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Total Freedom - Interview by Martti Kalliala for After Us magazine
Patrik Schumacher, London 2016
Published in: Issue 2 of After Us - Art Science Politics, available in print from Bleep
Most architects active in the public sphere would probably place themselves on an ideological spectrum ranging left to right from Marxist, to fuzzy liberal, to neoliberal—generally with a diminishing interest in being vocal about one’s position when moving rightwards. Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, founder of the Design Research Laboratory at the Architectural Association, and a leading thinker and practitioner of parametric architecture, is, however, a contrarian. His views on the primacy of the market as the essential organising principle of society are so far to the right that he in fact resides outside, or ‘above’ the spectrum as libertarians and anarcho-capitalists tend to illustrate their position. While this position is typical for much of Silicon Valley’s tech elite, it is an anomaly within architecture.
And Schumacher doesn’t shy away from expressing it, hammering away Facebook posts and blog comments in the multiple-thousand-word range, expounding a politics and idea of architecture’s essential social task based on a framework provided by the Austrian School of economics and the work of Niklas Luhmann.
Indeed, it is my impression that it is in fact Schumacher’s prolific online presence rather than his monumental work in the form of the books Parametricism I and II (or the recently published anthology, Politics of Parametricism) which has in recent years spawned a curiosity towards his thinking amongst those who have previously either had little interest or had an aversion towards the particular design language he employs.
I was curious to hear Schumacher elaborate on some of the public positions he has taken lately, from his surprising involvement with the newly-founded libertarian micro-state, Liberland, to his takedown of ‘PC culture’ in contemporary architectural circles, to the general evolution of his own thinking. (This interview was conducted a couple of weeks before the unexpected death of Zaha Hadid.)
MK: In a recent lecture – aptly named ‘In Defense of Capitalism’ – you talk about your personal shift from a self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary communist’ to an advocate of libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. Could you elaborate on this ideological turn? How has it affected your thinking on architecture and the city (or perhaps the other way around)?
PS: How society works or should work is the most momentous question that I feel confronted by, but it’s also the most complex, non-trivial, perplexing question. Yet, I was not willing to resign myself to agnosticism on this matter. I started early on to invest a large chunk of my learning and life energy in the attempt to penetrate the matter and reach a position I can argue and commit to. This effort in political self-education evolved out of my overarching effort to gain a comprehensive intellectual orientation which drew me first into ‘pure’ philosophy. For my youthful prior self it was a matter of self-respect to break into the circle of those who address and claim to answer the deepest questions. What is the world? What is thinking? How is knowledge possible? These questions led via language and life forms (Wittgenstein) to society (Habermas) and political economy (Marx). Thus I arrived at Marxism first via theoretical philosophy rather than via any prior political bias. Wittgenstein, Habermas and Marx showed that pure philosophy was vain. Habermas and Marx showed that the theory of society must become the fulcrum of all philosophy. Marx showed that theory must fuse with practice. He delivered a system of political economy as crucial theoretical component of a radical, transformative political project. Marx’s philosophy is of totalising scope and able to theorize its own historico-sociological conditions of emergence and development. Marx’s system was the first ‘super-theory’ in Luhmann’s sense, i.e. a theory that is able to fully and consistently theorize itself. Nothing less should satisfy us.
Marxism seemed most profound and ambitious to me. It seemed nothing else came even close. Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s anarchy implying that the aggregate result of atomized human action confronts everybody as alien force and that communism offers the prospect of an emancipated mankind finally gaining self-conscious control over its own destiny seemed as compelling as it was inspirational, underpinning my activism.
My architectural position during my Marxist years was initially independent of my understanding of political economy. In the mid-eighties at Stuttgart University’s architecture school I had discovered a new fascinating degree of freedom and compositional complexity in the work of Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Gehry, and others. I was especially impressed by the radical new compositional possibilities that were manifest in Tschumi’s Parc de la Vilette competition entry. In 1987 I moved to London to continue my studies. Here I discovered Deleuze & Guattari’s ‘Thousand Plateaux’and the ‘rhizome’ as well as Marxism Today’s Post-fordism discourse. During the next few years I invested my time in these three discoveries – the new architecture which was branded ‘deconstructivism’ in 1988 (the year I joined the studio of Zaha Hadid), the philosophy of Deleuze & Guattari, and the broadly Marxism-based discourse on post-fordism.
In the early 1990s these three strands fused in a synergetic combustion when I realized that Deleuze & Guattari’s philosophical abstractions and the new abstract spatial moves of Deconstructivism (and then Folding) are congenial to the new socio-economic patterns of post-fordism. The key words that made this synergetic link up possible were notions like complexity, self-organisation, network. The connection between architecture and Deleuzian philosophy was also made by Kipnis and Lynn at the time. I added the socio-economic dimension in terms of post-fordism (which was also suggested by David Harvey at the time). Lynn brought complexity science and new biology into the mix, and I was inspired by the post-fordism debate to explore the proliferating literature on new management and organisation theory. Here I found even more concretely applicable congeniality between the latest conceptions in corporate organisation (network organisation, self-organisation, fluid and blurred boundaries between domains of competency etc.) on the one hand and the latest repertoires of complex, layered, fluid and gradient spatial organisation of our (and our friends’) architecture. I made this congeniality the basis of our first 3 year AADRL research programme ‘corporate fields’ which was – at least in my version – inspired by what I considered post-fordism’s progressive, emancipatory economic and political potential. At that time I saw the capitalist and neo-liberal framing of these processes as a contradiction that could for now be bracketed and would eventually be overcome by a new left progressive politics (‘radical democracy’) that was left vague in the Marxist outlook I was still committed to. The demise of eastern block ‘communism’ did not shake my commitment in the least.
However, my commitment to Marxism was slowly undermined by new theoretical influences. My interest in sociology in general, and in business organization theory in particular, had let me to the work of Niklas Luhmann. I had come across his work when teaching in Berlin (1994-96) running an extra-curricular theory seminar. Since then I was digging into his huge, compelling oeuvre, reading nearly nothing else for years, and it slowly but surely weaned me away from Marxism. His work re-founds sociology on the basis of complexity and communication theory. His comprehensive system was the first theoretical social theory edifice that seemed to be able to compete with Marxism in terms of scope and theoretical ambition. As a mammoth single author’s work (which at the time was still ongoing), it was both more unified and more updated than what Marxism had to offer. Luhmann’s system too was a true ‘super-theory’, with the additional advantage that he reflected this fact explicitly. I found its sophistication intriguing from the beginning and over the years its capacity for systematic insights more and more compelling. Luhmann did not espouse any explicit politics. His implicit politics was ambiguous, perhaps nihilist in its dry, sceptical tone, but certainly not socialist. My Marxist dream of mankind’s potential for democratic ‘self-consciousness’ faded in the face of Luhmann’s theory of functionally differentiated society where incommensurable self-referentially enclosed (‘autopoietic’) subsystems (economy, law, politics, science etc.) co-evolve without any overarching control centre or integral rationality and where productivity gains are due to the adaptive information processing power of this (thus irredeemably) de-centred system.
The political system was just one of many parallel systems that in no way could deliver decisive control over total social evolution. Any such attempt would break at the complexity barrier that the complexity of contemporary world society represents to any such attempt. Successful attempts at control could only result in a regressive (totalitarian) blunting of society’s complexity. Under Luhmann’s influence my political ambitions faded altogether and my political economy outlook became by default rather mainstream, with increasing sympathies for market solutions over political solutions. Since the late 1990s I built my theory of architecture on top of Luhmann’s theory of society and treated architecture as one of society’s autopoietic function systems.
MK: What is an autopoietic function system?
PS: Luhmann’s theory of co-evolving autopoietic societal subsystems (function systems) suggests that it should be possible to find - in each epoch of society’s overall evolution - complementarities between the architectural subsystem on the one hand and the economic and political subsystems on the other hand, in short it should be possible to align the styles of architecture with the stages of capitalism, and thus to ground and explicate the familiar stages of architectural history with reference to the stages of society’s historical evolution. As society’s political economy evolved through the various stages of capitalism – early capitalism, absolutist mercantilism, laissez faire capitalism, fordist state capitalism – the discipline of architecture coevolved via a sequence of epochal styles that roughly align with the above stages of capitalism: Renaissance, Baroque, Historicism, Modernism. The onset of the current stage of neo-liberal post-fordism spelled the demise of modernism and spawned a flurry of diverging architectural responses: postmodernism, neo-historicism, deconstructivism, minimalism, parametricism. It is my contention that parametricism is architecture’s most congenial answer to post-fordism.
So what provided the impulse to fully engage with anarcho-capitalism?
PS: I had this theory all worked out in elaborate detail when in 2008 I was jolted out of my mainstream political economy slumber by the financial crisis. What had I missed? What could explain this unexpected devastation. I looked around for explanations. I was already sufficiently sceptical about Marxist and left leaning accounts that saw nothing but capitalism’s inherently contradictory and self-destructive tendency at work, unleashed by the neo-liberal deregulation of recent decades. I looked around for alternative accounts and came across Austrian economics, initially via figures like Thomas Woods (Meltdown) and Peter Schiff (The Real Crash). I dug deeper rapidly and got hooked on the work of Ludwig von Mises, and then his students Friedrich von Hayek and Murray Rothbard. I had come across Mises before, in 1987 in Marxist circles debating the prospects of ‘market socialism’; I was fascinated by his polemic radicalism, but failed to see his significance. This time round I got hooked and invested a lot of time and energy to explore his monumental work. I got more and more radicalized and was soon ready for Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism. In parallel I explored Hayek’s super sophisticated and insightful works.
The political ideology and programme of Anarcho-capitalism envisages the radicalisation of the neo-liberal roll back of the state. As a special form of anarchism based on private property as society’s most basic institution, its call for the extension of entrepreneurial freedom and competitive market rationality pushes to the point where the scope for private enterprise is all-encompassing and leaves no space for state action whatsoever, positing the privatization of everything, including cities with all their infrastructures, public spaces, streets and urban management systems. Even the provision of the legal system can be imagined fully privatized, via markets with competing jurisdictions, multiple competing sets of statutes, competing private courts etc. These are intellectually incredibly stimulating propositions and the rapidly growing literature around such libertarian themes is rather sophisticated.
Private entrepreneurial production and voluntary market exchange are contrasted with political imposition and appropriation by the force of the state. While I agree that this distinction is important, I do not subscribe to Rothbard’s natural rights approach to political theory and prefer an evolutionary grounding that remains open to institutional experimentation and utilitarian pragmatic appraisal. I am starting to dig into the inexhaustible and super-sophisticated literature of the so called ‘new institutional economics’. So, my old presumption that all intellectual sophistication resides left of centre is more and more revealed to be an abject fallacy. In any case the left-right distinction cannot at all capture (and orient us in) the contemporary political landscape and should be scrapped and replaced by a more appropriate compass.
Like the anarcho-capitalists I have lost faith in “real existing” representative-democracy and its centralized decision making – which fails in its promises and is bound to fail more and more in the face of global interconnectedness. The scope for majoritarian dictates must shrink. Democracy can no longer cope with contemporary complexities – even if elected officials had the most selfless and noble of intentions. Contemporary society is probably better off betting on decentralized decision-making and an unleashed entrepreneurial creativity – a system where new products, services or institutions can be tried out and weeded out right away without first having to convince the majority. There should be no imposition of one-fits-all constrains on free contracting. One-fits-all schemas are an anachronism in contradiction with post-fordism.
The disadvantages of state regulated capitalism and the potential advantages of a radicalized anarcho-capitalism are much more pronounced now – in the era of a computationally empowered post-fordist network society – than they were during the era of Fordism, i.e. the era of mechanical mass production. Socialism – a centrally planned economy with a strong commitment to income equality – was to some extent compatible with the utilization of the opportunities of mechanical mass production. But it is incompatible with the full utilization of contemporary post-fordist opportunities which require much more dynamic and intricate forms of social cooperation. This assessment is coherent with the gist of both Luhmann’s and Hayek’s understanding of society and its modern history.
The philosophical and methodological underpinnings of Austrian political economy – bottom up action theory and a non-reductive methodological individualism – are compatible with Luhmann's approach and theory. Especially Hayek and Luhmann are congenial with respect to the shared intellectual paradigm of complexity theory. They concur in their general emphasis on self-organisation, emergence, evolution and information processing. In particular they concur in the assertion that modern societies have evolved to a point that an insurmountable complexity barrier stands in the way of any attempt to rationally direct societal development via central political control, and that any such attempt implies a regressive blunting of society's highly evolved complexity and information processing capacity, with detrimental consequences for prosperity. Thus freedom (mutation) and competition (selection) are the evolutionary mechanisms that need to be given space to operate.
MK: Speaking of giving space, this is a good moment to mention your involvement with Liberland, a libertarian micro-state established in 2014 on a contested piece of land between Croatia and Serbia, and are now leading the jury of an ongoing international design competition for finding an urban framework for the nation-to-be – a “society that aspires to a maximum freedom”. Could you expand on this venture? What is the potential of Liberland – especially viewed in the context of the multiple crises currently wreaking havoc across Europe and the world at large?
PS: I think Liberland is a fantastic effort on many levels. Vít Jedli?ka is a formidable force to be reckoned with. His project is as sophisticated as it is heroic. The chance that it might become real is only one of its merits. It is also a news-worthy radical political message and a tangible vehicle of political economy speculation which poses as many theoretical questions and conceptual challenges to us as it poses practical challenges. The project poses most decisively the central challenge that urbanism faces in the current era of market-based urbanization processes, namely to devise a methodology with many degrees of freedom and abstract general heuristics afford (and allow us to simulate) piecemeal urban agglomeration processes that not only maximize programmatic synergies but make these synergies legible within an evolving navigable order.
The presence or near presence of a practical project has also always disciplined and guided the development of Marxist theory, although the blanket refusal of Marxists to ‘indulge’ in blue-prints and detailed speculation about the prospects and probable (political and economic) problems of democratic socialism had been (and remains) its Achilles heel.
Avant-garde architectural speculation might attempt to extrapolate from current political realities via reference to advancing political trends and tendencies without collapsing into fruitless utopian speculation. This is what I am trying to do in my recent speculations about the pospects of an unleashed parametric urbanism under the auspices of a radical anarcho-capitalist societal order. It is of course a subjective judgment call to what extent this kind of speculation is fruitful. In my judgment such speculations are pertinent not only if the realization of anarcho-capitalism is a realistic prospect, but due to the fact that it extrapolates current tendencies and is thus informative even for current conditions or more modest movements in the hypothesized direction.
In contrast to leftist inspired architectural speculations that imagine the reversal of the process of market liberalization of recent decades, harking back to 1970s, an anarcho-capitalist inspired architectural speculation radicalizes manifest tendencies. I would argue that this is not only more realistic but also potentially a more fertile engine of architectural invention because it allows us to project into uncharted territory. The architectural competition for Liberland offers a stimulating opportunity in this respect.
However, while such speculative design research is (both politically and architecturally) stimulating, the primary task I have set for myself for the time being is to push parametricism into the mainstream, within the current political context, a task that is as eminently feasible as it is increasingly urgent for the thriving of our urban civilization.
MK: I assume by “speculations imagining the reversal of market liberalization” you refer largely to the work and influence of Pier Vittorio Aureli, both in academia and through his office Dogma (with Martino Tattara)? As far as you reside from each other on both a political and architectural spectrum you share a commitment to architecture-in-itself, unlike the work that is touted as architecture’s current vanguard. E.g. in 2015 Assemble was given the Turner Prize and Alejandro Aravena the Pritzker, architecture’s most prestigious award, in addition to being appointed as the head curator of the upcoming Venice Biennale for Architecture. Aravena’s ‘urban do tank’ ELEMENTAL is known for its participatory design practices; the theme and title of the biennale is Reporting from the Front. In the wake of these announcements you announced the “PC takeover of architecture is complete”, continuing a line of critique that you also raised in connection to the recent Chicago Architecture Biennial that highlighted an number of ’socially engaged’ architectural projects and practices. Could you elaborate on this? Instead of radicalizing, extrapolating or resisting current conditions are architecture’s – or rather that of its supposed front line’s – ambitions confined within those of Big Society?
PS: With your questions you poke into a most treacherous hornets’ nest, but we have to poke and stir it!
Pier Vittorio Aureli is only one of so many in architecture who argue from anti-capitalist premises as if from an unquestionable intellectual or moral high ground. Unfortunately this anti-capitalist bias is dominant especially in the intellectually ambitious segments of our discipline. However, I respect Pier Vittorio, not because I share a commitment to ‘architecture-in-itself’ – I do not – but because I respect that he is a designing architect that teaches design on the basis of a theoretical position that encompasses both an account of society and a conception architecture’s role within it. While his conceptions are fallacious, his practice has at least the right kind of ingredients required for an ambitious architectural practice. So I appreciate his ambition, although I consider the specific ingredients he is wedded to and the results he cooks up to be widely off the mark. I also respect that his teaching is still committed to building design when so many of our teaching colleagues defect to observation, “political” debate, leading at best to “artistic” or “conceptual” provocations.
All the things you allude to in your question point to a problematic politization of architecture. This would not per se be detrimental if it did not threaten to swamp and usurp most of architecture’s discursive arenas. Another problem is the PC tilt of this politization where everything leads to the safe consensus around well-rehearsed humanitarian concerns. This not only flattens and trivializes our discourse but does so with a moralizing force that makes it hard to escape this normalization.
Again, politization is not per negative. It could be energizing. The historical background for the increasing politicization of our discipline is twofold: First we have been witnessing a long term secular politicization of all aspects of society, in the context of an ever increasing capacity for society-wide communication. Secondly, we are witnessing a marked acceleration of society’s politicization since the 2008 financial crisis, the ensuing great recession and the European sovereign debt crisis, events which re-politicized myself as much as everybody else. These events had various political repercussions like the occupy movement, the ‘Arab spring’, and the upheavals in Europe’s political landscape in reaction to controversial austerity programs. In this historical context the politicization of our discipline must be seen as a perhaps inevitable moment in the politicization of all aspect and domains of societal life, implying that any further attempt to deny, resist or repudiate this is futile. However, what we must not accept as inevitable is the pretentious dilettante quality of this debate, its PC tilt and its consequently regressive nature. We must repudiate the all too often automatic anti-capitalist and anti-business bias that informs most contributions to the politicized architectural discourse. Even if the politicization of our discipline has progressed to a point where political engagement becomes inevitable, there must remain a space for an architectural discourse that discusses and evaluates the best architectural solutions to societal requirements as they are posed today under current political and societal conditions, however questionable they might seem from certain political perspectives, i.e. the show must go on and our discourse must not be totally swamped and dominated by political contentions.
In particular, we must not allow the most effective contribution and the proper purposes of our discipline to be diverted by “urgent” or “humanitarian” issues that seem to trump all other issues due to moral urgency. This is self-destructive populism and as irrational as it would be to send brain surgeons or medical researchers at the frontier of medical science to Africa to distribute urgently needed standard medication.
The Pritzker jury’s explanation for Aravena’s win included the following:
“What really sets Aravena apart is his commitment to social housing. Alejandro Aravena epitomizes the revival of a more socially engaged architect, especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all. The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and Alejandro Aravena has clearly, generously and fully responded to this challenge.”
My response was much more about the jury’s motivation and reasoning than about Aravena’ debatable merits. This is what I wrote about Aravena’s Pritzker win:
“The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now “to serve greater social and humanitarian needs” and the new Laureate is hailed for “tackling the global housing crisis” and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’. I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his "half a good house" developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilization. I would not object to this year’s choice half as much if this safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern was not part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my view signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage about the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.”
What can we expect of Aravena’s Biennale? I am afraid it will continue the unfortunate trend of last Biennales – inclusive of the recent 1st Chicago Architecture Biennale – namely to thematize weighty political and moral issues (like poverty or “the global housing crisis”) and to validate (via its prizes) polemical gestures or documentary engagements with such issues as more important and interesting than the most sophisticated contemporary architectural design achievements at the technological and programmatic frontier of innovation.
My facebook comment about the recent Chicago Biennale read like this:
"The Chicago Architecture Biennale Exhibition must leave lay-visitors bewildered by one overwhelming subliminal message: contemporary architecture ceased to exist, the discipline’s guilt and bad conscience has sapped its vitality, driven it to self-annihilation and architects have now en masse dedicated themselves to doing good via basic social work.”
My key point should not be misunderstood: I am not saying architectural excellence is in-itself a value and that societal concerns do not matter for good architecture. Quite to the contrary: I am insisting that architectural theory and thus practice must start with the clarification of architecture’s societal function, i.e. with a clear understanding of the build environment’s significance for social processes and of architecture’s specific role with respect to the progressive development of the built environment. In my recently released publication Parametricism 2.0 (AD/02/Vol.86/2016) I am indeed arguing that parametricism has to shift its discursive emphasis from technical to social functionality and explicitly demonstrate how its methodology and repertoire are geared up to address the requirements of contemporary social dynamics and institutions. However, to address architecture’s societal function – in my theory: the innovative spatio-morphological ordering of social interactions in increasingly dense and complex scenarios - the discipline and its most ambitious protagonists have to be cognizant of where the frontier of innovative design research is located, i.e. where the investment of discursive and design research efforts would be most important and productive. In my view this can only be with respect to the new challenges posed in the most advanced and further advancing central, high value arenas of our world civilization where unprecedented conditions - the new level of density, diversity, mixity, complexity, interconnectedness and dynamism in our most productive social institutions - call for original innovations that must draw on the most sophisticated methodologies and computationally advanced design processes. In contrast the alleviation of issues like the poverty-induced lack of provision of well-established housing standards does not call on the most advanced capacities of the discipline and profession, nor indeed does such an issue even lie within the reach of architectural professionals’ powers. A sophisticated spatial organization and communicative articulation of the complex social life process at e.g. a new google campus (for thousands of largely self-directed collaborators with different specialisms and capacities) is both an incredibly challenging (and intellectually stimulating) design task and a project where the productivity gains a more transparently ordered and communicative built environment might deliver would benefit the world (including its poorest citizens) a billion-fold. We need to be strategic with respect to where and how we can best employ and leverage our specific disciplinary intelligence. Again, importantly, this position stands independently from my political hopes and recommendations and in my perspective parametricism remains architecture’s best bet under current political conditions, just as it would remain architecture’s best bet under a more libertarian political economy. I believe parametricism is indeed congenial with radical anarcho-capitalism which in turn I consider to be our best political bet. But I do not want to politically taint or tie up parametricism by giving the impression that it has a necessary radical political bias. The function systems of world society co-evolve and influence each other without necessary connections or inevitabilities. I am a player within architecture and as such a keen observer of politics, but no player. My ambition is to innovate my discipline and lead my discipline’s adaptive efforts with respect to the conditions and opportunities of post-fordist network society. This adaptation must be based on current social, economic and political conditions and can only risk to speculate moderately forward along salient tendencies. Therefore occasions like the Liberland competition - however stimulating - will (for now) remain exceptional rather than defining episodes in my career.
Martti Kalliala is an architect whose work focuses on the identification and conceptualisation of emerging spatial conditions. He recently curated the symposium Ultimate Exit in collaboration with the Van Alen Institute in New York, and presents his new installation PatchWork as part of the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale. He is the editor and co-author of Finland: The Welfare Game, and is a regular contributor to Harvard Design Magazine, Flash Art and other journals.
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