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Architecture’s Identity Crisis

A lecture on urban policy by Zaha Hadid principal Patrik Schumacher has become an international flashpoint. Here’s why it matters.

Architecture’s Identity Crisis

The London office of architect Zaha Hadid seems like an unlikely place for a protest. But yesterday, protestors gathered to condemn the statements of the firm’s director, and Hadid’s longtime collaborator, Patrik Schumacher. Holding signs that read “fascist” and “class war,” the protestors railed against Schumacher’s recent manifesto for urban policy, which called for the privatization of all urban space and an end to affordable housing policies. In short, the poor don’t belong in cities anymore.

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Meanwhile, the firm itself is an unlikely lightning pole for political controversy. The firm–whose eponymous founder died suddenly this year, leaving Schumacher as its leader–is known for a brand of formalism that emerged in the 1990s, as new digital tools enabled the design and construction of radical new forms. Its work often seems distinctly apolitical and ahistorical, ceding design decisions to algorithms capable of generating immensely complex forms–an approach known as parametricism, which even Schumacher has struggled to define. Yet ZHA, a firm so indicative of architecture’s tenuous relationship to real users, is now at the center of a controversy over the industry’s political and ethical role in the world.

It might seem like an insular debate within the rarified world of academic architecture, but it also gives us a glimpse into a moment of reckoning for a profession whose relationship to politics has always been blurry. And if you look hard enough, you’ll see that it also mirrors a similar process happening in Silicon Valley, where the tech world is struggling to define its own responsibility to society at large.

The Manifesto–And The Outrage That Followed

It all started on November 18, when Schumacher gave a keynote lecture at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin.

In it, he outlined a libertarian’s urban manifesto of sorts, where privatization would fix all of the woes of the modern city. Railing against affordable housing policies including low-income housing and homeowner subsidies, he argued that city centers should be ceded to the wealthy–and to people who “contribute” to the economy. “Is it not fair that it’s someone else’s turn to enjoy the central location?” he said, as Dezeen first reported. “Especially if it’s those who really need it to be productive and to produce the support required for those that have been subsidized.” Meanwhile, public spaces like parks should be privatized. All in all, it was remarkably close to the vision President-elect Trump seems to have for American cities. (Schumacher, it’s worth noting, is a supporter of Brexit, and has argued that the EU’s regulations stifle innovation the same way Trump has argued that regulation stifles business in America, Dezeen reports.)

The reaction was swift. London Mayor Sadiq Khan called the manifesto “out of touch” and “just plain wrong.” In a fiery rebuttal, critic Phineas Harper called for the community to stop paying Schumacher attention, saying that the doing so “reveals the intellectual weakness of our profession.” Schumacher responded on Facebook, commenting that he had been derided as “the Donald Trump of architecture,” and that he had simply wanted to start a “constructive conversation” and challenge the “current left-liberal (anti-capitalist) consensus within our discipline.”

Then, on Tuesday, Zaha Hadid Architects sent out an official statement disavowing its director’s remarks, writing that “Zaha Hadid did not write manifestos. She built them,” and that Schumacher’s comments did not “reflect Zaha Hadid Architects’ past—and will not be our future.” The executors of Zaha Hadid’s own estate came out with their own statement, according to the Guardian‘s Oliver Wainwright. (While a spokesperson for ZHA confirmed to Co.Design that Schumacher is still with the firm, Schumacher himself did not respond to requests for comment.)

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At the same time, there have been a few voices of support: Developer Roger Zogolovitch called the manifesto a way to “disrupt the system,” while Architect’s Journal editorial director Paul Finch stopped short of agreeing but called the manifesto “a necessary challenge” to a broken housing policy.

What’s At Stake For Architects?

The controversy mirrors another within the architecture world this month: The day after the election, the AIA issued a statement of support for President-elect Trump on behalf of its members–but without their notification.

Architects from around the country responded in almost universal shock and derision, fuming that the AIA had overstepped its bounds and betrayed its own ethical guidelines by throwing its support behind a candidate whose views are founded on exclusion and bigotry. Two separate apologies ensued, and the fallout continues–just this week, the AIA’s longtime media relations director resigned over the “severe mishandling” of the situation, according to the Architects’ Newspaper. But in the end, for many architects who were dismayed over the statement, it was proof of the self-interest at the heart of their leadership. Architect Frederick “Fritz” Read called it “the last bit of evidence I needed, that our only serious interest as an organization has become a craven interest in securing our piece of the action.”

These are more than political squabbles. Industries that are service-based, like architecture, are struggling to come to grips with their role in the greater power structures of society, including government and cities. Modern architecture has always hung between its two poles: On one end providing a tangible service to clients, and on the other putting forward radical and often deeply political new ideas about the way we live, from housing to cities to fashion. In the first half of the 20th century, there was often overlap between those two poles, especially in the work of architects in the postwar era who responded to Europe’s severe housing crisis, from Le Corbusier to Alvar Aalto. But over the past few decades, the political side of architecture has, to a certain extent, fallen out of vogue. It was replaced by two forms of architectural “solutionism,” technology and sustainability, which often sidestep sticky questions about politics and ethics. By putting algorithms in charge of important design decisions, the parametric design Hadid popularized is a prime example of the former.

It’s A Moment Of Reckoning–Not Just For Architecture

Now, the political climate in both the U.S. and the U.K. is forcing architecture to grapple with its nebulous role in the world. Does the architect have a responsibility to the greater good of society? Or just to the client? Should he or she seek to improve the lives of the people that inhabit the built world, or are they just beholden to their brief? Are architects service providers, or do they have a greater purpose?

Funnily enough, the same process is taking place in the tech industry simultaneously this month, with giants like Facebook and Google slowly acknowledging the way their technology shapes our world–and coming to terms with the fact that, while they’re technically businesses, they may also have some ethical responsibility to society as a whole. These companies, just like Zaha Hadid and other parametric architects, have ceded many ethical decisions about their businesses to algorithms, a technocentric approach to design that’s starting to look very hollow.

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It’s going to take years for these debates to play out in both industries–and consensus seems unlikely. But here are some sound words of advice come from Om Malik, writing in the New Yorker this week. “Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced.” Malik was writing about Silicon Valley, but he could have easily been talking about Schumacher–or any of us, for that matter.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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