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Patrik Schumacher

Following the death of Zaha Hadid in March, her business partner and friend, Patrik Schumacher, has been leading the practice she founded. He tells Magali Robathan what's next

Several months on from the death of architecture legend Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher is grieving, but determined.

We meet Schumacher – now director of Zaha Hadid Architects – at the Zaha Hadid Gallery in Clerkenwell, London. Everywhere you look, Hadid’s immense talent is on show, from her amazing paintings to her furniture, jewellery, lighting and models of her visions, both built and unbuilt. The table that we sit around – the Liquid Glacial Table – is a Hadid creation, beautiful and suitably fluid in form, made from transparent acrylic that ripples beneath the table's surface and appears to pour down the legs in a sudden swirl.

There's no question, says Schumacher, of letting all of this talent go to waste. They have worked too long and too hard to allow that to happen. And the achievements of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) are not just down to the talent of one person, he says, they are the product of the hard work and skill of the practice's 400-strong team.

“The secret of Zaha’s success was that she didn’t insist on only using her own ideas,” says Schumacher. “She was someone who delivered a fantastic new universe of possibility through her radical innovations, but she also allowed younger staff to flourish and exercise their own creativity competitively. That’s the way I came into this.

“At ZHA, we filter out the best ideas, then we work together to develop them. It’s a very collaborative, collective process, and it's the secret of our versatility. Our projects share DNA but are quite diverse – more diverse than you find from other so-called star architects, where there’s more of a sense that one person is the creator. That wasn’t the case then, and it’s not the case now.”

Schumacher joined ZHA almost 30 years ago, and worked alongside Hadid on all the practice's major projects. As well as his design work, he also teaches and lectures at architectural schools across the UK, the US and continental Europe, and has published a number of books and essays on contemporary architecture.

Schumacher admired Hadid's work before he joined ZHA in 1988, but he couldn't have predicted how far she would go.

She became an undisputed star, an innovator and the creator of some of the world's most iconic buildings. Hadid won every significant architecture prize, including the Pritzker in 2004, RIBA’s Stirling Prize (twice in a row, for the MAXXI National Museum of XXI Arts in Rome in 2010 and the Evelyn Grace Academy in London in 2011) and also the RIBA Gold Medal in 2016. 

“We are all still sad,” says Schumacher. “Zaha was very courageous, very driven in terms of wanting to excel. There was an intensity about her, but also an incredible loyalty and warmth. There was no snobbery or pretentiousness. She was an easy communicator and a good friend who was always ready with advice. She was very frank, very entertaining and fun."

While he is grieving for the loss of his business partner and friend, it’s vital for Schumacher to look forwards. Two weeks after Hadid’s death, ZHA released a statement saying they were going to carry on without their founder, and Schumacher is keen to ensure that the message gets out that they are still very much in business.

“The focus at the moment is on establishing the notion in the world that ZHA is continuing; that there's a strong collective leadership which is the same as it was and that the way we develop projects – which was always collaborative – is continuing,” he says. “We remain in good spirits, we are ambitious and we are still the go-to address when it comes to major projects of significance.”

At the time of Hadid’s death, the practice had 36 projects on-site in 21 countries, which it vowed to complete. The first of these, the Salerno Maritime Museum, opened in Italy in June in an emotional ceremony which ZHA staff flew from around the world to attend. The second project, the Port House in Antwerp, opened in September. Two further projects are set to open this year: the King Abdullah Petroleum Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the Mathematics Gallery in London's Science Museum.

Since then, the practice has won several new commisions, including a hotel in Qatar and a new cultural quarter on the seafront in Bournemouth, UK, and has been shortlisted for several more.

When Schumacher joined ZHA, Hadid was already a star within the world of architecture, if not yet within the wider world. At the University of Stuttgart and London's Southbank University – where Schumacher studied architecture – students pored over Hadid’s paintings. “I was getting bored as a student, but Zaha’s work shocked me into loving the field,” he says. “The thought that design could be something so different – more exciting and dynamic and fresh – had a huge influence on me.

“One of Zaha’s greatest achievements was the radical transformation of what it means to design; the fluidity, the dynamism that she explored in her paintings.”

When the 26-year-old Schumacher joined the practice, it was situated in one room of a converted Victorian school in Clerkenwell (ZHA have since taken over the entire building) and there were just four permanent employees.

“My first impressions of Zaha were that she was a very shy person, very withdrawn,” he says. “I was hired by a colleague, not her, and she ignored me for the first three weeks or so. Was I in awe of her? No, no.” He pauses for a moment. “Yes, perhaps I was a little in awe of her. Zaha could sometimes be abrasive and intense, but I have a very thick skin and I think that's why I pulled through. I was unfazed by that, and once I'd earned her respect I could start to push back.”

Schumacher and Hadid slowly built up a strong working relationship. “Zaha appreciated my knowledge of the history of architecture; she could rely on the fact I’d know what she was talking about if she mentioned certain projects or architects,” he says. “And I soon became someone who was good with words.”

Schumacher’s other role – something the practice was arguably in real need of – was that of a ‘finisher’; someone who made sure things got done. When he joined, ZHA still had no built work to their name, and the early years saw them enter, and lose, competition after competition.

The early 1990s were difficult years. They did win two high profile competitions – for the Neuer Zollhof towers in Dusseldorf, Germany and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales – but the Neuer Zolhof project was never commissioned (it was later designed by Frank Gehry) and the Welsh government refused to pay for the Cardiff Bay Opera House, something Schumacher says was a huge blow for Hadid. “I observed her suffering,” he says, “but she put her head down, however, and we went on.”

By the mid 1990s, the practice still had only one major built project to its name (the Vitra Fire Station, in Weil am Rhein, Germany). Schumacher decided enough was enough. “Through the 1990s we did wonderful competitions, but they were maybe a bit overly ambitious – too fluid for the time,” he says. “Towards the end of the 1990s I developed more of a killer instinct. I said, now I want to build. We drew back a bit and tried to work these projects, not to impress the peer group, but to actually win the competitions. It was a time to get serious.

“I'm an ideas person, but I'm also a person who wants to finish things; to execute and deliver. My role was to know when to stop and turn from exploration into commitment on a project.”

This approach paid off and ZHA won several major competitions in a row – the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinatti, US, the MAXXI Museum in Rome ("one of my all time favourites," says Schumacher) and the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany.

At this point, things really took off, and the practice grew rapidly. Hadid was ahead of her time – her swooping, curved lines would have been incredibly labour intensive to build when she first dreamed them up, however, advances in computer modelling made it possible to translate them into reality, as well as making them financially viable. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao also played an important role, says Schumacher. “Frank Gehry’s magnificent Bilbao Museum was a seminal project that helped signal to the world not only what a building could do for a city, but also what kind of design could actually be executed and what a sensation it could create. That helped us a great deal."

In 2004, Hadid became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, catapulting the firm into the major league.

“Winning the Pritzker really helped us,” says Schumacher. “You never know what would have happened if we hadn’t, of course – we were in the ascendant already – but there was a definite acceleration in the pace of work.”

By 2008, the firm employed 400 people, and the following few years saw the opening of several major projects including MAXXI in Rome, the Guangzhou Opera House in China, the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, Azerbaijan and the Messner Mountain Museum Corones in Italy.

The firm still had its share of setbacks, of course – most notably the Tokyo Olympic Stadium (more later) – but it had risen through the ranks to become one of the highest profile and most admired architectural firms in the world.

Zaha Hadid's work was always about innovation, and Schumacher is determined to ensure the practice continues to build on this. “Just as when Zaha was around, we are always looking for the next step of development,” he says. “There's a strong DNA in this company, a strong set of overall principles, but there's also a process of maturation and continous innovation, and that's something I'm focusing on. I will be the main driver of this innovation, but we’ve also built a research team over the years, and have several other major creative figures within the team who will help pull this along.”
Schumacher is a proponent of parametricism (a term he coined in 2008); an approach that uses algorithms and computer programs to manipulate different variables for design purposes. With this approach, all of the design parameters are inconnected, meaning that you can play with them to see how changes alter the form. It allows for adaptation late into a project, and results in complex, organic, fluid forms that mimic those seen in nature (and that have long been the hallmark of Zaha Hadid's designs).

“Our formal repertoire is very organic-looking but has lots of versatility – it's not about preconceived forms – it's about forms you can adapt, nestle into irregular sites, connect to unpredictable adjacencies,” says Schumacher.   

Schumacher uses ZHA's Dongdaemun Design Centre in Seoul, which opened in 2014, as an example of the benefits of the parametric approach. “This was a very complex irregular site, with many different points of entry at different levels, where we wanted to create a park as well as a building on the same site. Using the tool of an amoeba-like mass pouring itself into the different niches, corners and entry points results in something that is quite elegant and beautiful. It [the design] is not something we invent, it's something that emerges through a dynamic system like a creature – an amoeba – adapting to a condition.”

For all their success, ZHA have also has their share of disappointments, and none were more shattering than the decision by the Japanese government to scrap Zaha Hadid's stadium design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Stadium.

“Losing the Olympic stadium job was the biggest setback ever,” says Schumacher. “I found it absolutely shocking and Zaha was devastated. We were so happy to get that project, it was a well deserved win and we were looking forward to 2020. That was pulled away from us. We found the whole experience incredibly distressing.”

ZHA originally won the contract to design the stadium in 2012, but the design attracted criticism from a number of high profile Japanese architects, including Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki, who launched a petition for the design to be abandonded due to its cost and scale. The design was revised in 2014, and won final approval from the government in July 2015, before being cancelled just 10 days later. A new competition was launched by the Japanese government, and Kengo Kuma was chosen over the other finalist, Toyo Ito, in December 2015.

How did the experience affect Hadid? “She was really depressed; she gave up nearly everything,” says Schumacher. “It was such a humilation. The loss of two years’ intense, passionate work, not to mention the guys fromt the team flying to Japan all of the time. You can only do that if you have that reward in sight.

“Everyone was depressed and demoralised, and there was also the potential shock to our reputation – the perception that this was due to our obstinacy or outrageous extravagence in terms of the design. None of this was true, but the suspicion lingers on in the minds of clients. That's why we made a PR effort to try to explain what happened and how conscientious we'd been in the process, signalling all the way through until the final decision that we were totally willing to do anything.”

Kengo Kuma has denied claims that he plagiarised Zaha Hadid's Tokyo Stadium design [see p70 for more from Kuma on this]. How does Schumacher respond?

“We don't want to fight over this,” says Schumacher. “What is important is to clear our name and reputational loss. Kengo Kengo is a friend and he didn’t come out against us in the process. Once we were cut out altogether then I accepted that anyone else could step forward [with a new stadium design] – except that I didn’t expect Toyo Ito to step forward because he had so vocally said it was the wrong site and the wrong size of building. That I found problematic and I wouldn't want to encounter him.”

It was a dark time for the company, but in September 2015, the announcement came that Zaha Hadid had become the first woman to win the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture. It couldn't have come at a better time, says Schumacher. “That was the motivational boost and positive signal she absolutely needed and we all needed. It was wonderful.”

ZHA's list of future projects includes the Al Wakrah Stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the 1000 Museum residential tower in Miami, US; Beijing New Aiport Terminal Building; and the Grand Theatre de Rabat in Morocco, as well as smaller projects such as the new Mathematics Gallery at London's Science Museum, which is due to open in December 2016. The gallery, which will include more than 100 objects from the museum's collection, was something of a passion project for Hadid, who studied mathematics at university and used it as the foundation for her designs.

“The Mathematics Gallery was a nice opportunity for us to create an experience, to structure an educational environment and also to experiment,” says Schumacher.

As for new commissions, what is the firm looking for? “We’re curious and interested in nearly everything,” he says. “We want to demonstrate the universality of our approach. We do look for an opportunity to innovate – most projects have some element of novelty and complexity, so that would be be a minimum criteria, but otherwise we are very open.”

Schumacher's time working at ZHA has been a “rollercoaster” he says, and the future looks set for more twists and turns, but he is embracing it all.

Key staff at ZHA

ZHA employs approximately 400 staff across offices in New York, Mexico City, Dubai, Beijing, London and Hong Kong. Key staff at the London office include CEO Mouzhan Majidi (1), who joined ZHA in 2016 after working for Foster + Partners for 27 years. Directors at the London office are Charles Walker (2), who moved from Arup to ZHA in 2007, Gianluca Racana (3), who joined in 2000 and has worked on projects including the MAXXI Museum in Rome; and Jim Heverin (4), whose projects include the London Aquatics Centre which was built for London 2012.

The firm employs 12 associate directors. These include Sara Klomps (5), who joined in 1998 and whose projects include the London Aquatics Centre and the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg and Paola Cattarin (6), who joined the firm in 1999 and has worked on projects including the Maritime Terminal in Salerno.

1. Mouzhan Majidi
1. Mouzhan Majidi
2. Charles Walker
2. Charles Walker
3. Gianluca Racana
3. Gianluca Racana
4. Jim Heverin
4. Jim Heverin
5. Sara Klomps
5. Sara Klomps
6. Paola Cattarin
6. Paola Cattarin

Patrik Schumacher

In his own words

Patrik Schumacher
Patrik Schumacher

When did you become aware of Zaha Hadid?
She was a star in the 1980s before I even stepped foot into her office. She had a radical influence. In schools of architecture around the world students looked at her drawings and started started to imitate them. That landscape-like flow was hugely influential.

What do you see as Zaha’s greatest achievement?
Something she could have achieved without ever having built anything, which is the radical transformation of what it means to design the repertoire; the fluidity, the curvilinear nature of it, the dynamism of the language she explored in her paintings

What was she like as a person?
She was very, very driven in terms of always excelling, always outshining everybody else – in terms of the competition there was enormous pressure. She was very intense, and therefore could be very unhappy if things weren’t coming together, but that was born out of this will for excellence.

She was able to maintain close friendships with staff and students, people from all walks of life. There was no snobbery at all about her. She had very few filters in terms of formality in intimate circles. She was very frank, very entertaining and fun.

How did you feel about the Brexit vote? Will this impact you?
My hope is that with the new situation there is a chance to manage immigration more sensibly. We need to search the whole world labour market for talent and skills rather than being so focused on Europe versus the rest of the world.

At ZHA we have people from America, Latin America and Asia and we need to go back into these regions. I love to be an entrepreneur and I think there need to be entrepreneurial freedoms in order to flourish in the world market.

I hope there will be open borders as much as possible in all directions, in terms of trade and talent. Of course there's no guarantee that such a policy will be used in the way I would wish it to be used, but there's a chance, and within the EU there was less chance.”

Would you like to grow ZHA in terms of numbers of employees?
I would be happy to grow, because I see the advantage of a larger portfolio so that you are more robust in case something goes wrong in one arena. I also like the idea of having more resources to invest in research, to have lecture series for our staff. These things make for a more exciting life for everybody.

Do you have a minimum budget when considering which projects to take on?
We’re competitive with our fees but we can’t compete with very run-of-the-mill firms or ideas that are just pulled out of a drawer.

Sometimes we’re willing to take a loss on a job if we find an opportunity that is intellectually interesting. Particular small projects usually apply a loss, but we're willing to do them because of the prominence of the site or the motivation for the staff – like the Serpentine Sackler Gallery [in London, UK] for instance.

We take a loss on many small projects, happily. But we can’t on big projects.

"We need to search the whole world labour market for talent and skills rather than being so focused on Europe versus the rest of the world"

The Mathematics Gallery at London’s Science Museum was a passion project for Zaha Hadid. It is due to open in December
The Mathematics Gallery at London’s Science Museum was a passion project for Zaha Hadid. It is due to open in December
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