Why we talk about Zaha Hadid’s gender and ethnicity even though her architecture transcended both

To say that the sudden death of Zaha Hadid last week has left a gap in architecture is an understatement.

She was a woman in a field dominated by men. An Iraqi-born, secular Muslim who made her home in clubby Protestant England. A flamboyant, cape-wearing figure who was recognizable, Madonna-like, by simply her first name. Most important, she was an architect who pushed the field forward, toward ever more complex, organic shapes that seemed to take their inspiration from the webbed patterns of biological tissue and the globular shapes of cells.

“She charted new territory for all architects with her vision,” architect Sharon Johnston, founding principal at Johnston Marklee, an L.A.-based firm, stated via email. “Zaha’s passion, personality and sheer talent were all essential to her success and her undeniable importance in the history of contemporary architecture.”

She was far more interested in pushing the boundaries of design than of society. And yet, there’s no denying that Hadid’s gender and ethnicity were part of what made her an outsized role model for so many. Hadid, after all, was the first woman to win the Pritzker, architecture’s most prestigious prize, as well as the first female to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was, as Kriston Capps notes over at Citylab, the first real-deal female starchitect — a figure whose name and designs resonated way beyond the architectural community.

In addition to buildings, she also designed jewelry, yachts and even a jelly shoe.

“I never use the issue about being a woman architect,” she told the Guardian in 2004, “but if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that.”

The focus on her storied career in the wake of her death shows how much it is possible for a woman to achieve — and how much more ground women have yet left to cover.

A report published by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects last year revealed that though women make up 42% of graduates from programs accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board, they make up only 28% of architectural staff in AIA-member-owned firms, and only 17% of principals and partners.

In addition, a study released this year by the national AIA shows that women and minorities in the United States, two groups underrepresented in architecture, both cite a lack of role models as one of the major reasons the profession remains largely male and white.

The women who do labor in these environments have had to contend with dismissive or downright hostile behavior. In an interview I conducted with architect Denise Scott Brown in 2013, she described everything from direct insults to not being invited to architect parties because she was the “wife.” (She ran a firm with her husband, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi.)

Hadid, who was based in London, had to deal with some bad behavior herself. Anissa Helou, a cookbook author, teacher and chef, was a longtime friend of the architect’s. The two met in the early 1970s, at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend.

“Being a strong woman and a foreigner in London in a man’s field [at the time] did not make it easy for her,” she stated via email. “Also, being so ahead of her time in her thinking and designs and being so uncompromising about what she wanted to do did not help, so she had to contend with a lot.”

When Hadid accepted the Royal Gold Medal earlier this year, she said in her remarks: “We now see more established female architects all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Moreover, there was the issue of her Iraqi heritage, which wasn’t always well-received.

“It’s a triple whammy,” she told the BBC Radio 4 in February. “I’m a woman, which is a problem to many people. I’m a foreigner — another problem. And I do work which is not normative, which is not what they expect. Together, it becomes difficult.”

In the mid-1990s, Hadid won a competition to design a new opera house in Cardiff, Wales. As concerns about the purpose of the building and its budget hit the press, xenophobic remarks began to surface. One Welsh minister of parliament said that her geometric design was identical to the shrine in Mecca.

“It was disgusting the way I was treated,” Hadid told the New Yorker in 2009. “These British women would tell little jokes. … It was awful. ‘We don’t want a fatwa! Tee-hee!'”

“There were people,” she added, “who wouldn’t look me in the eye.”

Like any high-profile architect, Hadid was expected to produce strong, functional designs. But as a woman, she also faced the added pressure of having her work interpreted as some sort of gender statement. One of her designs for a stadium was compared to female genitalia in the press — something she described as “nonsense.”

“You are vulnerable as a woman because there is pressure for what you represent not just for the profession, but in society,” said Annabelle Selldorf, principal of Selldorf Architects in New York. “She didn’t marry. She didn’t have a family. She didn’t represent the conventional model.”

Hadid also wasn’t the sort of woman who stood around meekly asking for permission to join in, something that made her a significant example to other women.

“She was a big deal for women in architecture and not because she made that her thing,” said Selldorf. “But because she was simply a powerful person. … She was so unequivocal and so powerful. That’s what made her an idol.”

Her toughness, however, was also used against her. Hadid’s imperious manner — directed at architectural selection committees as well as magazine writers and her staff — often got her characterized as a shrew by the press. In fact, much has been made of her “diva” behavior, even in her obituaries.

As Guardian critic Oliver Wainwright noted in an essay last fall, petulant male architects get described with words such as “maverick” instead. When the irascible Philip Johnsondied in 2005, the New York Times referred to him as an “enfant terrible,” a label that comes off as charming and continental.

Certainly, there are aspects to Hadid’s career that are unsavory — such as her work in locations where serious human rights issues have come up (such as the cultural center she designed in Azerbaijan). It’s important, though, to note that in this regard she was no different from some of her male starchitect colleagues — figures such as Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, who have taken on morally questionable assignments in locations such as Kazakhstan and China, respectively.

But whatever the ramifications of individual buildings, the fact is that Hadid’s death leaves an enormous void. She remains the only individual woman to have won the Pritzker in its nearly 40-year history, and the only woman to have won the Royal Gold Medal in its 168-year history. On so many occasions, she has been the lone female architect in the room — and with her absence, some of those rooms may revert back to being all male.

Women have made tremendous gains in architecture since Hadid launched her career in the 1970s. They build towers and design museums and magazine-worthy weekend homes. But they still remain sorely underrepresented.

Hadid’s death has prematurely taken a powerful emblem from our midst, a woman who commanded respect and prestige — and who didn’t feel the need to be all cuddly about it.

“I just do what I do and that’s it,” she told the BBC nonchalantly back in February.

As far as a whole generation of women architects are concerned, however, what she did was just the beginning.

Trial begins in legal challenge to no-fly list

December 2, 2013


SAN FRANCISCO — An eight-year legal odyssey by a Malaysian university professor to clear her name from the U.S. government’s no-fly list went to trial on Monday in federal court in San Francisco.

Rahinah Ibrahim claims she was mistakenly placed on the list because of her national origin and Muslim faith. She has fought in court since her arrest at San Francisco International Airport in January 2005 to clear her name.

Several similar lawsuits are pending across the nation, but Ibrahim’s legal challenge appears to be the first to go to trial.

Unlike a typical U.S. trial, where details important and mundane are disclosed in the name of justice, Ibrahim’s legal challenge has run head-on into the U.S. government’s state secret privilege that allows it to decline to disclose vital evidence if prosecutors can show a threat to national security.

Ibrahim’s lawyer is barred by court orders and national security provisions from delving too deeply into the inner-workings of the government administration of its suspected lists of terrorists.

Ibrahim, 48, lives in Malaysia with her husband and four children and is dean of the architecture and engineering school at the University of Malaysia.

Ibrahim said her trouble with the government began on Dec. 23, 2004, when two FBI agents showed up at her home near Stanford University, where she was pursuing a doctoral degree in architecture. She said the agents told her Malaysia was blacklisted by the U.S. government and they asked her if she had heard of the Malaysia-based terror organization Jemaah Islamiyah.

Ibrahim said she replied that she knew of the group only through news accounts. She said she was also asked about her involvement with the Muslim community in the San Francisco Bay Area and told the agents where she and her family worshipped.

Federal prosecutor Lily Farel told the judge the government could not respond to any of Ibrahim’s claims because of national security interests.

The U.S. government has refused to disclose how many people are on its no-fly list. The list is drawn from the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center list of suspected terrorists that authorities said contained 875,000 names as of May.


Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/trial-begins-in-legal-challenge-to-no-fly-list/2013/12/02/aa98d9f2-5baa-11e3-801f-1f90bf692c9b_story.html

German TV documentary “Allah in Ehrenfeld“

July 12


This 90 minute documentary shows moods and positions relatively to the construction of Germany’s biggest mosque in the city district of Collogne-Ehrenfeld. Since 2007 the construction of the mosque has been a bone of contention between the project supporters and local inhabitants, who openly oppose the construction. The documentary focuses on polarized attitudes and statements for and against the project, contributing interviews with local politicians, citizen initiatives and the Turkish-Islamic Union Institute for Religion (Ditib). Ditib had actually initiated the mosque construction but withdrew its order in 2011, after popular initiatives and the City Council raised “technical” demands for a transparent untraditional architecture and a lower height of the mosque’s minaret.

The history of mosques in Germany

June 27


In an article published by Die Zeit, the political scientist Claus Leggewie writes about Islamic architecture in Germany. The first mosques were built in Germany in the 18th century. In conformity with the idea of religious tolerance, the Prussian King Frederic William IV allowed the construction of the first minaret in Prussia. This gesture actually had a symbolic value: the mosque was built by the Ahmadyya community, who at the time was persecuted as heretic in Pakistan and India.


Leggewie shows how architecture styles, the composition of immigrant population and the attitude of German society have changed over the decades. Today, mosques in Berlin or Duisburg-Marxloh represent places of intercultural dialogue, and are capable to reduce mistrust between the religious community and the local neighborhood.

Muslim America moves away from the minaret

In post 9/11 America the construction of new mosques in the US has sometimes sparked controversy and even confrontation. Is that why some new Muslim houses of worship are being built without the most recognisable features of Islamic architecture – minarets and domes?

The National Islamic Center in Washington DC is an imposing building with a towering minaret. One of America’s iconic mosques, it is surrounded by the flags of the Islamic countries which helped pay for its construction in the 1950s.
Its design was influenced by classical and traditional architecture in Egypt. Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and one of the world’s leading experts on contemporary Islam, says it would be impossible to build such a national mosque today because of the controversy it would arouse.

“It’s a bad time for Islamic architecture,” says Mr Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to the UK.
“If there was some visionary with money who wanted to build the Taj Mahal in the US, he’d be attacked as a stealth Jihadist.”

Cologne’s New Central Mosque on the News Again

28./ 29.10.2011

The construction and architecture of the new Central Mosque in Cologne has yet again led to some controversial debate (previously reported in July 2011); yet, this time the argument is between the German Muslim organization DITIB, which is responsible for the construction of the mosque, and its architect, Paul Böhm. During a press conference last Thursday, DITIB representatives criticized Böhm’s work and accused him of not having fulfilled his responsibilities properly. Official construction experts had found more than 2,000 faults in the preliminary building work, which may now effectively double the costs of the construction. As a consequence, DITIB fired the architect, who rejects DITIB’s accusations and is hoping to find a compromise to complete the mosque’s construction. To settle the argument and clarify responsibilities for the construction deficits, the building process might have to be stopped, which would lead to another delay in the completion of the mosque.

More Debate About Cologne’s New Central Mosque


A few months before completion of Cologne’s new central mosque early 2012, the public debate about the building continues, now focusing more on its architecture and location rather than political or social issues. In previous years, critics of the mosque, such as the right-wing group Pro Köln (Pro Cologne), had campaigned to stop the building’s construction, at times with xenophobic slogans; social commentator Ralph Giordano used it as an opportunity to comment on the failure to integrate the Turkish Islamic community. Paul Böhm, the mosque’s architect, counters, however, that “the mosque is itself an act of integration”. Its architecture has an “open”, “inviting”, and “light” characters, which communicates “a sense of openness and invitation”. These characteristics are in opposition to enduring criticisms about the mosque’s design, with complaints focusing about the height of its minarets and its alleged resemblance to nuclear reactors. In fact, the height of the mosques minarets, which were taller in the original plans, had been a problem in the past, as the threatened to overshadow Cologne’s famous Cathedral. Subsequently, their size had to be reduced to protect the Cathedral’s visual integrity.

History’s Hands: Transporting visitors from Fifth Avenue to Fez

After 30 years, the Met museum has embarked on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in the fall after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Casablanca, as their physical and spiritual center.

With world attention focused on the Middle East, the courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself, which has followed the project closely; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met. They hope it will function not only as a placid chronological way station for people moving through more than a millennium of Islamic history, but also as a symbol, amid potent anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and Europe, that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West.

“A Minaret in Every Provincial Capital”

(Immigration and Integration, Muslim Advocacy and Organizations)
22 August 2010
The outgoing president of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGiÖ), Anas Schakfeh, has stated in a recent interview with the radio program Ö1 that he hopes that every Austrian provincial capital will eventually have a mosque, with a minaret. Considering the number of Muslims in Austria stands at half a million, there are simply not enough places of worship.
“Mosques should not be hidden, but hidden things are always problematic and suspicious,” said Schakfeh. “We want to be normal citizens of this country.” With regard to the minaret, Schakfeh stated that similar to Christian churches many elements can be negotiated, however “a church has a structure, a form of architecture. And a mosque has a form of architecture as well.” The height of the minaret can be discussed, and loudspeakers are not a necessity either. Just as there are many different Islamic styles for prayer houses, Schakfeh believes that “a middle-European style may develop.”
The IGGiÖ is also planning to open a local branch in every provincial capital. The timing is not arbitrary, as starting in April 2011 a new representation will be elected by Austrian Muslims.
Schakfeh also criticized the government’s recently proposed “German language prerequisite” for immigrants to Austria as “simply unfeasible.” Most migrants would first have to migrate to a large city in their own country to attend the classes before being able to immigrate to Austria, thus necessitating a double emigration.
Finally Schakfeh stated his opposition to a ban of the burqa. “We do not recommend this form of the veil,” he continued, however a ban would be counterproductive because it would lead to the social isolation of those women who wear it. According to Schakfeh, the most important thing is being able to guarantee that women are making the decision of their own volition.