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‘Despite Schumacher’s fight for autonomy, he is developing the tools to further social progress’

If our governments shy away from criticising the human rights of countries, why should architects take the moral high ground?

‘What is the alternative?’ asked Patrik Schumacher, in his lecture as part of the Royal Academy’s season on ‘Architecture and Freedom’. The alternative being to working in countries and for governments with dubious attitudes to human rights, which it is fair to say Zaha Hadid Architects, where Schumacher is partner, have hardly shied away from. Schumacher showed with great relish a range of projects in countries such as China, Azerbaijan, Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya, revelling in the sheer provocation to ‘politicising and moralising architectural critics’ who he claims have frequently and unfairly targeted their work. Questions about cost overruns, form over function and where and for whom ZHA is prepared to work have followed the practice around for a while now, culminating in Hadid’s recent interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, which focused more on the issues surrounding the practice’s work in Qatar and Japan than it did on its actual architecture. Schumacher’s defence is a simple, but compelling one. Why if Britain maintains diplomatic and economic ties to all of these countries – and with George Osborne’s recent visit to China is seeking to strengthen them while turning a blind eye to human rights issues – should architects be expected to behave any differently? Moreover, as Schumacher observes, any blanket ‘boycott’ would group together a range of projects and clients as if ‘all are equally questionable’. A cultural centre is, after all, hardly the same as a detention centre for state dissidents.

I asked Schumacher what he thought the reasons were behind the idea of architecture’s ‘exceptionalism’ that underlies these criticisms. Part of it was undoubtedly the ‘heritage of the Modernist era’ and the residue of its attendant moral mission. But it was, he admitted, also to do with architecture being a ‘public art’  – the one aspect of my position paper for the season that he was almost able to agree with. But he rejected the second half of my remark, where I suggested that the architect’s most fundamental role was to negotiate the relationship ‘between the private interests – and money – of the client, and the public impact and effect of buildings’. For Schumacher, private and public is simply a false dichotomy: ‘private interests … are everyone’s interests potentially’. In his libertarian ideology the public, such as it exists, is merely a collection of autonomous individuals able to freely avail themselves of the market. ‘Fashion is equally public’ as architecture, he contended, ‘the physiognomy of the building and the world of artefacts – it’s all public’. This essentially visual definition of public is, though, not one that many would recognise.

‘It’s tricky arguing with a libertarian. As a world view it’s imbued with an almost irrefutable logic, which only begins to unravel when it meets the real world’

It’s tricky arguing with a libertarian. As a world view it’s imbued with an almost irrefutable logic, which only begins to unravel when it meets the real world, though, of course, the libertarian response is that it has never been properly tested, with government having always got in the way. It’s also difficult when the same words are used by both sides of the argument but with radically opposing meanings. Like ‘public’, the notion of ‘social progress’ is a particular case in point. Schumacher utterly refuted the suggestion that architecture’s role as being an active agent in furthering ‘social progress’ ended with Modernism; it has, he argued, simply ‘continued by other means’, notably the advances of social media and digital connectivity driven by the innovation of Silicon Valley. It is an interesting contention not least because these corporations – Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc – in their operation and internal ideology in some ways point towards a libertarian future. They build their own infrastructure, power plants, transport networks for their workers, and respond by paying as little tax as possible. In the case of Uber, its workers are actually self-employed, responsible for their own hours of work, taxes and holiday pay – thus blurring the boundaries between work and leisure time, which, incidentally, is also one of the main characteristics of many types of office spaces these companies are building. It’s clear that the digital media revolution has enabled abundantly more possibilities for social communication and interaction. But it’s hard to see whether this constitutes ‘progress’ as usually conceived, and certainly not as traditionally thought of in terms of progress toward greater social equality – which, of course, has proven economic as well as social benefits. While companies like Uber offer workers greater flexibility, they come at the cost of lower rates of pay.

So is the work of ZHA simply the architectural equivalent of Silicon Valley – whose mission, soaring high above the old problems of publicness, social progress, and dare I say ethics, is to drive the increasing complexity of human experience? In some ways, it is, of course. But what struck me most were the implications of the way Schumacher has allied his architectural and libertarian thinking. Libertarianism – just like Communism – is a utopian ideology; at root, it is a proposition for a better and more prosperous life for all. Even if you disagree with the means, its aims are nothing other than admirable. It is easy to paint Schumacher as a villain but I believe he is sincere when he addresses his critics and claims ‘we all have a similar agenda … a real passionate and committed belief that architecture matters’. His concept of an architecture that matters is, of course, Parametricism which presently exists as an essentially formal, avowedly apolitical architectural language. However, in its rebooted form – as Parametricism 2.0 – it is now beginning to turn its attention to societal and individual behaviours, and creating spaces and structures uniquely attuned to their users’ needs. The great irony is that despite Schumacher’s protestations for architecture’s autonomy, he is in fact developing the tools to create buildings and cities that have the capacity to be more public and to further social progress to a greater extent than any architect has yet imagined might be possible.

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