In a rare interview, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid talks equality for women, why she doesn’t get work in London and how she will always be something of an outsider.

Zaha Hadid might be almost as famous nowadays for cutting short interviews as she is for her cutting-edge architecture. When it was announced she had become the first woman to win the Royal Gold Medal in September and picked up the award in February, there followed an acrimonious interview on the BBC’s Today radio programme. Challenged over (incorrect) accusations about migrant builders who died working on her stadium for the football World Cup in Qatar, Hadid ended the interview and walked out.

Given that the citation for the Royal Gold Medal goes so far as to describe Hadid as a “scary” character, there is a certain amount of trepidation in beginning an interview with her. She looks bored, eyes rolling off to one side at my first questions. She stops mid-sentence to demand that a screen is turned off because it is distracting her. She has just flown in from Yale, where she teaches, to pick up the award. Is she jetlagged? “I don’t get jetlag,” she replies flintily.

There is little chance of her doing a runner today. We are in Hadid’s showroom in Clerkenwell, which, she says, is a lot like her home, an old warehouse around the corner (she lives alone). The showroom is a rather sterile space full of her own furniture designs, including milled marble stools that look like plastic and plexi tables that look like glass. On the floor below are shoes made of recycled rubber and intricate skyscraper models that could be works of art themselves.

She is proud of the medal because it is an endorsement from her adoptive country. “I made a choice to live in the UK. I work here, my office is based here, I was educated here,” she says. “The award is important to me not because they finally accepted me but because it comes from a place I choose to operate in.”

Now 65, the Iraqi-born architect has lived in London since 1972 when she was a student at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square but still speaks with a slight Middle Eastern accent. “I would like to get more work here. I get hardly anything. I know London so well. I have been travelling across it since I was a student. I have seen the transformation of the city. It is sometimes frustrating that I don’t have any work here. I would love to build a tower in London.”

Hadid’s career was forged through controversy, from the first rows over the proposed Cardiff Bay opera house in the 1990s that propelled her to national fame, or perhaps notoriety—she won three rounds of competition only for the design to be left unfunded—to her most recent furore over the 2020 Tokyo Olympic stadium. Again, Hadid’s design won the international competition but she was replaced by a Japanese architect at the end of last year.

“There were very serious judges,” she says. “They wanted a national stadium and through that they applied for the Olympics. We won and worked on it for nearly three years but it seems they just wanted Japanese.” Hadid’s practice has so far refused to give up the copyright to the designs in return for a final payment, amid concerns that some components of the replacement scheme by Kengo Kuma are similar to those proposed by Hadid. Kuma denies appropriating her work. Needless to say, Hadid’s lawyers are busy.

The biggest controversy of all, however, must be her work for the Qataris — the subject of the toe-curling BBC Radio 4 interview in which journalist Sarah Montague alleged more than 1,200 migrant workers had died working on Hadid’s Al Wakrah stadium being constructed for the 2022 World Cup. This was incorrect— there have been no deaths at the stadium —and the BBC later apologised for having got its facts wrong. Hadid has not taken legal action against the corporation, although she did sue the New York Review of Books, which first made the accusation. (She eventually accepted a settlement from the magazine and donated an undisclosed sum to a charity that supports labour rights.)

In fact, there is little accurate information on how many foreign workers have died during construction for the World Cup and other projects but a reputable report in 2014 by the law firm DLA Piper said 964 workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh had died in Qatar in 2012 and 2013— although there were no fatalities on the Al Wakrah site. When pressed on the issue of the treatment of migrant workers, Hadid responds simply: “I have done my bit.”

Her right hand, with a bracelet that seems to be based on the roofline of the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, almost never stops moving — rolling around as she expands on an opinion, or jabbing as she makes a decisive point. It pauses for a moment when I ask her what she means by her answer, thinking she has funded some sort of charity.

Not so. “I have always been defending the stadia in Qatar and I think they [the Qataris] should now do something [themselves]. This comes up all the time. I have done my bit.”

Why did she walk out of the BBC interview? Surely it was an opportunity to defend the project?

“It was not an appropriate thing to do in a radio car outside my house. I am not a defender of the Qatari situation but it is important to get the facts right and then we can discuss it. I am very happy that the press make the government aware of problems on certain sites. But it does not apply to this site.

“In any country one should do public and cultural work: you cannot boycott the people. It is important that we give these countries good schools, good hospitals, good museums, good housing. And there are certain projects I will never do — I will never design a prison.”

She is angry the BBC chose to go on the offensive on the day the award was announced. “They had a right to ask me whatever they liked but when I had just won the Royal Gold Medal, I thought they should not necessarily congratulate me but talk more generally about my work. Going straight on the attack was not appropriate.”

Are baubles important to her? She has, after all, won the Stirling prize twice in consecutive years and the Pritzker, perhaps the most illustrious of them all, in 2004—the first woman to do so. She was even made a dame in 2012 after building the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympic Games. She concedes that the Pritzker, which she says came “mid-career”, had helped her practice to grow but insists she still sees her herself as an outsider in a profession that continues to be dominated by white men.

“I do see myself as being outside the establishment—not by choice. I have been on the edges for so long it is comfortable for me to be there. I do not want to be seen as an outsider necessarily but it means I can carry on with experimentation and innovation. Having to fight hard has made me a better architect.”

Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Leila Heller gallery in Dubai

Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Leila Heller gallery in Dubai

Some past slights continue to rankle though. She was invited to the opening ceremony of the London Aquatics Centre, where she met the Queen but complains that she was not offered tickets to see her pool in action during the Games (no, she has never been for a dip but many in her office use it). Eventually she protested to Boris Johnson, the mayor, that she had to obtain tickets on the black market. She says he replied: “Don’t ever mention it to anyone.” She has not until now, if only to spare his blushes.

Is she difficult to work for? “I don’t think so. They say I am. People on the outside say I am.” She shrugs. How does she deal with criticism of her buildings? She seems surprisingly sanguine about it: “When we started the Dongdaemun Design Plaza [in Seoul, South Korea] everyone hated it. Now it has had 17 million visitors and is second in popularity only to the Louvre worldwide. It has become like Trafalgar Square. I didn’t think it would be that popular.

“The fantasy work of 10 years ago is the reality of today. A single idea can take 10 or 20 years. It is like making movies— it does not happen overnight.”

Hadid’s class at Yale is evenly split between the sexes and she believes the next generation of female architects and designers will not allow themselves to be pushed to the sidelines as some of her own did. Her practice, she says, is now 40 per cent female.

“The new generation has more perseverance. I have taught for 30 years and in the last 25 the best people have been women. Some have changed direction but a lot have carried on. It is not easy to do everything and society has to make it easier for women to work. The most difficult thing is childcare. That is the way they can be helped.”

Is she a feminist? “Yes and no. We must make rules that allow women to enter certain positions that they cannot at the moment — then eventually it will even out. Women need access and then eventually, the best wins and it does not matter if it’s a male or female. But women want to know it is possible for them to do well.”

Hadid, whose distinctive sculptures were recently exhibited at the Leila Heller gallery in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue,  has collected awards for buildings, from a school in Brixton, south London (the Evelyn Grace Academy) to China (the Guangzhou Opera House). She is now working on projects ranging from an energy research centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to the new £632 million Iraqi parliament. It is a project dear to her heart as her father Mohammed, who died in 1999, was a prominent politician, democracy advocate and, briefly, minister of finance before the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963. Work is due to commence shortly.

She pauses to show me some pictures of cladding sent to her iPhone. These aren’t even from one of her own buildings but she pores over them, sucking in every detail. She seems to be enjoying herself now: she explains why London could become a “mid-rise” city (we don’t need skyscrapers scattered all over the capital), how long it will take to rebuild Iraq (25 years), how she was influenced by the modernists. She ends by saying that architecture is enjoying a “renaissance”.

What part does she think she has played in this and will play in future? After all, at 65, she is a relative youngster. Her former mentor Rem Koolhaas is 71; Frank Gehry, a friend, is still going strong at 86.

“I would like to think I am someone who stirred it up a bit. I am a dame and whatever so not totally on the outside but I have been an agent provocateur — I questioned certain things and perceptions changed. I have enjoyed doing it all despite the hurdles. If you give in, it is the end. You have to believe in what you do.”

She smiles broadly again and adds: “And in architecture, nobody ever retires.”