'Zaha Hadid leaves a formidable legacy'

Adrian Ellis remembers the late architect he first met during the Cardiff Opera House debacle


I first met Zaha Hadid in the most inauspicious circumstances, when I was on “the client side” of the Cardiff Bay Opera House debacle in the mid 1990s. She was treated badly in that process and Nicholas Edwards, the chairman of the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust who was the former Secretary of State for Wales, wrote the book Opera House Lottery (1997) as an attempt to set the record straight. Somehow our relationship survived the circumstances and at one of a number of commiserative occasions, she presented me and Peter Rogers, the uber-project manager and architect Richard Rogers's brother, with silk ties on which she had painted her distinctive design of the unbuilt Opera House.

We remained in contact ever since— AEA periodically working with Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) on various projects—most notably the brief for the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, but also projects in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and elsewhere. Most recently I was honoured to be asked to do some work for her on how her formidable legacy might be cared for in the long term. It was a poignant project for me as it involved thinking about the use of the Design Museum's building in Butler's Wharf, London, which she bought from the Conran Foundation after the decision to expand and move the Design Museum to the site of the Commonwealth Institute. I had worked on the setting up of the Design Museum in the late 1980s after its move from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Boilerhouse in 1986. It’s a lot more poignant now.

She was a total one-off, combining the brilliance, toughness, tenacity and occasional imperiousness one associates with people at the apex of her chosen profession with a personal vulnerability, humour and self deprecating irony that are wholly untypical. She often felt misunderstood and as a consequence beleaguered but she always stood her ground. She recently extracted apologies from the New York Review of Books and the BBC for mis-statements  and mis-characterisations.  An Iraqi-born woman, she not only won all the major plaudits of her profession, including the Riba Gold Medal and Pritzker, she also built ZHA into a formidable practice with a deep bench of talented and committed designers. She moved from the “paper architect” she was labelled early in her career to a global portfolio that ranged from jewellery to furniture to buildings of all genres to city planning. When the architect Patrik Schumacher joined ZHA, synergies created by their personal dynamic and complementary preoccupations gave the it a further boost, a cocktail of Malevich, advanced CAD and pure flair, moving gradually from angular to a more organic but no less dramatic vocabulary. Sixty five is young. It is really young for an architect mid career. The loss is both personal and the world's.

• The writer is the founder and director of AEA cultural consulting