Zaha Hadid, The Peak Project, Kowloon, Hong Kong (1991)
Last week was the week the New York Times discovered there were no successful female directors. Or maybe just one. The contrast between Manohla Dargis’s truth-telling rant on Jezebel and Daphne Merkin’s accepting profile of Nancy Meyers in the magazine could not have been more stark. One blew up the annual think-piece about the lack of women in charge in Hollywood, the one that always includes hand-wringing, nature-v-nurture debates and the suggestion that women don’t want it enough, or don’t go to the movies enough, or trumpet the exceptionalism of Meyers and her close compatriot in the realm of middle-aged female fantasy, Nora Ephron. The other affirmed a number of gauzy ideas about the limits of the female audience’s appetite for a challenge, and failed to advance the dialogue about just which kind of porn Meyers promulgates: sex after 50, or a sexy kitchen.
I love movies, and like Dargis believe rom-coms deserve better but will always have their place at the cineplex. But I also felt a sense of relief. At least people were talking truthfully about women in Hollywood. The narrative of struggle and failure, lack of opportunity and lack of progress, are the same in Architectureland, but no one ever talks about it, least of all the women.
Case in point: the profile of Zaha Hadid in the same week’s New Yorker, simultaneously cruel and caressing. It is a positive profile, accepting of Hadid as a genius, uncritical of her built work, establishing that work’s intellectual sources in Arabic calligraphy and Suprematism. (The first argument I had never heard before, the second I always considered ex post facto rationalization for the architects grouped in the MoMA’s Deconstructivist Architecture show.) But the article is also undermining, with an opening that focuses on her wired assistants, her talking with her mouth full, her chilliness (personal and interpersonal). Her portrait on the same spread is one of the most unflattering I have seen. Like celebrity profilers, looking, literally, for crumbs as revelatory of character, Seabrook focuses on the person of Hadid, rather than her work, and comes away with little. The rap on Hadid has been that she is all self-image, that her buildings are empty shows, and the profile only reinforces that shallow stereotype.
It also allows Hadid to completely sidestep discussion of her place as the only women to win a Pritzker, and the most famous living female architect, feinting at the question with old news about why her Cardiff Opera House was never built (sexism, traditionalism, Prince Charles). I wrote a review of a monograph on architect Deborah Berke last year and found the same refusal to engage on the part of both author and subject. I think both Berke and Hadid are playing by the old rules of silence about gender, ones that didn’t work in Hollywood and haven’t yet worked in architecture. How can the experience of women in architecture improve if no one ever talks about it? We need a Dargis to blow up the 30-year-old narrative.