Contribution to Writing Cities Symposium ‘Distance and Cities’
Patrik Schumacher, London 2012
Published in: Writing Cities Working Papers Volume 2, Cities Programme,
London School of Economics and Political Science, London 2012
I think it will be quite a different mood in which I’ll be talking, compared with the prior speakers. I’m going to be less critical, more propositional, more constructive maybe, with the sense of participating in (rather than criticizing) contemporary society. The techno-managerial, for me, is not something negativ, it’s something you take on. The existence of inequalities and multiple social strata in the city, for me, translates into a dense and diverse division of labour. I would prefer to look at the city not only from the perspective of an unskilled migrant worker, but moreover from the perspective of more central figures: the innovative professional workers who have the highest impact on further progressing the world economy. If their life and work processes are facilitated overall societal productivity and wealth increases. I’m taking the high density city with its many social strata with their diverse respective work and life processes as a productive hot house. And I want to enhance that productivity constructively.
The politics of the urban development process, the politics of urban and architectural design if you like, is ultimately (and legitimately) fashioned in the political system via political parties and in the economic system through entrepreneurs who become the architect’s clients. The micro-political meaning and demeanour of architectural projects originate with their clients. I’m taking this on, seeing the positive and progressive aspects of our client’s agendas because I want to work with these clients and produce vital and productive spaces. As an architect I have to engage with the world constructively rather than criticising it. Productivity depends on effective communication. Architecture has its unique contribution to make. The societal function of urban and architectural design is the innovative ordering and framing of social communication. Parametricism, which is my phrase for the contemporary epochal style of architecture and urbanism, articulates post-Fordist network society by increasing the complexity and intensity of spatial communication.
I’m talking about organisation, articulation and signification as the tasks of architecture in a societal context with a much higher level of communicative density, with multiple publics, partially interacting, partially operating in parallel. Density implies the collaps of distance. Ordering implies that you separate and distinguish different communication scenarios that nevertheless should be aware of each other all the time. Parametricism can achieve this. The kind of spaces we’re designing offer a simultaneity of many events: at every point, in your visual field, in your immediate circumstance, you have access to many spaces, you are continuously presented with many choices, so you have a rich, productive experience and can fully utilise your time in the city. We do something similar when we watch television via channel hopping, while simultaneously being on the mobile and on the web. Urban spaces can function like that too. They should be packed with diverse offerings. If you step into an urban street, or into the urban interiors we are developing, there are a large number of potential event-spaces (and thus communicative situations) you can overview and scan and which you might want to participate in. And this field of possibilities should be ordered and made legible for the sake of quick and effortless navigation.
So my discourse is about the intensification of relations. To articulate that we developed a new style which allows societal complexity to be ordered and made perceptually palpable, in order to be navigated effectively. The design of the built environment becomes both a phenomenological and a semiological project.
I feel like riding or surfing an irresistible wave. I have to see the progressive aspects of it, in order to participate productively. I do not think it’s the designer’s task to criticise or resist. If you try that for real, for instance in a competition - maybe the only arena where you can somehow try it – you will most probably fail. Trying to confront a client is not productive. The client knows what the political character and demeanour of his setting should be, which audiences he wants to attract, what degree of openness, or privacy his life process requires etc. There can be an open, educational dialogue based on the architect’s prior respect for the client’s rights, but it is neither realistic nor legitimate for architect to impose his/her own political agenda.
Despite all the ongoing hardship in the world I feel that the world has been progressing. In our globalised world economy the wealth differentials are much larger than in the 50s and 60s when we witnessed the convergence towards a general consumption standard within the most advanced national economies. But I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the problem of unequal income distribution. I do not see that as such a dreadful and horrific fact, not even if I see great income contrasts within a single city. When I reflect about my own level of consumption and comfort in a city like London - as the Director of a 400 strong firm of architects managing high profile projects globally - and if I compare myself to a taxi driver, or even to a welfare recipient, I’m not sure if they are really lacking anything substantial from the basket of amenities I enjoy myself or in terms of social security. Of course there are differences in terms of monetary income but the essential amenities and services of modern life reach virtually everybody, at least in a 1st world city like London. Everybody is protected by rights and provided for materially to an extent unimaginable in older times. I think that I have to believe in the progress of contemporary society and its city to participate in its further development.