Lord Palumbo, Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, remembers Dame Zaha at her Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 10 October 2016
I first met the lady that I came to know so well, and loved so dearly, thirty years ago. We had lunch together at the River Café, the ultimate repository of dreams and happy memories, providing food for the mind, body, and soul in the most sympathetic of settings. We hit it off from the start, and how could it have been otherwise? She and my wife, Hayat, had been contemporaries at the American University in Beirut, where Zaha read mathematics. The two of them shared a dormitory, and struck up a lifelong friendship; to which I was instantly and joyfully inducted. Zaha seemed to me, even at that early stage in her career, to be scattering the gold dust of her genius into our eyes, hearts, and minds; or more accurately to those of open mind who were willing to look, listen, and learn a new vocabulary, and gain in the process an exhilarating and entirely fresh perspective into the noble art of architecture.
During the course of that lunch Zaha spoke quietly of the influences that had stirred her passion and her creativity: of visits that she had paid as a little girl with her father in Iraq to the great Sumerian cities as old as time, passing on the way, ancient, free-flowing rivers in the valleys below, meandering, sinuous, and seemingly independent of line; as well as sand dunes constantly changing shape and form from the fierce force of the winds of nature blowing across the desert. She spoke of her time, years later, as a student at the Architectural Association in London under its legendary Director, Alvin Boyarsky; and then the mentorship of Leon Krier, Elia Zenghelis, and Rem Koolhaas, from all of whom she learned so much. At about the same time, the work of the painters Arp and Mondrian; the Supremist Movement in Russia, in particular, Malevich, and that of the great Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, enabled her to expand the boundaries set by those artists in ways that would have seemed to them unimaginable.
This brief reminiscence gives me no time to speak in any depth about Zaha, her acute intelligence, her singular brilliance as an architect and designer; her role as a standard bearer for the equality of women, particularly those in male-dominated professions; and her staunch and unremitting opposition to prejudice in its many forms, from which she herself suffered as a prime target. In all such matters she received a level of worldwide recognition afforded to very few: but despite the fame and adulation that greeted her wherever she went; despite the honours galore heaped upon her, she always seemed to me to harbor the vulnerability of a citizen of everywhere and nowhere, the classic lonely syndrome of the displaced and dispossessed.
From the pinnacle of this time and place, I shall simply remember the powerful, complicated, contrary, combative, and utterly wonderful lady of indomitable spirit and courage, as she was to her friends, – loyal, compassionate, gentle, kind, generous, and oh, so funny: And, more than I can say, I shall miss her voice on the telephone mimicking faultlessly the cockney accent from the district of Clerkenwell in the East End of London where she lived, for the cockney people embodied the qualities that she most admired: loyalty, courage, wit, and direct approach.
Zaha had been unwell for several years, but she dismissed ill health with the same contempt that she reserved for betrayal or prejudice. The spectre of death never crossed her horizon, or indeed that of her closest friends, perhaps because to the latter she seemed always to wear around her elegant shoulders the mantle of immortality.
A few days before she passed away, she telephoned me. “Ello, Peaer”, she said, “Ello Zaha, love”, I replied. “What’s up?” “Nuffink much”, she said, “not feeling too good. Can’t manage them apples and pears any more but hope to see you and Ayat in New York on the fourth of April”. She never made it, of course, but the sea of faces here today to celebrate and give thanks for her life, her unique talent, and the warmth of her all-embracing friendship in St Paul’s Cathedral, the epicenter of spiritual life in the capital City of her adopted country, speak volumes for the love that we feel for her, and always will.