What was your dream job as a child growing up?
I always wanted to be in architecture, since I was maybe seven, eight, nine years old.
It’s been a long journey. I studied at the Architectural Association [AA, in London]. It was a very important period in the school. It was post-1968, when everything changed in architecture and AA was really the only place where certain experimentation could take place so it was filled with very interesting people with very different ideologies. People who wanted to do modernism, pseudo-modernism, post-modernism, historicism, rationalism, all these kinds of tendencies in architecture.
What do you remember most about your studies?
There was a lot of focus on drawing at the time… and the idea of the school was really to pick your way through some labyrinth ideas let’s say, so looking back it was very exciting. I was a student of Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis who together formed OMA, which is the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. It was a completely different take on architecture and it was very inspiring, heavily influenced by New York.
How would you describe the evolution of your company?
I won a very big competition in 1983 with the Peak Club in Hong Kong and I did a very big exhibition in London that same year, but I still didn’t have an office; I had a few various people working from home and I carried on teaching and as I became more well known I opened a studio within a converted Victorian school but we had no work, we had very small things. I took a big risk and said ‘I’m going to stay on my own’. People must have thought I was crazy, why would I do such a thing? Then in the late Eighties I was asked to do the Vitra Fire Station in Germany and that was, of course, our first break.
What did winning the Pritzker Prize in 2004 mean to you?
Well I wasn’t expecting it at all… and so when the Pritzker came I think a lot of people were very excited. A lot of my friends came to the ceremony in St Petersburg and it was really very emotional for them as well because they had all watched me do this.
Your commission list lacked a British commission for a very long time. Why do you think this is?
Well I think that it’s still very strange that we don’t have much presence in London. We now have the Olympic [Aquatics Centre in Olympic Village] … but in terms of commercial work, I mean there are things happening everywhere in the city but either they think that women cannot do it or they think I am too unreliable or temperamental or I don’t know what it is. For me it’s a shame, I will always have two regrets... [one is that] I don’t have a presence in London. And the other is I would have liked to have done more work in the Middle East.
What do you think about design and architecture in the UAE?
I think it was important for the Middle East to make the next step and connect globally and it was just beginning to do that. Then with the collapse of the markets three or four years ago it changed. I still think that the three projects we designed in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in that period are our best work [The Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre, Dubai Financial Market and Opus Office Tower in Abu Dhabi].
You have recently been commissioned to design the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad…
It’s on a very nice site on the river, I know the site well. Many of these great architects of the time like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and [Joseph Luis] Sert and [Walter] Gropius all designed projects for Baghdad. In the Arab world, likewise in Brazil and in Africa, it was about nation-building in that period and also about identity and I think there was a moment of renaissance… trying to build a new era and adopt some of these modernist ideas like they did in Chandigarh or they did in Bangladesh so it was an incredible moment of excitement and that’s why I think it intrigued me at the time.
What are your memories of growing up in Baghdad?
I had a very nice childhood there until I was a teenager. But I haven’t been back in 30 years. I ought to go back because… I can’t kind of understand the pulse completely so I need to take the plunge and go back.
People would say you are one of the most prolific and successful architects of your generation. Do you agree?
I think we were very lucky, I mean it came at a price. But also the most important thing was that we enjoyed the work. When you are overworked and exhausted there is a sense of kind of delirium and that’s why I think architects do all-nighters and they kind of do those deadlines. For four days I remember doing four nights in one row with no sleep. I mean nobody unless you are crazy would do that, but you are totally focused on the project. Nothing matters, things could be falling around you and that’s what induces great ideas, because you are semi-isolated with a bunch of people and… it’s very exciting. It’s not easy but that’s what kept us going.
What’s your management style like?
I give people freedom because I think it’s very important to nurture their talents and they can come up with individual ideas, and I think that’s why people enjoy it, but of course there is a cut line. You can’t just know everything. The end product is not just a case of ‘must just do a sketch’ and that’s it, it doesn’t work like that, it’s layered by all the expertise that we all have, into one project.
How would your assistant describe you?
I am very difficult. I mean I’m very generous with many people, some people think I am too generous… but… I’m not consistent. I’m not always cold, I’m not always open and friendly. I’m usually friendly and relaxed, I don’t have this hierarchy issue, I’m not interested in that at all – the whole ‘I’m the boss you have to treat me differently’ – they treat me like a friend.
How often do you raise your voice?
Oh! All the time! No. Not really… but I used to sing, as I called it, at my students and upstairs. I don’t so much anymore but if I don’t like something, if I don’t want it,
I don’t want it, it’s as simple as that.
Have you been called a diva?
All the time. I mean I’ve been called lots of things, I’ve been called a princess. I think people think I am a princess, it was like a joke. Many years ago it was kind of like they were patronising me again. But the diva is all the time. If I was a guy I would be called easy-going, all my colleagues are more difficult than I am… I am a total pushover.
Are you sure about that?
Oh absolutely, I am a complete pushover compared to those guys. But honestly, they are not used to a woman having an opinion, putting my foot down or answering them back.
If other women see you as a mentor, as an inspiration, does that sit OK with you?
I used to not like being called a woman architect. I’m an architect not just a woman architect. Because the guys used to tap me on the head and say you are OK for a girl. But I see the incredible amount of kind of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.
Do you switch off ever?
No. I try to go out and have a good time and laugh, but I do think about work all the time, yet I don’t think of it as work because you train yourself to design in your head, but you are thinking about things all the time.
What do you think drives you?
I really think that things can be done much better. Generally I have lots of ideas and, of course, just like everything else you have to edit them, but I think as an architect you just want to make better and better spaces.
When was your ‘aha’ moment? When did you know you had done it?
I never do (laughs). I don’t think it ever happened. Of course now I’m more established and it’s amazing how far we got, but there are still things to do that we haven’t done.
How would you like to be remembered?
I think that if one can remember that I had maybe questioned the typology of a building. That there isn’t an appropriate tabula rasa for everybody. Twenty, 30 years ago we were obsessed that every library should look the same. If you design a courthouse, it is like any other courthouse and I think that was questioned and I think that, I’m not saying I contribute to complexity, but I pushed that idea of complexity. I was so stubborn and persistent that one has to find a way of doing it and if that released a quality of space that I think was quite interesting so… I just challenged certain norms, let’s say, and through that we discovered other things.