Architectural Criticism

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    The Zaha "Oh No": Architecture Deserves Better Journalism

    Jessica A.S. Letaw
    Sep 24, '15 11:49 AM EST


    The news: Zaha Hadid has just been awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal.
    The drama: she walked out of a radio interview with the BBC News.

    There's going to be a lot written about this today. About how much it has to do with her being a woman (or not). About the regrettable status of starchitects. About her fiery temper. About whether or not that thing about the deaths on Qatari jobsites is true (it is, but no one has died on her firm's project). About the Japan Olympics debacle.

    All of these are newsworthy topics when it comes to Ms. Hadid and her history, but please don't be misled: THAT IS NOT WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT.

    The real story here is about shoddy architecture journalism.

    Sarah Montague, Ms. Hadid's interviewer ("interviewer"), is a journalism veteran. She started her career nearly three decades ago and is a respected host of the "BBC Today" program. So why did she repeat false facts (facts over which Ms. Hadid had already sued for retraction - successfully - two years prior), lame questions (does it suck to be a woman? [Ms. Hadid's marvelous response: Not really]), and wrongheaded questions?

    There is getting to the heart of the story. There is the moral courage it takes to speak truth to power. There is the journalistic imperative to tease stories out of the everyday. And then there is what happened here: a person did not do their homework, and she got publicly snubbed because of it.

    If Ms. Montague had done five minutes of research - maybe 10 if she's a slow reader - she would have learned the truth about the Qatari statistic and the complexity behind the Tokyo Stadium story. She could have conducted a more thoughtful, rigorous, productive interview.

    That's not to say that Ms. Hadid still wouldn't have stormed out; but better for it to have been for truth cutting too close to the bone, than for what actually happened - mindless questions with no answers in the real world designed to make the interviewee look bad no matter what answer is given.

    The thing that causes me grief about this incident is that it is further proof that architecture, those who practice it and the things they create, are not taken seriously by mainstream media. The whole discipline is viewed as a caricature of itself, which leads serious journalists to feel like they can show up with cub reporter questions.

    Do that five or ten minutes of research on your subject. (Even better, take a couple of hours and really explore the person and their context for yourself.) Even if the complexity and depth you read about doesn't show up directly in the interview itself, and even if you're explicitly aiming for the lowest common denominator in your audience, you'll still be able to conduct the interview with a required minimum modicum of intelligence and integrity.

    If someone is treating you like a joke, walk the fuck out. Ms. Hadid just wrote the note saying you could. If journalism is not taking you seriously, return the favor. Boycott bad journalism until it comes back knocking with a little more respect.

    Sarah Montague "interviews" Zaha Hadid


    • davvid

      Yes. This is the second major failure by a respected journalistic organization regarding Zaha Hadid's work. 

      The interviewer obviously failed to do the ten minutes of research that it would have taken to discover the Martin Filler fiasco. But I also think that there is a major problem with cultural literacy in the mainstream media when it comes to challenging work in architecture, but also in other creative fields. The mainstream media seems to take on an ignorant conservative "everyman" perspective when it comes to new and challenging creative work that may seem "strange" to a casual observer.  Journalists need to start educating themselves so that they can educate the casual observer and close the cultural literacy gaps. They should NOT channel their readers' or listeners' ignorance or half-baked grievances.

      Sep 24, 15 12:33 pm

      Yes, journalists, smarten up and don't ask inconvenient questions that some don't want uttered!  Unless of course, the interview is with someone whom I don't like.  Then, fire away with everything you've got!

      You see, the masses are dumb, and "everyman" is not nuanced and enlightened like we are here.  So, please, do your homework, dear journalists.  Don't do your job and ask any question that might challenge the auteur.  Don't give the Ego (Ega?) any discomfort or excuse to storm off in a huff -- even if it's a hobby of theirs.

      Sep 24, 15 12:51 pm

      Hell, yes, Jessica, well said!

      This interview was embarrassing - for the interviewer.  It led me to an 11 year old interview of Zaha by one of the most-respected interviewers on the planet, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, who sadly also just didn't ask very informed questions of Zaha, either, though at least Terry's weren't just inflammatory gossip.

      It is frustrating how little we all seem to know about discussing architecture.  It also makes me wonder, though, if you you changed the word "architecture" to 'farming" or "yoga" or "commercial banking" or any other topic, woudl the practitioners in that field also feel that their discipline isn't being well-questioned?

      (P.S. Um, austin, you missed the point.)

      Great write-up, Jessica!

      Sep 24, 15 1:28 pm

      "second major failure by a respected journalistic organization" Are you fucking kidding me? Its the failure of a bullshit starchitect to align with society. Losers always thrive in loserville.

      It would be awesome if we start believing that we are not selling life-saving drugs, but rather expensive sculptures to those who can afford them, and Zaha exemplifies this...

      Sep 24, 15 1:39 pm

      The failure of the starchitect to align with society very might well be the case, sameold, but the point of *this* article is that via Sarah Montague's interview skills we'll never know.

      Per Jessica: She could have conducted a more thoughtful, rigorous, productive interview...That's not to say that Ms. Hadid still wouldn't have stormed out; but better for it to have been for truth cutting too close to the bone, than for what actually happened - mindless questions with no answers in the real world designed to make the interviewee look bad no matter what answer is given.

      Sep 24, 15 2:28 pm

      Apparently sameolddoctor refuses to accept the Martin Filler's apology and correction. Its this kind of denial or ignorance about the facts that the press needs to push back against.

      Sep 24, 15 2:30 pm

      "The failure of the starchitect to align with society..."

      When you all referring to when you say "society"? Since when are architects anti-society or in an oppositional relationship with society?

      Sep 24, 15 2:36 pm

      Donna, thanks!  I was in fits this morning after reading the transcript of the 'interview' and I just had to get my thoughts down before I lost them.  I didn't want the conversation to get hijacked by the same old tropes about Hadid or "starchitecture" when the real fault was bad journalism.  I hear what you're saying, that this is not unique or native to architecture; you're exactly right.  And like the other fields, I feel that architecture needs to stand up for itself; but given its own tortured and plural view of itself, it often doesn't, choosing instead to devour its own. It would be much easier and more fun to play up the Hadid drama aspect of this story - if also incorrect.

      Davvid, I appreciate your thoughtful responses, and you are getting at something that I was a little too choked with indignation earlier to say well: that reporters may be aiming for the lowest common denominator, but they should not actually be that.  One responsibility of journalism (whether members acknowledge it or not) is to be an ambassador for and translator of complexity, nuance, and depth, mediating between subject and consumer.  Ms. Montague, I believe, is an effective journalist.  I am just keenly disappointed that she chose to impersonate the "everyman" on a topic regarding architecture.  

      Regarding your comment about starchitect, I would like to disagree with you by agreeing with you (or vice versa! I'm not sure which).  You ask what is meant by "society", but I think it would be more valuable to focus on the term "starchitect".  I used it in my original article, with a little regret but I was trying to make a point in a hurry.  This is largely media-driven term that, I would argue, is nearly empty of any meaning at all.  "Starchitect" really just means "recognizable architecture brand", and the person to whom it refers is always backed by a sizable, knowledgeable, experienced team.  So with that in mind, I like your question, but I'm going to not answer on the premise that one of the underlying ideas is not sufficiently defined.

      Great conversation!

      Sep 24, 15 3:11 pm

      So, similarly (well, that is, as similar as a clueless local Midwestern business paper can be to a global starchitecture contretemps), I recently wrote a column denouncing a large development plan for the reason that it impacted an enormous swath of the city but had not been at all vetted through our currently ongoing Indy ReZone process, which is a re-writing of the zoning code over a three-year process.  A letter to the editor called me out for "crying about Indy ReZone, whatever that is..." which is simply an ignorant statement when Indy ReZone IS a thing that exists and has included hundreds of community voices through its multi-year process. I dismissed the letter writer completely, he wasn't worth my time, but I was furious that the Editorial page had let this letter go to press: it was ignorant and inaccurately shit-stirring.

      Sep 24, 15 3:48 pm

      Architecture Deserves Better Architecture

      Sep 24, 15 4:53 pm

      This story is much more about Hadid than it is about architecture. That is to say the architect is not the architecture. Current journalism (and even most common opinion), however, doesn't realize that distinction. Personally, I'd rather read about the architecture.

      Sep 24, 15 5:59 pm
      vado retro

      even if half of bangladesh died on that job site, no architect would say anything about it. because that is not the responsibility of the architect and saying anything about it could open a can of liability that no one wants. yes, this interview was awful and she was right to cut it off. and speaking of architecture interviews by journalists, they usually are lacking because what do they really know about the profession and its subtleties. thank god, for architecture podcasts that do get to the root of the matter.

      .and speaking of  terri gross, lately, seems only to be interviewing amy schumer and louis c.k. lou reed walked out on her back in the day.

      Sep 25, 15 11:17 am

      If you're interviewing a lawyer, that doesn't make it a law interview.

      I'd rather see a realized distinction between journalism about architecture, journalism about an architect or architects, and journalism about the architectural profession. Yes, they are all related and can overlap, but they are individual and distinct, and not at all the same thing.

      Ask yourself: where exactly is the architecture within the context of this very thread?

      Sep 25, 15 12:16 pm

      those are good questions and points quondam.


      Zaha did the right thing by walking away. The interviewer is a moran (meaning she is so ignorant she doesnt even know that she aint got a bloody clue even though its obvious). Its such a pity that instead of congratulating a great architect on her recognition, and for being a pioneer in many ways as a result, we now waste time talking about piles of silliness. And so does the world in general. Its even more infuriating that BBC is the starting point of the bull-shit.

      Sep 26, 15 3:50 am

      Perhaps the best examples of 'architecture' in broadcast journalism are the Charlie Rose interviews. First off, he's always very well prepared (no doubt he has an excellent staff and he himself is very interested in architecture). And, in addition to normal/usual introductory/background questions, he spends most of his time asking about and investigating process, be it process of design, process of how a certain project came together, or even just asks "what's it like?" (doing all that). In all this, Rose manages to keep architecture itself the core topic of conversation.

      Sep 26, 15 9:13 am

      Zaha once  again showed her true colors by reacting to the journalist in a very unprofessional manner by walking out in a huff - all she had to do was answer the questions and finish the interview.

      Sep 27, 15 4:57 pm

      Zenakis, She actually tried to explain the history of the process begins the Tokyo project and the Qatar libel suit but the journalist was cutting her off because of time constraints. These morning interview segments on BBC are usually very brief.

      Sep 27, 15 8:49 pm
      vado retro

      congratulations on winning this pretigious honor and being the only woman to be given this award. let me ask you about dead construction workers and cancelled projects in a hard hitting take off the gloves manner of journalism usually reserved for foreign ministers of despotic countries, scandal ridden politicians and ponzi scheme creating businessmen.

      Sep 28, 15 12:23 pm
      Erik Evens (EKE)

      After listening to the interview, it seems to me that the first question about the construction deaths was really ill-informed and foolish.  Hadid very politely set the interviewer straight, and yet she continued to drill in.  The fascination with live "gotcha" journalism, which prioritizes sensationalism over truth, is not specific to the architectural press.  She should have walked out after that.

      The second question about cost overruns on her projects, which she actually walked out after, was an interesting one, and one that she likely didn't want to grapple with.

      Sep 28, 15 2:25 pm
      CINEARCHITECTURE's comment has been hidden

      Congratulation we want More woman and AWARDS I hope I have the understanding for Zahas way to this price.  

      Im female in construction since 25 years I always been a great fun of Zaha Hadid

      And I want to tell that I just won an AWARD official in a couple of weeks as an female in constructon business. Woman in construction had this price


      Its not about Le Corbusiers Le Modulor Its about LA Modulor

      Its about female expressing themself in color form grammar design etc except from the history

      Its an ART  ARCHITECTURE  study More to read at

      So keep up Zaha and all woman in construction business  No return !

      Oct 6, 15 7:28 am

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Architectstasy is a resource for the current, past, and projected built environments of Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, the U.S., and occasionally the world. Jessica A.S. Letaw and invited critics present critical readings of the city's trajectories that are situated within architectural discourse as well as news that is pertinent to residents and citizens.

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