Yasmin Shariff is director of Dennis Sharp Architects – for The Guardian
Zaha Hadid was a few years ahead of me at the Architectural Association (AA). I will never forget the day I sat outside the principal’s office hearing raised voices. Zaha appeared, tears streaming down her face, angry and shaking. Her work wasn’t considered good enough and she stormed out of that office determined to “show them”, and show them she did – winning the coveted AA Diploma prize in 1977; the Pritzker prize in 2004; the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling prize in 2010 and 2011, and last year the Riba royal gold medal.
Zaha was an outsider and upfront about the unfair treatment she experienced as a woman, a foreigner and a designer of expensive, weird-looking buildings – a triple whammy. She did not fit the stereotypical white male profession of registered architects. Jealousy and prejudice failed to bar her way, but it took its toll. Very few people realise the misogynistic, racist and anti-architect environment she had to navigate in Britain. For Muslims, minorities and women, Zaha is a shining torch beaming into the dark minds for whom a few tiles falling off a building seemed a justification to dismiss her work.
She was not only an architect but a designer in every sense of the word. From childhood she was experimenting with space and form, fashion and furniture. Her drawings and paintings are like Le Corbusier, Scharoun and El Lissitzky on speed – full of colour and oscillating from earth-shattering shards to dynamic fluid space.
She was the first woman in her own right to be awarded Riba’s royal gold medal, almost 100 years after the suffragette Ruth Lowy forced the AA to accept female students. Zaha told the Architects’ Journal: “There is still a stigma against women. It’s changed – 30 years ago people thought women couldn’t make a building. There is still enormous prejudice though.”
When Zaha was at the AA about 6% of the profession were women. Today, 40-odd years later, they make up 24%. Alarmingly, many drop out after seven years’ training and a decade in practice, juggling families. Zaha was single and often worked all-nighters. But she had to fight the establishment at great personal cost. Her company employs more than 400 people and works on projects globally with a turnover of £44m a year. It’s been a long, hard road and a travesty that she had to pay the price of discrimination in a profession that should know better.