Diva in the House

The reigning queen of architecture talks about gender-specific buildings, the controversy behind her new Museum of Contemporary-Contemporary Art, and the difference between organic and regular Deconstructivism.

Do you feel a heightened sense of responsibility being the most famous female architect in such a male-dominated profession?
When I grew up in Lebanon, my mother got me a small kitten. This small kitty was the most rambunctious of the litter, but as she got older she didn’t grow very much. In fact all the other cats in the neighborhood were twice her size, and she would constantly arrive home all beaten up with cuts and bruises. Still there wasn’t a fight she backed away from. In her mind she was still the strongest of the litter. If she ever stopped to analyze the situation, she would realize how tiny she was and would probably never leave the house again.

There are several critics who have suggested that your structures are somewhat aggressive and masculine in the way they relate to surrounding buildings. Do you think this has to do with some kind of subconscious message you’re trying to send to the other “kitties” on the block?
It’s ironic that critics—mostly male—would make such observations about my work yet they’ll never comment on the feminine qualities of, say, a Jean Nouvel roof, a Bob Stern facade, or for that matter Richard Meier’s obsession with the color white. Perhaps it’s not so much that my structures are masculine, as the profession has become void of any real men.

In your new Museum of Contemporary-Contemporary Art, in Basel, the artist Boulau Hochhauser recently withdrew his series on “Historic Genitalia” from an exhibition because he claimed that there wasn’t a suitable flat surface to hang his paintings from. Would you concede that your bold gestures might have compromised the program of the building?
It’s typical of an artist like Boulau to blame the architect when in fact it is his paintings that are failing the public. The mandate for this museum was to address the role contemporary art might play in the future. Given the fact that architecture is obviously evolving into the de facto art of tomorrow—one only has to look at the front page of any Sunday Arts section—it is essential for the artist to recognize that from this point on they are going to have to accommodate the building if they intend to still be relevant.

Are you saying there is no longer a need for contemporary art?
If I design an exquisitely detailed handrail, should it be necessary to exhibit a sculpture? If I intertwine glass, concrete, and metal to form dancing prisms of light that wash down the side of a finely textured wall, is it not absurd to cover it up with a piece of canvas?

I’ve heard you say that even though your architecture might appear deconstructed, you do not consider yourself a “Deconstructivist.”
My childhood was fragmented. I did not belong to one culture or one religion, my home was uprooted, we lived through war, destruction, times of uncertainty. …Therefore as I began to grow, to mature, to evolve, I started thinking organically in a deconstructed way. That’s different from formally declaring oneself part of a movement.

But how do you decipher between yourself and, let’s say, those two young architects out of Princeton you accused of plagiarizing your First Class Lounge at LAX? Isn’t it possible that they themselves had fragmented childhoods and therefore came up with a similar-looking solution?
They grew up in Delaware. How fragmented could they be?

Does your work impede your social life?
Not really. My office is my spouse; my buildings are my children.

What about your cat?
She was run over by a truck.

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