by Jerry ElengicalJun 20, 2022
Amidst climate crisis, global warming, fast-paced developments and urban sprawl, the world today is facing many challenges. Though the solutions may be difficult, it doesn't seem impossible. The manpower, brains, technology, and experiences have all added up to a point where we are practically discussing building on Mars, which years ago was only the context of fictional stories. Rewind to the 1980s, when the architectural world was at the peak of postmodernist ideologies. The style that emerged in response to modern architecture and international architecture soon embraced individualism and experimentation. Post-modern architecture knew no boundaries, it gave us some of the best and worst buildings of the century. Stepping into this era was an architect - whom her former professor, Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas - described as "a planet in her own orbit". Breaking the glass ceiling of the then gender-stereotyped architecture society, British-Iraqi architect Zaha Mohammad Hadid became a prominent figure in post-modernism and especially in its deconstructivist movement. Known as the queen of curves, Hadid never complied with conventionality or old-school rules. Her works since time have fused technology with design, which may have contributed to her projects remaining timeless even amidst the most advanced of the 21st century. Somewhere in the substratum of every young architect’s journey lie traces of Hadid’s words, 'There are 360 degrees. So, why stick to one?' Though we lost the radical architect in 2016, her philosophies, theories and ideologies still incite intriguing conversations, curious questions and flabbergast emotions.
Hadid's illustrious practice, Zaha Hadid Architects, is located in London, a city with fewer footprints of her undying creations. The first woman architect to win the Pritzker Prize, she had to wait till the year 2000 for her work to debut in London. Among her cherished projects in the city is the Roca London Gallery, the design of which Hadid described as, "a transformer, moving without interruption through the façade, carving the interior and flowing through the main gallery as drops of water”. As the gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary, its sculptural spaces have been transformed into an immersive exhibition that features pioneering objects designed in the last 15 years by the practice’s product and industrial design wing, Zaha Hadid Design (ZHD). Reflecting on the design concept and Hadid’s architectural style, the exhibition is titled, Everything Flows. The array of design pieces includes works since the inception of ZHD in 2006 and their exceptional collaborations with major brands from the world of design, including David Gill, Bvlgari, Karimoku, and Lalique.
In an invigorating conversation with Maha Kutay and Woody Yao, the Co-Directors of Zaha Hadid Design, STIR learns more about the exhibition, the relationship they shared with Zaha Hadid, and their journey in design.
STIR: The title of the exhibition says everything flows. If we look at your respective journeys in design, Maha grew up as a perfectionist who found drawing an extremely challenging practice; Woody's introduction to architecture and design could be described as a stroke of serendipity. How did things flow for each one of you in your creative journey and later at Zaha Hadid Design?
Maha Kutay: It didn't happen in one instance, it was all about building up. When you are giving your time to something that you have passion for, you just try your best to get better at it. It's just about making sure that you are learning, you are updated, and that you are connecting with the outside world and improving on it. Being with Zaha [Hadid] and at the practice, you are in the middle of all of that, and you are constantly pushing yourself to learn more, be more creative, and be more innovative.
Woody Yao: Looking back at over 30 years, you don't know much then, but you learn and see things right. Before working with Zaha, I had worked at other architecture firms. But working with Zaha is like a different world, something unexpected, and you are just drawn into it. I didn't know at that time whether I would be part of Zaha Hadid Design till now, but we started doing incredible things. I feel we are part of this: pushing the boundaries, making beautiful things, and giving it to the world.
STIR: If Everything Flows, is there something that 'remains' for good?
Maha: The fundamental concepts and ideas that we work with are always there. But how we express them or how we develop them changes depending on the external forces, the technology that's available, the different partners we work with, or the type of project we are working on. It's always the same idea that Zaha focused on in her architecture which is still the fundamental element of our work.
Woody: The title doesn’t have a fixed meaning, it is more about the flow of ideas, curiosity, and experiments. So, it's not just about the shape and form but has much to do with the Roca London Gallery. To create a space where everything flows was also the conceptual idea of the gallery when we started on the design over 10 years ago.
This exhibition is not a retrospective of everything that we have done, but it shows you little glimpses of what kind of work we have developed in the years.- Maha Kutay
STIR: How does it feel to holistically look at 15 years of collaborations across different industries of design? What are some of the key lessons learned?
Maha: We are constantly living within our work, so we know what we have done. We see the pieces that we have designed in the office and we are always exhibiting those pieces. We try to put together a lot of exhibitions keeping in mind that the public doesn't know as much as we know about what we have done, and the breadth of work that we have had in the past years. It's interesting to somehow see it in one space. What you see at the exhibition is maybe 20 per cent of our work. This exhibition is not a retrospective of everything that we have done, but it shows you little glimpses of what kind of work we have developed in the years.
The lessons we have learned with our collaborators are about how to work with different materials. We tried to exhibit the variety of materials that we have used within our collections in the show. We are working with Karimoku, which is a Japanese company that pushed us to understand how wood works and how best to use the material in our designs. The same way we have looked at acrylic with the limited-edition pieces that we have done with David Gill. With our collection, we explore questions of how we work with acrylic, what's the best way to get the reflections out of the material, and how to bring the characteristics of the material out into the designs. Similarly, we learn about various materials while using them in the designs. The journey was about learning constantly how to use materials, how to express those through our designs, and how to develop our designs with the knowledge that we have acquired from the various exchanges.
Woody: We learn and grow with each collaborator. To come up with something better, it is important for two parties to create an ideology, and believe in the same thing.
STIR: What do you think makes your creations so timeless even when architecture of the 21st century seems to be on a roller coaster of change?
Maha: We always try to create the unexpected. So, it's about creating something that is different, new, and can also be timeless. If we look at Roca London Gallery, this project was the whole package. It was the client, the management team on-site, the construction team, our team, and the way that everybody gelled and worked together. It brought the best out of everyone and in the end, the result is literally an expression of that. If you speak to any single person that worked on the project, it was a positive experience. We still carry the tours around the project, we take people once every two months to explain the design that went behind the scenes and the construction of the space. Even 10 years down the line, people are still interested to hear about the project and it remains an innovative design.
Woody: Zaha was always ahead of the time anyway, so she was never restrained by any content.
STIR: How would you describe your journey at ZHD with and without Zaha Hadid?
Maha: We started very early in the practice. We sort of understood her way of thinking and how she wanted things to develop because we were closely working with her for a long time. It has always been teamwork in the company, and she involved everyone in making decisions and developing ideas. It was never an instruction to the team, but always teamwork. We learned from that a lot which is why we feel we are able to take this on. In some ways, I think we feel the responsibility that we have to take this further because we have been given that opportunity. We owe that to Zaha, to carry on with the business and to push things, try new things, and be innovative as she always wanted.
We are so immersed in this world that we forget how people on the outside think about Zaha and us in the office. I remember one instance when we were in Milan on a tour with Zaha, and during the design fair, we were walking around the spaces. But when you see how people react to her presence, and what she has brought, you realise how lucky you are, and what you are doing is actually so important in the design world. We feel responsible to take this further.
STIR: What does a typical day at work look like for both of you?
Woody: I don't think we have a typical day. We have the interviews, we meet with clients, potential clients, fabricators, and tomorrow could be completely different. Sometimes we are on the jury of some competitions, so each day is very different. We meet with the full team at least once a month or more. At this point, we are still working from home, but we spend hours talking to each other every day, passing on many things.
Maha: We are a small team, so both of us are very much involved in everything. We work on designs, the management of the business, as well as bringing new business. It's not that every person has a certain thing to do, we all juggle everything, and support each other whenever it is needed.
I guess investing in the future generation. Trying new things is important to keep ourselves fresh.- Woody Yao
STIR: Do you take a concept idea forward if one of you doesn't like it personally?
Maha: We work for Zaha so, we work and create along the lines of what we have been doing for Zaha. I don’t think there is a certain idea, because anything can be developed to become something. At the same time, it's all work in progress and development. It's not that we do not dictate anything. If there's somebody who is not happy with a direction, we look at all other opportunities or other directions that we may be able to develop.
STIR: In ZHD's domain of industrial design, what surpasses the other: emotion or abstraction?
Maha: What we are offering our clients and the people are actually experiences of the work. So, it's probably about emotion.
Woody: They are linked to each other, abstraction is also an emotion. You can't separate them. So, it’s both.
STIR: Is there a product innovation 'in-process', which is a completely new domain for Zaha Hadid Design?
Maha: We are always working on things. It may be new to us, or a new technology that we are learning. We are trying to work with environmental materials, new materials to try and create some of our collection pieces by pushing our technological capabilities. Construction-wise we are working on some installations that are large-scale, and also looking into ways of creating new detailing, and a more efficient way of constructing our structures.
STIR: Define NEXT - for you, for the world, for creativity.
Maha: We can't separate ourselves from the work. We don't see ourselves at work, it's just part of our life. I am hungry to go out and reconnect with people and do new projects in the sense, new typology, new areas that we haven't covered yet. Because of COVID, and working remotely, we have consolidated our relationships with current clients and we have been doing similar things. I want to go out, try new territories, and find new things for us.
Woody: This is our life. This is what we do. Even in our private time, we are visiting exhibitions, meeting with artists, and going to museums. The next thing is to connect with the younger crowd and transfer the experience that we have had with them. We are in a position where we are being contacted by a lot of young graduates and students who just want to shadow us and understand what we are doing. We need to do more of that, to try, and transfer the knowledge, and support people.
I guess investing in the future generation. Trying new things is important to keep ourselves fresh.
Everything Flows is on display at the Roca London Gallery till December 22, 2022.
(Text by Sunena V Maju, intern at www.STIRworld.com)