One of the best weeks I’ve ever had was spent traveling in Brazil with Zaha Hadid, 29 years ago. We began at a big conference in São Paolo, speaking to an ear-phoned audience via simultaneous translation into half a dozen languages. Unfortunately, the organizer was short of funds and the translators began to walk off the job—resulting in Babel and bedlam. Four of us—me, Zaha, my wife, and a traumatized friend, just dumped by her partner—beat a retreat to the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro and headed for the beach across the street.
It was a topless beach in the most body-conscious country on earth and I relaxed into connoisseur mode. Zaha immediately began giggling at my gaze and suggested I take a better look at the beefy legs and bulging bikini bottoms of the gorgeous creatures I was pretending not to be staring at. It was the transgender topless beach! Perfect! Zaha loved formal transformations of all sorts—delighted in the play of parameters, the style-drive, and the freedom—and had a rich architectural vocabulary to describe various body parts.
A couple of days later, in Brasilia, we had a friendly audience with Oscar Niemeyer, one of Zaha’s most revered influences (too many over-emphasize the Russian constructivist and miss the tropical sultriness). Skirting the language barrier, Niemeyer had an assistant bring in a big manila pad, which was set up on an easel. He began by drawing the curving roof of the yacht club in Belo Horizonte—in a single line—and continued to sketch the history of his work. As he finished each sheet, he tore it off and threw it on the floor. Our eyes flitted between the discarded drawings and each other as the treasures accumulated. At the end of the meeting we left slowly, empty-handed, glancing back, tortured. No one had the nerve to speak up or make a grab. Later, chatting with one of Niemeyer’s ex-wives, we told the story and she said we were crazy, that he’d have been delighted if we’d helped ourselves. Zaha and I retold this story for decades.
We left Brasilia on a Friday afternoon. There’s no terminus on earth more crowded than that airport at the end of the week as thousands flee the city’s longueurs for lively Rio. We were stuck in a long check-in queue and Zaha was not traveling light. When we finally reached the counter and her numerous bags were on the scale, the agent declared that the flight was too crowded to load them all. A slow burn: Zaha pushed back, ratcheting up the insults by degree and peppering them with her legendary salty language. The agent was unyielding and the line behind us pressed. Suddenly, Zaha emitted a blood-curdling shriek. The vast terminal fell completely silent. The agent, face drained of blood and wide-eyed in terror, grabbed the bags and sent them on their way.
Zaha was a brilliant travelling companion: she would not be denied. Restaurants that had closed re-opened to cook for us. Prices fell for everything from knick-knacks to precious stones under the irresistible force of her bargaining (I once witnessed this on a shopping trip to the couture floor of Bergdorf Goodman in New York). But what a friend: on our Carioca idyll, these interventions—despite the drama—always included the rest of us. We all ate well, got the first cab, received excellent service everywhere, and were warmed by her generous radiance. When my wife admired a vivid chartreuse wrap of Zaha’s, she immediately gave it to her.
I’ve never known anyone who combined such artistic intensity with a love of lollygagging like Zaha. To be sure, she kept her own time and—when I was forced to play the organizing “guy” role during our travels—the bus waiting, Zaha still in her room, my wife tapping her foot, our friend wandering fully dressed into the sea—she could be exasperating. But then she’d arrive, full of light and zest, ready to get going. There would be gales of laughter, oceans of gossip, acute observations, urgent detours, deep appreciation, and the greatest tenderness. What a trip.