era. People are very critical now of the housing projects that were built, but these were built fast because they had to house displaced people. It doesn't mean they should become the standard of operations ... the minimal becomes average. This does not mean one cannot build in a new way very well. OK, you take Berlin ... " And on she rumbled, bulldozing my airy speculations with her concrete observations on the rebuilding of Berlin.

The interview continued at deliciously cross-purposes. When I attempted to discuss the different ways of seeing the urban scape implied by different modes of transport (Hadid herself doesn't drive), she interpreted this as an inquiry about what transport systems she thought were suitable for London and said: "I don't think one supersedes the other." This led her into a peroration about regional planning in the metropolis, which, while it told me nothing about her own psychology, did imply that if there were a competition for someone to rebuild London in its entirety, one Z Hadid would waste no time in applying.

But I was determined to nail her down on the origins of her extraordinary gift. Whatever you think of the aesthetics of Hadid's work you have only to look at her drawings to understand that this is a visionary in the fullest sense. When, I wondered, had she become aware of this gift? Did she find herself critically deconstructing the buildings of Baghdad as a small child? "Um ... well ... not precisely. I mean, I think that now - I mean I - there was a moment I think in my, maybe fourth year, or fifth, when I realised that ... " and on she went to elucidate an epiphany in which she realised how to proceed with an architectural project. Once again she had disarticulated the question, so I reiterated it: did you think about buildings at an early age?

"I don't remember that young." "You don't remember?" "I can remember when I was at school, I can't remember when I was a little kid per se." "So where did the interest come from?" "Well, I wanted to be an architect when I was very young ... I was always interested in making space, that's what I was interested in. The idea is that you're making an environment - some form of enclosure, which has an impact on external life. I mean it has two worlds..." And suddenly we're orbiting two worlds with Space Cadet Hadid, having blasted off with the best inquisitorial intentions.

Not that she's unprepared to talk about her family or upbringing; it's just that the more personal her observations became, the more prosaic they were. Her parents were members of the Iraqi intelligentsia - her father was at the LSE in the Thirties. It was a close family, but not overly religious: "They've given me my space." Hadid was educated at the Catholic lycee in Baghdad. She has two brothers. Her mother died 10 years ago. She believes in enduring friendships, but finds herself closer to the students she had when she was teaching at the AA than to her own peers. She's one of those people who professes that emotionally queasy oxymoron: "I have many close friends." I asked her if she's ever wanted children and she shrugged: "It's never come up. I think it's something which should come up naturally. You need the right person - and I never found them." Did she regret this? Hadid gave a negative shrug.

Surprisingly, although she seemed unwilling to translate her gift for external visualisation into one for psychological introspection, when I asked Hadid if she could imagine being anything other than an architect she replied "a shrink". But when I pressed her on this it emerged that what she meant was: "When you have a philosophy, or a position, you can develop a technique and that can be applied to lots of things, you could be a choreographer ... or whatever." Clearly it was the "analysis" part of psychoanalysis which made her seize on it as an alternative career.

"Technique" is Hadid's byword; so much so that she denied to me that her talent for design was inbuilt: "You are not born with this metier," she pronounced. Yet, even if she feels that architects are made rather than born, what is it that gave her in particular such enormous confidence in her work? Certainly this confidence was evident in her response to the hysteria which greeted her design for the Cardiff Opera House. "One journalist said there would be a fatwa put out because the building resembled the Ka'ba; well, this is absurd of course. He said it because I am from Iraq ... but I mean there is a Jewish community there, a Christian community - it doesn't preclude other religions. Cardiff is still an enigma to me. I mean, I'm not running for president; I didn't choose to be in the public eye."

This is, I believe, the truth. Rampaging egotist Hadid may well be, but hers is an ego that's content to rampage in the forest without anyone observing it - it's the buildings she wants us to see. She told me that after she lost Cardiff it was the dedication of those who worked with her that made it possible for her to rally: "I thought I must carry on, because why else should these people have this belief in what we're doing?" And what she believes she's doing is "making cities much better". Better aesthetically, better functionally, better all round.

Hadid wouldn't comment on the "physical structure" of the Millennium Dome, for which she is responsible for designing the "Mind Zone", but waxed enthusiastically about the opportunity it provided her with to have a curatorial role. She predictably blanked my query about "ideological" objections to the project, and cantered on to say that "it will give an opportunity, I think, for people to live in these areas ... for you and I to see these areas ... Bermondsey, Southwark and so on ... which otherwise we wouldn't." Speak for yourself, Zaha, I thought, speak for yourself.

As to the knotty question of why it was that, as yet, she herself is the sole internationally known woman architect, she was only partially enlightening: "I don't understand why there aren't more women architects," she said. "It's not because of inability - my best students have been women. It's not because of having children - doctors have children. I think it's not so much that the industry is male-dominated, as male-occupied ... building, engineering - they're all full." Nevertheless she felt that the situation was, at last, changing: "I've been at the end of being patronised, marginalised, but things are much better in America. There is a future."

Then, to complete our two hours of conversation, she took me in detail over her plans for the new Contemporary Arts Centre in Rome. This enormous structure embodies all of Hadid's adventurous feel for spatial dynamics and flows. The drawings themselves were marvellously clear and articulate - until Hadid began to explain them, that is; for, like the rest of her dialogue, her exposition was freighted with technical terms.

I won't say that I came away from the Cromwell Road liking Zaha Hadid, but I certainly respected her. I'm also not certain that her abrasiveness isn't simply a combination of shyness on her part, and cultural confusion on ours. Hadid's buildings all have one thing in common: in line with her stated ambitions, they obfuscate the barriers between interior and exterior; but perhaps their creator is more confused about this division within her own psyche.

Hadid was in no way rude to me - she simply didn't bother to pretend to be interested in what I had to say. Perhaps this is monomaniacal workaholism; she is, after all, a woman who confessed to me that she "went on holiday" to other cities - hardly relaxing for an architect. In order to get another angle on her, later that week I went to Hadid's atelier in Farringdon to meet Jim Heverin, who's her project leader for the Mind Zone.

Hadid's atelier is in a converted Victorian primary school. Upstairs I found a room packed with young people tapping away on computers. Heverin was smart, groomed, articulate. On the architecture of the Mind Zone he was interesting; on the psyche of Zaha Hadid he was worse than useless. Yes, she was good to work for; yes, she had emphatic ideas about what she wanted; no, she wasn't resistant to collaboration. Heverin, like Hadid before him, urged me to go down and have a look at what they're doing in the Millennium Dome - but I declined. The model he showed me was fascinating, and despite the constraints they're working within I feel confident that the results will be spec- tacular. But in essence I feel the same way about both the Millennium Dome and Zaha Hadid - they look impressive from afar, but I wouldn't dream of going inside.