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Medallist mettle: controversy at the RIBA

RIBA Gold Medallist Herman Hertzberger hits out at Patrik Schumacher

Herman Hertzberger’s two-day visit to London saw the RIBA Royal Gold Medallist both decry Patrik Schumacher as a ‘monster maker’, and heartily agree with Zaha’s right-hand man’s point that British architectural education must move away from dystopian speculation.

Speaking at the RIBA, the 79-year old architect called for a more practical approach to architectural education and lamented that ‘architecture had become a varnish on society’.

In response to Schumacher’s piece in last month’s AR, which criticised the RIBA for rewarding dystopian projects removed from reality, Hertzberger seized on the wild disjuncture between Schumacher’s writings and his work.

‘Patrik Schumacher, the man who works for Zaha Hadid Architects? He’s a monster-maker! In Rome, they made the MAXXI museum. There was a very big industrial plant, which they could have transformed into a nice museum, but they have torn it down to make a new monster!’

Since Charles Jencks published The Language of Post-Modern Architects, a whole generation of second-rate architects had been allowed to produce ‘what they wanted’, leading to a lot of poor quality work, Hertzberger argued.

He built on this point in his lecture, given to a packed, and unusually well-heated RIBA lecture hall: ‘You should only make things that work, not just things that are attractive, or funny, or impressive.’ And in a sideswipe against icon culture, he said that ‘Architects try to make the special ordinary. We should do the opposite.’

The octogenarian had a few jibes at his fellow architects, singling out the ‘amazing’stepped building by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), before lamenting that the only decent social space was in the car park. Praising Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, he quipped that: ‘It proves you only have to make one great building to be considered a great architect!’

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Centraal Beheer, Apeldoorn, Netherlands by Herman Hertzberger.

Hertzberger also revealed that his classic Centraal Beheer building is currently being assessed for possible change of use to a school. ‘I would be delighted if that was the case. I would love it if my Centraal Beheer was turned into a school in my lifetime.

That would be the proof that it is possible to make a building that is generic but not dull.’ Architects, Hertzberger said, must ‘become experts in daily life’. Observation of life was crucial and must underpin all architects’ systems, he said. ‘Too many architects have no idea of what people are – they see them as dangerous animals that they have to deal with.’

When it came to the President’s Medals crit the day after, Hertzberger − although polite − seemed more sympathetic to Schumacher’s point that the Medallist projects’ reliance on ‘improbable narratives with intended symbolic message’ was something of a dead end.

Presented with the Robots of Brixton project, he seemed exasperated: ‘I’m an old-fashioned guy. I don’t want to change the world any more but I don’t want to see it get any worse. Use your talent to save the world!’

Writing in the AR in December, William JR Curtis speculated that in giving Hertzberger the medal, perhaps ‘the jury wished to signal a reaction against the bling bling narcissism and excessive gestures of recent years?’ Maybe a touch of Dutch practicality will hang around in Portland Place.

After the pronouncements of this unlikely Hertzberger/Schumacher alliance, perhaps next year, the President’s Medals jury will catch up with the mood of their Gold Medal equivalents.

Photography: Aviodrome Luchtfotografie

Readers' comments (1)

  • Herman Hertzberger fires scud missiles at the jetting setting prima donnas of the architectutral world. Hertzberger's pragmatic approach and social dimension are inspirational to most architectural practitioners.

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