When Zaha Hadid won the commission to design a new Mathematics gallery at the Science Museum, there was one question that I simply had to ask her: given she studied mathematics at university and the pervasive evidence that science is institutionally sexist, how much of a hurdle faces women today and how much of an inspiration would her appointment prove to be?
Her acknowledgement that, even for her, the gender gap remains an issue, and particularly in Britain, surprised me: “I’ve come across it a lot in my career here and I never felt it anywhere else to be honest,” she remarks. Her comments, made during a recent visit to the Science Museum, are particularly salient on Ada Lovelace Day (14 Oct), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
The Iraqi-British architect was born in 1950 and raised in one of Baghdad’s first Bauhaus-inspired houses. “In Iraq, maths was taught as a way of life,” she recalls. “We used to just do maths to resolve problems continuously, as if we were sketching.”
But when she came to boarding school in Britain in the early 1960s she found that she “was much more advanced in the sciences than many of the kids at the time, not because they were not smart. I think it was badly taught and it’s very important to teach sciences and maths in a way that makes it appealing.”
Before she went to boarding school, aged around 10, Dame Zaha vividly remembers a trip with her parents to the Science Museum. “It was for me at the time extremely fascinating to see instruments and understand about science. And, around the same time, I also went to art museums. I used to come every summer to London when I was in my teens.”
She went on to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut. The explosion of interest in construction and modernity of the 1960s encouraged her to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Today, she is one of the most sought-after architects on the planet, the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of the field.
From the Aquatics Centre she designed for the London Olympics to Rome’s curvilinear National Museum of the XXI Century Arts and China’s Guangzhou opera house, her concepts are futuristic and often voluptuous, with powerful, curving forms. Her work, she explains, has its roots in movement that is a century old, citing the work of Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich. The dire economic situation in the West in the seventies “fostered in us similar ambitions: we thought to apply radical new ideas to regenerate society.”
One would have thought that her global success as a ‘starchitect’ is a testament to how the gender gap is no longer a hurdle in Britain. However, like her late British-educated father, an economist and industrialist who helped to found the Iraqi National Democratic party, she found that she had to be dogged to succeed in her career. “I took a risk. “People were thinking I was crazy to do what I did even 30 years ago because it was very risky and that no-one’s going to give me a job. They were right.”
In the 1970s Dame Zaha met Peter Rice, an engineer, who encouraged her and she established her own London-based practice. However, she still struggled for recognition. Twenty years ago, the Millennium Commission refused to fund her winning “crystal necklace” design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Dame Zaha said at the time that she had been stigmatised on grounds of gender and race.
There is plenty of evidence that it remains a battle for women to pursue science and mathematics with the same ease enjoyed by men. According to the US National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21% of full science professors (just 5% of full engineering professors) even though they earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the US. They have to work harder to make the same impact.
One study, published last December by Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University Bloomington, and colleagues, evaluated 5,483,841 papers published between 2008–2012 and concluded that “in the most productive countries, all articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions”.
It is a similar picture for the UK and for architecture too. Last year Dame Zaha criticised the “misogyny” among UK architects, arguing that society is not equipped to help women back to work after childbirth. “You know we still suffer,” Dame Zaha tells me. “ it’s not very smooth. There’s been a problem always – the stereotype is that girls can’t do sciences.”
But, of course, they can. Over the years she has taught at many prestigious institutions, from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and The University of Applied Arts, Vienna. “Some of my best students are women,” she remarks. “I think it’s very important to encourage them.”
She acknowledges that her struggle and resulting success plays an inspirational role. “I do notice now when I go out to give a talk somewhere there are many girls who come to me. They want to be reassured that they actually can break that barrier and also do it with confidence. That’s why education is very important as it gives you confidence to conquer the next step. That confidence allows you to take risks.”
At the launch of the museum’s new Mathematics gallery in September, Dame Zaha was accompanied by museum Director Ian Blatchford, David and Claudia Harding – who made an unprecedented £5 million donation to build the gallery through their foundation – Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and her business partner, architect Patrik Schumacher, who helps Dame Zaha lead her team of 300 people.
Science Museum Curator David Rooney explained how the centrepiece of the forthcoming gallery will be the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12-metre wingspan that was designed to fly safely at slow speeds from short take-offs.
The aircraft’s aerodynamics proved influential at the very beginnings of civilian air travel. In the same way, the swirling flows of air around the aircraft in flight inspired Dame Zaha’s design and will allow mathematics to take flight in the museum.
Behind the Handley Page in her design lie three minimal surfaces (they enclose the smallest possible area that satisfy some constraints) that are based on the shapes of the vortices in the turbulence created behind the plane in flight. The equation defining these surfaces is governed by six different parameters and, by tweaking them, a menagerie of sensuous shapes emerges on screen in the offices of Zaha Hadid Architects. “Mathematics and geometry has an amazing influence particularly on our work,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”
Some of these surfaces will provide the backdrops to support display cases used throughout the galleries to provide an appropriate setting for a dazzling range of objects that will span 400 years of science and mathematics. It seems only appropriate to point out, on the day we celebrate the ‘first computer programmer‘, that the shapes were generated with Mathematica software.
The Mathematics gallery is the fourth commission this year as part of the redevelopment of the Science Museum. Wilkinson Eyre has been appointed to create £24 million Medical Galleries; London-based Coffey Architects is designing a new £1.8 million library and research centre in the museum’s Wellcome Wolfson Building; and Muf, a collective of artists, architects and urban designers, was selected to design a £4 million interactive gallery in the museum. Around one third of the building will change over the next few years, marking the biggest transformation of the museum since it was established more than a century ago.