Architect Zaha Hadid was frank and loyal, staff remember

Architect Zaha Hadid inside the newly constructed Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London in 2013.
Architect Zaha Hadid inside the newly constructed Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London in 2013.PHOTO: EPA

The late architecture doyenne Zaha Hadid, who died of a heart attack aged 65 on Thursday, was not known for her gentle streak.

But it did not stop Singaporean couple William Tan, 39, and Ting-Ting Zhang, 36, from working for six years in her office, Zaha Hadid Architects, in London. They were lead designers at the firm from 2006 to 2012 and often saw her feisty streak emerge when ideas were presented. They are now based in Hong Kong.

She would swear when she was unhappy with ideas, but would grab a pencil and start sketching over iterations if she liked what was presented.

Ms Zhang recalls Hadid yelling at her and a colleague, after they presented a Casablanca opera house project for an upcoming architectural competition. She says Hadid felt they were not prepared to go.


Ms Zhang, who now works in the strategy and business development arm of a consumer product company, says: "She wasn't happy because she didn't have 100 per cent input. It was also her way of testing how confident we were of the project.

"It was never personal. When you worked for her, you already knew what you were getting yourself into and it wasn't for the faint-hearted - it was a hell of a ride."

But Hadid was encouraging in her own ways, too, says Ms Zhang. For example, Hadid would personally write letters of recommendation for staff and use her connections to help them further their studies if she felt they deserved it.

Mr Tan, who now works in the finance department of a consumer product company, was devastated hearing about her death, calling himself a "fan since Day One".

As an architecture undergraduate at the National University of Singapore learning about the work of famous architects, he says: "Her design was unapologetically sexy. It defied the conventional imagination."

The award-winning Iraqi-Briton architect had a heart attack on Thursday while being treated for bronchitis at a hospital in Miami.

When she was alive, Hadid was at the top of her game, with numerous high-profile projects across the globe, including 1994's Vitra Fire Station in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Her firm is also designing an upcoming stadium for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar.

Hadid also worked in different design disciplines and recently launched her silver jewellery collection for Danish design house Georg Jensen.

In Singapore, there are designers and architects who had the chance to work with her in London. All are shocked by the sudden death of their former boss and speak of the late designer with great respect.

One of them is Mr Voon Wong, 53, creative director of multi- disciplinary agency Viewport Studio, who remembers her as an "inspirational, extraordinary character".

He worked with Hadid during the early days of her studio. Mr Wong, who won the title of Designer of the Year at the President's Design Award in 2012, did three stints with her firm, starting in 1989.

He says: "She had a razor-sharp mind and ideas which were ahead of their time. She was regarded as an outsider and people would often say none of her buildings would get built. But look at how much she's building now - the times have really caught up with her."

He had significant access to her as there were barely 20 people in the office when he joined. He says the entire team grew close as they often pulled all-nighters to finish projects.

Even though he struck out on his own, setting up his architecture studio in London in 1997, he kept in touch with her and saw her at social events. Mr Wong, who last saw her last year, says: "She wasn't a gentle character, but she cared strongly for people. She was loyal in that way."

Singaporean Talenia Phua Gajardo, 31, who worked as a junior architect at Zaha Hadid Architects in London from 2007 to 2010, says that because Hadid was very sure of her likes and dislikes, presenting projects to her could be a "brutal process".

"But that was the way she taught you not to fall in love with your own work. It's the clients who decide," she says.

Then, Ms Phua Gajardo had just graduated from London's Central Saint Martins in 2007, with a degree in arts, design and environment with a major in architecture. She is now the founder and director of Artling, an online art gallery and art consultancy.

She has fond memories of the time Hadid took the entire firm to Rome for the opening of the beautiful, futuristic Maxxi - National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, which was completed in 2009.

With Hadid's death, Ms Phua Gajardo muses about the future of the architectural industry, given that Hadid broke boundaries in a male-dominated industry.

"Her reputation is hard to match up to and it will be interesting to see who will be the next Zaha in the next five to 10 years. But whether you like her or not, you can't deny her influence."

Hadid also left her mark in Singapore.

Living up to the moniker "Queen of the Curve", she designed the organic-looking d'Leedon condominium off Farrer Road. Set on a 78,000 sq m site, the project has seven 36-storey towers comprising 1,703 apartments and 12 semi- detached houses. From a distance, the towers look like they are swaying, thanks to the optical illusion created by the pop-out balconies.

Property developer giant CapitaLand was part of a consortium that developed d'Leedon, which was completed in 2014.

Mr Wen Khai Meng, chief executive officer of CapitaLand Singapore, says: "The collaboration gave everyone who was involved an insight into the creative genius that was Zaha Hadid. We have lost a great architect of our time, but her legacy will endure through her iconic works around the world."

Hadid's firm was also responsible for the masterplan of one-north in Buona Vista. The firm designed the 200ha site as a business park and a high-tech research and development hub. Construction for one-north started in 2001.

Hadid is also known for her furniture, some of which are sold in Singapore. Like her buildings, the furniture pieces feature her fluid lines and are almost sculptural in nature.

Multi-label furniture stores, such as Space Furniture in Bencoolen Street, sell her shiny B&B Italia Moon System sofa (from $19,115), while Dream in River Valley Road sells the Zephyr Sofa she designed for Italian brand Cassina.

At Xtra in Park Mall at Dhoby Ghaut, you can buy the Tide Shelf-System she designed for Italian manufacturer Magis in 2011.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Working for Hadid was 'a hell of a ride''. Print Edition | Subscribe