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Meet the women transforming Beijing’s skyline

Wangjing SOHO in Beijing, ChinaWangjing SOHO in Beijing, China
Wangjing SOHO in Beijing, ChinaSOHO China

Zhang Xin and Zaha Hadid can’t help but poke fun at their imitators.

Zhang, the CEO of SOHO China—one of the country’s most high-profile real estate firms—and Hadid, a renowned architect whose work peppers countless cities’ skylines, came together to celebrate the opening of their newest collaboration: Wangjing SOHO, a three-tower complex in Beijing designed to look like fluid mountains, on Saturday night.

In front of the event’s 150-plus VIP dinner guests, Zhang asked Hadid about a building in Chongqing—a city 1,100 miles from Beijing in southwest China—that looks strikingly similar to Hadid’s newest Beijing building: Is the knock-off flattery or farce?

“It’s a bad copy,” Hadid retorted. “I mean, if you’re 20 years old and trying to learn something, it is sort of bearable.”

Zhang joked, “I’m still thinking whether we should sue them or not.”

“Well, you should. I can’t,” Hadid added.

Though the women’s banter was playful, its targets should beware. Zhang, who’s No. 17 on the 2014 Fortune Most Powerful Women of Asia-Pacific list, and Hadid, who spoked at the 2013 Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in London, have become powerful partners in shaping corporate building design in some of China’s biggest cities. Wangjing, along with Sky SOHO – an office and retail development in Shanghai that’s celebrating its grand opening in November – are the duo’s latest collaborations.

Zhang and Hadid first met about a decade ago. Zhang invited Hadid, who is Baghdad-born and London-bred, to China to examine the possibility of working together. They met again in 2004; Hadid became the first female to win the Pritzker Prize – what’s akin to a Nobel Prize for architecture – and Zhang was at the award ceremony in St. Petersburg. She was hooked on Hadid’s style and felt SOHO China, which Zhang started with her husband Pan Shiyi in 1995, would provide a larger canvas for Hadid’s talents. “Everything is bigger in China,” she said. “Bringing [Hadid] here is something that is very important for my work.”

Galaxy SOHO, a large office and retail development in Beijing, was their first project together. When it opened in 2012, its futuristic shape changed an otherwise rectangular skyline.

Despite their partnership’s success, Hadid wasn’t a shoe-in for SOHO’s next projects in Beijing and Shanghai. Zhang told Fortune that Hadid “always wins the work through competition. It’s not like I went to her,” she said. “We invite a few architects and Zaha always comes up with the best design.” (Zhang later added that Hadid has won so many times that she fears other architects will shy away from creating renderings for other projects.)

“It’s been a great partnership,” Hadid said. “It’s not easy in this industry to find good partners.”

Both women have thrived in male-dominated industries, but not without struggles. Hadid said she didn’t immediately find success, citing the architectural industry’s hesitance to embrace her unique building designs. Zhang got her start working in Hong Kong factories before purchasing a one-way ticket to London to study and become a banker.

The women also share a similar stance on working hard. Zhang, who juggles being a mother and a CEO, told Fortune that women are versatile and can juggle both roles by having discipline. Onstage, Hadid echoed Zhang’s sentiments: “I think everybody should work extremely hard all the time… I think it’s a way to better yourself and to better society.”

Zhang and Hadid are currently working on an office building that will debut in Beijing’s Lize Bridge area around 2017. It will include what’s likely to be the world’s tallest atrium.

Near the end of the women’s conversation, as guests nibbled on dessert, Zhang asked Hadid if she will ever retire. “I don’t think so,” Hadid responded. “I’m sure I’ll someday slow down. I don’t know what I’d do in retirement. I’m not into knitting or cooking.”