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Does politics have any place in architecture?

An exploration of the association between politics, architecture and Parametricism reveals that, even when disconnected, the three are irrevocably linked

I don’t really know why I decided to read both volumes of Patrik Shumacher’s Autopoiesis of Architecture, but I did. Diligently. Cover to cover. I studied them with the sincerity of a schoolboy reading canonical texts. They now sit on my bookshelf, two colossal tomes, one white and one black, heavily annotated in red ink. All I can say is that it was like reading source code: thousands of lines, each with perfect syntax, that slowly built up the variables and conditions of some immense programme. Purely by chance, shortly after I finished the first volume, I had a coffee with Patrik on the terrace of the Architectural Association — the home of the Design Research Laboratory, and in many ways the ground zero of Parametricism.

‘What did you think?’ he asked me. I paused. ‘Well, Patrik, I admire the book very much, but I must admit I have grave misgivings about the subject matter and its handling. Far from being comprehensive, I have a lot of unresolved issues.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he smiled, ‘all questions will be answered in volume two.’ Needless to say, they weren’t. If anything, Schumacher’s detailed universal theory of architecture only expanded the scope for problematics.

‘The Politics of Parametricism’ is the first book to critically contextualise Patrik Schumacher’s contributions to architectural theory, and to seriously respond to his claims’

That was 2011. Almost five years later, The Politics of Parametricism is the book I have been waiting for; it stands alone as the best attempt yet to comprehensively understand this ‘movement for the 21st century’. Most importantly, it is the first book to critically contextualise Patrik Schumacher’s contributions to architectural theory, and to seriously respond to his claims. Contemporary reviews of Autopoiesis, as well as so much of the subsequent literature around the topic, has tended to stem from camps with predetermined agendas – either fawning acolytes or staunch enemies. By contrast, Politics engages and explores Parametricism with great care. It respects Schumacher’s ideas even when it categorically disagrees with them, and has done much to untangle the mess of misconceptions and misinformation surrounding the architect’s frequently controversial positions.

The introduction by editors Manuel Shvartzberg and Matthew Poole frames the collection of essays by separately defining both ‘politics’ and ‘Parametricism.’ The clarity brought to this unenviable task probably owes much to the common interests, but very different backgrounds, of the two editors. Shvartzberg practised as an architect in Europe for more than a decade before joining the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the Buell Center, both at Columbia University. Poole was previously director of the University of Essex’s Centre for Curatorial Studies; more recently his background in cultural theory has been focused on the relationship between art and neoliberal politics.

‘Essays provide rare insights into the logic of those largely responsible for the tools that have made Parametricism conceptually, and actually, possible’

The consequence of this partnership is a deep understanding of theory and practice from within architecture, coupled with the benefits of a broader critical framework. The selection of authors is excellent, and includes essays by Reinhold Martin, Peggy Deamer, Teddy Cruz and Neil Leach, among others. A text by Schumacher himself, which is a concise summary of his ideas in Autopoiesis, serves as the starting point for many of the other authors. Additionally, essays from figures like Phillip G Bernstein, vice-president at Autodesk, provide rare insights into the logic of those largely responsible for the tools that have made Parametricism conceptually, and actually, possible.

For Schumacher, politics today exists exclusively as a professionalised sphere of activity mainly concerned with the management and administration of common resources (the state and its people). As with other specialised social activities, like law or medicine, it has very strict structures that determine its function and communication, and this internal inertia makes it resistant to outside influence. In many ways, this is a convincing argument: aren’t career politicians – pretty much divorced from reality, engaging in their own power games – not much better than soulless bureaucrats? For Schumacher, ‘in pre-modern times, fortresses, palaces, and other major monuments were constituents of the political system, as were religion, the law, and the economy. In modern times, architecture and politics have become separate… function systems’. Although not stated directly, the implication is that today, even politics has become a sub-category of economics, which only further highlights the futility of architecture’s struggle. ‘Political architecture as a supposed form of political activism must be repudiated as an implausible phantom.’

‘Because architecture is always at the service of politics and economics, its styles can be understood as corresponding to specific models of society and socio-economic epochs’

Schumacher’s other important point is that, because architecture is always at the service of politics and economics, its styles can be understood as corresponding to specific models of society and socio-economic epochs: medieval vernacular is inseparable from feudalism, just as much as the Renaissance reflects nascent capitalism and the rise of city states. Modernism relates to ‘international socialism’ and Fordism, while Parametricism — Schumacher’s vision for a 21st-century paradigmatic style — represents globalisation and market-led economies. As the editors point out, Parametricism is not to be confused with parametric design (the combination of design variables), computational design (as it sounds) or algorithmic design (metric feedback loops of relevant information). Parametricism is claimed as a movement and a style, with a political position (paradoxically, that politics and architecture are not connected) and an identifiable aesthetic (non-Platonic, organic, fluid forms).

For the ancient Greeks, the word ‘politics’ literally meant ‘the activities of the city’ (polis), and was opposed by ‘oikonomics’, which described the activities of the household, family and clan (from ‘oikos’, meaning home). The Greeks believed the advance of civilisation only occurred when politics triumphed over economics or, in other words, when collective interest succeeded over the interests of particular families. The opposite – when the interests of private factions made governance of the city impossible – was what the Greeks defined as civil war, and their word for it was ‘stasis’: the time when nothing can go forward.

‘Parametricism is claimed as a movement and a style, with a political position – paradoxically, that politics and architecture are not connected’

At a global level, stasis is the best way to describe what’s going on in the world today: since 2011, when the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East, several entire continents have become destabilised, the EU has staggered from economic to humanitarian crisis, even China seems to be going neither backward nor forward. The advance of global society has effectively been put on hold, while factional interests (Russia versus America versus Iran versus Saudi Arabia to name a few) battle out their positions. We could call this a condition of global civil war – and by the Greek definition it is no surprise that politics (particularly democracy) has ground to a halt and become utterly ineffective.

Architecture as building is always political, because it literally embodies a mixture of state interests and clan interests (probably better thought of today as corporate interests). The sliding scale between collective and individual ambitions becomes frozen in structure; architecture is therefore always a snapshot of a political climate. It is certainly true that Parametricism’s political position is the avoidance of a political position; that doesn’t mean architecture isn’t political, merely that Parametricism does not have the means to understand its own political agency in the world.

This rather complex sentence basically explains how Parametricism’s indifference to its political context has allowed it to validate both authoritarian regimes and property speculators: by not taking a political position, Parametricism has become a mercenary of undemocratic states and neoliberal developers. This is profoundly disappointing, especially as one could easily imagine it otherwise. Parametricism’s unwillingness to promote social stability and the interests of the many is ultimately what has prevented it from becoming a paradigmatic style.

The Politics of Parametricism

Matthew Poole & Manuel Shvartzberg (eds)

Bloomsbury, October 2015, $39.95

Lead Image: Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev centre in Azerbaijan, which caused controversy last year over reports of forced evictions in order to make way for the building

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