Last year changed Zaha Hadid Architects forever. At the start of 2016, nobody could have foreseen that its eminent founder would die suddenly, a distressing event which shocked the practice and the profession.
Director Mouzhan Majidi, who joined from Foster + Partners two and a half years ago, admits the firm had no contingency arrangement for succession.
He says: ‘There was no plan in place. She was only 65. Nobody was even thinking about it. In that field of players – of Rogers, Foster, Gehry – she was the baby of the bunch. It was like losing a family member. She will always be there but the company has to move on: we have to go through a transition and the team has to carry on.’
Zaha Hadid Architects had to act quickly to prove to clients – such as those behind the £25 million Bournemouth cultural quarter who were deciding whether to award the practice the job as the news of Hadid’s death broke – that it could go on without its founder.
‘Clients were definitely worried in the initial stages after Zaha’s death. It is quite natural,’ says Majidi. ‘At the practice there was a period of slight anxiety for the clients, for ourselves, and for our staff. We had to reassure our clients that we are much more stable and resilient than perhaps they thought.’
And clients have stood by the practice. ‘We didn’t have any project cancel on us. Our clients became very resolute in seeing the projects through. It was a beautiful sign,’ adds Majidi.
But it wasn’t just clients they had to convince; there was a worry that staff might look elsewhere and, according to Majidi in the weeks following Hadid’s death, headhunters consistently called staff trying to tempt them away.
‘There was a lot of really ugly headhunting in the first few weeks. People were calling our staff but the thing is we all came together as a family and we didn’t lose anyone through that process,’ he recalls.
With the tragedy came a vigour and desire to keep going. The firm, which employs almost 250 architects in the UK, has maintained its spot at number three in the AJ100 rankings despite the changes. Financially it has had the best year in its 37-year history, with UK turnover rising to £49.26 million.
In business terms it hasn’t seemed to matter that practice chief and now almost sole public face of the firm Patrik Schumacher caused a stir and provoked protests when he spoke out with a highly controversial urban manifesto at the World Architecture Festival in November last year.
There was a suspicion in the outside world that this, and a sensitive internal email leaked to the AJ signalled a rift in the practice, but Majidi is swift to allay any fears.
‘[Patrik] should be allowed to voice his personal beliefs and that is what he was doing. There were probably lessons learned. Would he do it again? Probably. It didn’t really do us any harm.’
Majidi adds: ‘Patrik has been a key figure in the past 30 years and he will carry on the practice that he had built up with Zaha. That DNA runs deep.’
The practice’s growth doesn’t look as if it will abate any time soon. With 57 projects in 27 countries either under construction or in design development, Zaha Hadid Architects has a consistent flow of new work. It also expects to grow next year if a clutch of major jobs in the pipeline come off.
Majidi adds: ‘We have a lot of exciting opportunities and if they all come in then we will have to grow a lot. But, even if just half of them come in, we will still have to grow.’
In 2016 Zaha Hadid Architects won 12 major new jobs, including a new eco-stadium for Forest Green Rovers, a residential tower in Melbourne, and a ‘technopark’ in Moscow. With a number of schemes set to complete in the coming months and rumours of a big London project on the horizon, the practice looks well-placed to build and grow on the solid foundations laid down by Hadid.