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A Total Makeover: Five Questions To Patrik Schumacher
Published in: Architectuul – the blog, 23rd March 2014

Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) and the author of the Parametricist Manifesto, created a polemic on Facebook when he criticized the Biennale for its inability to showcase contemporary architecture. Here he argues for a total makeover of the built environment and wonders if Rem Koolhaas really understands Zaha Hadid’s work. But he also reiterates how he is intrigued by Rem’s Biennale approach and confirms that ZHA will participate. He was interviewed via email by AnOther Architect, Daniel Dendra.

1a) Dear Patrik, you initiated an important discussion on the status of architecture on Facebook where you are very active. You take up the cudgels for contemporary architecture against a nostalgia for the twentieth century, for its debates and its ideologies. Again and again we hear that architecture critique is dead and the internet and social media is to blame.

Roam like a flaneur
PS: I love Facebook as much as I like urban spaces; both are multi-purpose spaces of simultaneity where many interactions take place – in view of each other – inviting participation. You can just observe like a voyeur, as well as draw attention to yourself, roam like a flaneur – seeing and being seen – provoke, debate, flirt, and be serious too. I feel the urge to share and discuss my thoughts and concerns … and the feedback helps to reflect and guide further action.

I think urbanism, architecture and design were never as exciting and challenging as today … as cities mushroom into dense megacities and as our mobile devices set us free to roam the urban environment (rather than remaining locked behind our desktops). This new societal dynamic cannot be catered for by the urban and architectural recipes of the 20th century, nor can we flourish within this new world with the ideologies of the 20th century.

1b) But how can we lead a lively debate about contemporary buildings?

PS: By not only posting images but perhaps adding a phrase or two about why a certain building or design appeals to you; this is not always easy as our reactions are often intuitive. But I have acquired the habit of trying to understand which features and characteristics captivate my interest and induce my infatuation, and the next question is: should I love this design? How can I rationalize my preferences?

Step back and reflect

We all navigate the physical and social world intuitively via aesthetic sensibilities. This is inevitable given the complexity of what we encounter and given the poverty, slowness and cumbersomeness of our analytic capacities. However, while we must rely on our aesthetic sensibilities in the midst of the action, out there in the world (and even in the heat of our design processes) we need to step back and recalibrate the values and sensibilities that guide us.

2) You talk about the importance of marking a distinction between architecture and art. But beside aesthetics, what are the key factors at play? What do we need to look for in contemporary architecture?

A total makeover
PS: Yes, the failure to make this distinction is hampering our efforts. Parametricism is ready to make an impact: to transform the physiognomy of the global built environment and the totality of the world of designed artefacts, just like modernism did in the 20th century – a total makeover. Architecture is NOT ART although FORM is our specific contribution to the evolution of world society. We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics.

Aesthetic values need to change
Aesthetics is a category that transcends art. Aesthetic values and sensibilities are a human universals through which we navigate both the physical and the social world. But as the social world evolves and changes and calls forth a different built environment; our aesthetic values and sensibilities need to change along with historical development. This implies the need for aesthetic revolutions as core components of paradigm shifts, or as I prefer to say: the progression of styles. However, styles involve more than aesthetic values which are closely tied to the style’s formal heuristics. A new style (like Parametricism) also involves a new functional heuristics, i.e. a new way to problematize, interpret and work on the programmatic content that is posited to us by our clients and end-user audiences.

3) What has changed in architecture as opposed to the Modernism/Postmodernism debate? Has there been change?

Deconstructivism evolved
P.S: Modernism was a great contribution and success from 1920 to 1970 and could have kept going if the world did not change. But it did change and architecture had to change accordingly. The crisis of Modernism which started in the late 1960s and became terminal during the 1970s brought on a fundamental debate within architecture. This continued and intensified during the 1980s in the period of radical paradigm shifts from Modernism to Postmodernism which in turn bi-furcated into Historicism and Deconstructivism. Deconstructivism then evolved into Folding and Parametricism.

The debates at the time were intense and focussed on new ideas which started to become compelling to a whole generation of young architects. The discourse started with general ambitions and principles, articulated by drawing on philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari But soon  the focus shifted onto a more technical, goal-oriented plane exploring computational design processes and their spatial, structural and programmatic potentials. This was a healthy progression. After all we invest into debates not for the sake of debating but to reach somewhere.

From this perspective I regret the (understandable) re-orientation of architectural academia towards political debate (as a follow-up of the financial crisis and the Arab spring) away from a more architecturally focused discourse and research. This is part and parcel of my attack on the recent preponderance of “political correctness” within architecture. For me, Parametricism remains the only viable paradigm to explore and implement the spatial and architectural implications of this evolving world. Or is there another innovation, another candidate avant-garde style I am missing?

A coherent, multi-author, free market urbanism
I love to debate politics and economics too, and I have invested quite a bit of time and intellectual energy in the last five years in an attempt to understand what led to the 2008 meltdown and what holds the advanced economies back now. This has for instance led me to my recent thesis on the possibility of a coherent, multi-author, free market urbanism that should be able to evolve unique urban identities via the discursive convergence towards principles and values that foster cohesion without politically imposed master-plans. So here a socio-political hypothesis and argument which is put forward hand in hand with design research and practice. What I regret is that major schools of architecture around the world have transformed from centres of design research and innovation to mere debating clubs where the projects themselves become polemical statements (bad art) rather than elaborate designs or sophisticated propositions.

4) Social concerns are sacrificed to commercial interests. This is a complaint we often hear in contemporary discussions. How do you see the role of the architect as a social actor and interpreter? Whose interests must the architects meet apart from his client's?

PS: The distinction of social concerns and commercial interests is a dangerous common place. The unleashing of commercial forces is what has delivered us from the savage destitution and bone-breaking drudgery of older times. This much even Karl Marx understood when he sang the praises of a globalized capitalist dynamism in his Communist Manifesto. Commerce is a dynamic social process in which everybody pursues his or her vital life interests.

Entrepreneurial Capitalism vs Crony-Capitalism
In an advanced society based on the division of labour made possible by money-mediated exchange all life interests take the form of “commercial” interests. Politically I have come to believe that post-fordist network society needs to go further along the path of globalization and most importantly liberalization, the unleashing of individualism and individual liberty as a precondition of bottom up self-organising, emergent systems of social cooperation. I say Game Over for central state authorities: social media vs state media, bit-coin vs the state-monopoly of money, open borders vs state imposed migration barriers, fair open competition vs state-picked winners via subsidies etc etc., ultimately: a truly entrepreneurial-capitalism vs crony-capitalism. So, as politically thinking citizen I am not afraid of political argument, but I am not willing to make my architectural position and agenda dependent upon my personal political position and I do not believe that the fate of my architectural project depends on the realization of my political preference for a society based on individual liberty rather than collectivism. I believe that Parametricism is congenial to this outlook, however its validity as global best practice does not depend on this political premise. The key historical category that motivates and calls for parametricism’s take over from modernism is ‘post-fordist network society’ as distinct from the prior era of fordist mass society. Parametricism is valid and vital whether post-fordist dynamic restructuring proceeds within a social democratic or a liberal (or even libertarian) political frame, just as modernism was compatible with both capitalism and socialism in the 20th century.

You are asking Whose interests must the architects meet apart from his client's? This depends on the political conditions that prevail.In our advanced democratic societies the architect is only answerable to his client, and it is this client who is obliged (by political imposition) to take care that all stakeholder’s interests considered politically relevant are recognized and who instructs the architect accordingly. In the liberal or even libertarian political outlook sketched out above the “commercial” client’s interests – in an unfettered, unrigged open market – would already contain all the most socially urgent, legitimate interests that should be taken into account at a particular location that calls for a new design. The market – if it is not interfered with by political coercion but allowed to self-regulate – tends towards the allocation of resources (including land resources) to the most productive, most effective, most urgently desired uses, as anticipated by entrepreneurs. Architects interpret these contents spatially and formally – via spatial organisation and formal articulation – to allow the flourishing of the social life-processes that the client or hosting institution would like to host. This is the background of one of my recent Facebook posts which can be read here

5) And finally, in your post on Facebook you write with regards to Rem's Biennale that architecture history is not dead YET. Does this mean that it almost died or am I being polemic.

PS: No, no, I wanted to emphasize that the history of architecture continues, that we witness architectural innovations of truly historical or epochal proportions but that Rem seems not to see this. I am not sure if he really dismisses most of contemporary architecture; neither do I know how he judges our (ZHA’s) work.

Misunderstood as expensive spectacles

However, I feel he seems not to understand what we are doing and achieving; otherwise he would join us in our effort, wouldn’t he? In fact he seems to have recently pulled back from the “regimes of complexity” that his deep volumes and the use of a more complex geometry were meant to afford in a lot of his work (Seattle, Porto, IIT etc.). He seems not to grasp how radical and relevant the shift in paradigm is when all elements of architecture become parametrically malleable with multiple degrees of freedom as well as becoming interdependent via associative logics. We need to understand these new capacities as momentous advantages in terms of the design versatility and adaptive sensitivity of designs to urban contexts, climatic parameters and event scenarios. This new work is being confronted with an enormous scepticism because these potential advantages have not yet become sufficiently manifest. These projects are misunderstood as expensive spectacles.

Pornography exists
Tschumi is even talking about architectural pornography, despite the fact that he led a school that had been a hotbed of early Parametricism. Such pornography exists and it is high time our criticism sharpens to separate the mature, sophisticated high-performance work from superficial epigones who are indeed only aiming at spectacle. But Parametricsim cannot be refuted by such phenomena just as Modernism was not refuted by Art Deco or third rate epigones.

The most intriguing of all themed Biennales
And a last word about the coming Biennale: As I had posited on Facebook: “Rem’s theme and approach is the most intriguing of all the themed Biennales … elements, modernisation, the erosion of national identity … but I wish this would be explored via contemporary work in the national pavilions”, some people seemed to presume that my arguments are just sour grapes for supposedly not being invited to participate. Not at all! We’ll participate. My worry is rather that we will witness yet another Biennale where little contemporary work will be shown and where – accordingly – many of our colleagues won’t be there to fuel the on-going debate with their latest works and agendas.


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