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Fighting Talk: Patrik Schumacher on Fierce Debates, Facebook and the Future of Zaha Hadid Architects
Patrik Schumacher interviewed by Paul Keskeys for Architizer, December 2016
Paul: I just want to start by asking you how the firm has evolved and developed over the past year. Obviously, after I just wondered whether you could give us an insight into how the studio has continued working from that moment and maybe if you have plans for the future as well.
Patrik: Sure, let me first of all emphasize the continuity of ZHA in terms of all the projects which are ongoing which is about 80. 24 of them are on site, under construction, and many more in late stages of design development, about to tender and soon to go on site. All that's just continuing. Since Zaha’s passing all of our clients stayed with us and trust us to deliver what we had started. We have also been able to secure some new work and we've done a number of new competitions, some positive, some negative. Overall there's an enormous amount of continuity in terms of the spirit and the DNA of the firm, the way we are working, our methodology and values, and of course in terms of my continued authorship and leadership. The continuity I emphasize involves the leadership of the board of directors and indeed the whole organization. We've always been a very collaborative setup with many creatives contributing and that continues in the same spirit and with an enhanced motivation because we want to make sure that we're surviving and continuing Zaha’s legacy.
That we can win new work is very crucial. It's very hard to have a firm just petering out, just completing jobs without refreshing the order book. That's actually economically unviable. So far it seems we are viable. We are indeed in a very good position financially and it terms of our order book and future income. We have actually increased our financial standing and profitability in the last few months. Looking forward into the future, we remain ambitious. We are eager to stay innovative and relevant, to remain worthy of consideration for the most prestigious projects in the major urban centers, all around the world, in all program categories.
The firm has a full range of types of work, even infrastructure work like airports and train stations, and of course residential projects, mixed use complexes, office buildings, headquarters and so on. We also want to stay relevant with respect to major cultural buildings. We've competed for the Berlin extension of Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin. We are competing now for the new Munich concert hall. That is also very important to us. We don't want to change character. We want to remain innovative, cutting edge, speaking with artistic credibility and cultural credibility and remain a leading voice in the field. That's my mission.
Paul: Wonderful. That's great. Yeah, so just wanted to touch on ... You've been in the spotlight quite a lot recently after your speech in Berlin. I just wondered how you reflect on the sort of both sides of the debate that was created after you gave your presentation there and the question I actually wrote was slightly broader. I wrote what should architects' role in politics be and what are the opportunities and risks involved in that do you think?
Patrik: Well, I think there is a big debate out there which we have been facing in the media for quite a while now, which is the so-called housing crisis, or affordability crisis that exists in London but also in various cities in the US. There's a hot topic out there with various claims, attempted explanations and proposed remedies, so I've entered this debate. I've been thinking about it for quite a while. The occasion, the World Architecture Festival, was thematically focused on housing and I was asked to show some of our residential work. So I started my presentation with our social housing project in Vienna and then went on to show various projects we've done for instance in Milan and Singapore in terms of completed large multi-unit residential schemes, but I was also showing new residential projects under construction in the US, in Miami and Manhattan.
That’s the way I had started my talk and then I moved on to look at explanations about why we're talking about a housing crisis and I pointed to the underlying historical forces that imply that we witness an era of intense urban concentration, in particular during the last 20 to 30 years and that this process seems to be accelerating in more recent years. We have to agglomerate in urban centers which become innovation hubs for R&D, marketing, finance and the creative industries. This current period is based on the micro-electronic revolution and the new dynamism of continuous innovation that this engendered is very different from the period of the mid-20th century, which was basically a manufacturing society based on the mechanical mass production of a universal, stable consumption standard that was facilitated by spreading the division of labor out into the landscape via suburbanization, delivering similar lives beavering away in parallel, distanced to remain undisturbed. That was Fordism with modernist urbanism. Now we witness a totally different socio-economic dynamic which we might call Postfordist Network Society, where we need to stay in close contact all the time, networking 24/7, to continuously reprogram the computer controlled and increasingly robotic production systems. Everybody feels the need to move to the center where the re-progamming is thought through. Nobody with ambition, perhaps nobody at all, can afford to stay provincial, cut off, and thereby relatively unproductive. We want to densify, we must densify our cities. This is a challenge and raises various contentious issues. Prices are rising fast. There seems to be a bottleneck in the supply of central residences. We need to locate the friction points, the resistances, the bottlenecks. I do not believe that the current pattern of supply restrictions with rising prices can be dealt with by trying to match rising prices with ever increasing subsidies being somehow rationed out to ever more people. This is neither efficient, nor fair. So I am asking how societal arrangements and rules might adapt to this new historical condition, to make the most of the challenges and opportunities afforded by the new network society. In recent years I have more and more come to believe that the increasing scope for market processes, i.e. neo-liberalism, is pointing in the right direction but has been compromised by far too much state intervention so that the inherent self-regulating capacity of markets has not been able to work properly, leading to many problems that I think should be attributed to interventionism rather than to capitalism as such.
Starting from this premise I've been going through a number of proposals about loosening the grip of politics and planners on urban development and finally touched on something - social housing - which maybe I shouldn't have touched because it's very, very touchy and sensitive and emotionally too charged. So I got this incredibly angry backlash, with so much hostility that I am reluctant to further discuss my reasoning here or elsewhere in an open, very public forum for the time being. I just want to mention here that what motivates my thinking is the same set of fundamental values that we all share, and that everybody who is stepping up into the public domain to participate in public reason should be presumed to share, namely a real concern about the common weal, prosperity, and the future prospect of society. My public interventions have indeed be animated by a deeply felt humanistic motivation and I am thinking about the human potential and human flourishing in our era, including everybody’s flourishing, inclusive, not exclusive. My title was “Housing For Everyone”. I just want to make this general point here, once more, without going again into the particular ideas that in my view are coherent with this generally shared ambition. That's where I'm coming from motivationally. But my particular policy ideas need much more careful and circumspect mediation, perhaps via a book, rather than via public debates.
The elaborate steps of mediation require a lot of economic theory, sociology and history which might eventually lead more of us to see the merit of my proposals. If you cut those mediations and their humanist foundation, you end up with something which seems untenable and willfully provocative because it's so different from the usual analyses and recipes. So I stand by what I've been saying but I won't say it again for now. This discourse requires a different, more theoretically minded context and I would have to rely on things not being lifted out of context. Those who know me know that I'm the furthest away from fascism as anybody can be, but I have been painted as a fascist and we had demonstrations outside of our office and I was literally chased down the road by demonstrators screaming “Stop the fascist”.
Paul: Oh, gosh.
Patrik: I took it in good humor and I was indeed enjoying it because I'm fit and long-legged and could pull away from that group who ran out of breath sooner as they were scream abuse at the same time as they were running. I guess I would be less enjoying the reminiscence if they had actually caught on to me to rough me up. I'm rather philosophical about all this. I also have got a lot of positive feedback and good vibes from people who like my ideas or who at least feel I should be able to speak without being vilified and defamed as fascist. This was comforting and helped me to sustain this unexpectedly stormy onslaught.
Of course my main worry in all this was: what does this do to my company ZHA? I was very much concerned about how clients would react to this and that this could taint not only my person but the ZHA brand. It seems that's not the case, judging by most recent engagements with London client, old and new. I think the media frenzy is one thing and what people really think is quite another thing. Anyway, the responses and interactions I had with various clients are thankfully not confirming my worst worries.
I take a philosophical stance, trying to understand and contextualize what happened. For me it's of course a lesson, and I guess the unexpected reaction has to do with my new position as ZHA principal. I've been saying most of the things I said at WAF before, at other occasions. I need to be mindful of my new public profile. I was hoping I could maintain a certain separation between my role as theorist and thinker on the one hand and my role as leading representative of ZHA. In principle this should be possible, in reality perhaps less so. With our professional work in the city with planners we certainly operate competently within a given political framework and we understand the reasoning behind this framework and can represent all stakeholder positions we encounter and meant to safeguard. My attempts to think beyond the given framework in the context of a larger debate should not imply my disqualification as a professional practitioner who delivers a service, an intelligent, competent service, within the very framework that I question theoretically. Current practice must go on while speculation of future practice is theorized. These domains need to be separated, and I think it is necessary that those who are operating within the current system are also involved in thinking about other possible systems. We should be smart enough to understand and appreciate the rationality of the current rules while investigating the potentially yet higher rationality of alternative rule sets.
At WAF I was taking as thinker, from a bird's eye perspective about systemic processes saying: "Hey, what if we think about the problem more radically, from a very different set of premises”. There was of course a provocative, speculative element in my talk, especially with respect to Hyde Park. I didn't expect that my propositions would be taken up so seriously, in so scary ways. I guess I have to learn to be more reflective about which context is going to absorb which level of uncensored frankness without too much upset and without jumping to false conclusions about my intentions and political position too quickly. Again: I am not a fascist! I am speculating from a libertarian perspective, i.e. from a most decisively anti-fascist perspective. Also: I am certainly not “right wing” either. The right-left political compass has become nearly meaningless and is certainly not capturing the pro-capitalist libertarian position. Anyway, to avoid a similar PR disaster I will certainly have to be more circumspect in the future.
Paul: That's great. I really appreciate that. That's a really [crosstalk 00:16:05] in-depth answer. You kind of answered the following question a little bit, I think. I was just interested in your thoughts and how you differentiate between being a kind of thought leader in the profession, like an independent thought leader but also representing your firm. Obviously they sent out an email afterwards trying to calm people down and do you think ...
Patrik: Well, this email also caused some kind of confusion. It was a mishap to some extent. The email was misunderstood in the press and engendered speculation about a potential rift in the firm, as if the firm wanted to distance itself from me. None of this was the case. There is full solidarity and loyalty here to my leadership. Most of our staff, like indeed the larger part of the WAF audience seem to agree with many of my positions, especially with respect to the super restrictive housing standards that are imposed on developers and architects. However, in conversations with me, staff from all ranks have been expressing that they disagree with my proposals concerning social housing and that that they worry about the image of the firm and that our work prospects in London and beyond might be compromised due to my highly unpopular ideas on social housing. I had a Q&A session here discussing my ideas and the press backlash. We discussed exactly what we are discussing in this interview, i.e. that I have to be mindful of my position and that it’s hard to separate a general thought leadership from being the figurehead of a prominent firm and that for me this is a new reality since Zaha’s passing.
I have to and want to respect the concerns of my staff about my public discourse and will be more circumspect in the future, out of respect for the interest of the firm and the sentiments of other members of the firm.
Paul: Great, yeah.
Patrik: This does not meant that I’ll altogether give up on my political ideas and their urban development implications. I have been arguing politically in arenas outside of the architectural discipline, i.e. at the ‘Battle of Ideas’ event organized annually in London by the Institute of Ideas, at the European Graduate School, at the Liberland conference, or at the Adam Smith Institute. In the architectural academic discourse I have been less political but I also started here to lecture on a ‘Market-based Urban Order’. If I'm giving a seminar at the European Graduate School, or at the AA or at Harvard’s GSD, where you don't have media snapping up phrases and spinning them, I am arguing my positions and trying to show how these positions link back to that shared humanist compassionate underpinning which always must be the premise of entering such a debate in the first place. In the context of a seminar I am able to articulate that my ideas are not self-serving in any sense, nor elitist in any sense. People who know me know the way I live, communicate, the way I engage, and that I'm not an aloof, elitist person. Far from it.
Paul: Yeah, sure. I feel like the media will do that thing and probably the issue here as well [inaudible 00:19:45]. The context is never complete in any kind of edited article.
Patrik: Of course.
Paul: Actually, that kind of touches on one other question I had about this kind of idea or debating in architecture. You use Facebook more than any other [inaudible 00:20:07] I know I think in the public way which is pretty interesting. How did you begin to use that platform and what kind of benefits do you see from kind of speaking directly to people through Facebook and do you think other architects can utilize it more maybe?
Patrik: Facebook is not the general public in an undifferentiated sense. Although I have sometimes set my posts on public, mostly it’s aimed at my Facebook friends only, which means 4500 friends, many real friends and acquaintances among them, and generally mostly architects. My audience on Facebook is thus different from the audience of the Guardian where my WAF talk was reported and received a lot of very bad comments, or from the indiscriminate audience of the Evening Standard where I got a front page headline. We have to keep that in mind. My Facebook posts are sometimes also stirring controversy, although they are never tying to just generate agitation. They're serious propositions and reflections. Social media like Facebook and Twitter often bring on tough responses, but I have a thick skin, and I'm happy to see pass the invective and don’t mind coming back with answers and counter-comments, if there's at least a hint of an argument. I'll pick up the argument and oftentimes this puts me onto a nice learning curve. To get feedback and to work through some of the objections I encounter on Facebook is very useful for the development of my ideas. Also, if I come back to engage with comments that's usually respected and the initial hostility recedes somewhat in favor of a more constructive exchange.
Oftentimes my posts engender some vile and harsh ad hominem comments. However, as I said, if there's a shred of an argument in there somehow, I might come back constructively. I guess that comes as a surprise to those who spewed the invective. Usually, they shift into discourse mode, when they learn that I am accessible. I find that quite productive and fruitful, to argue across various ideological spectrums, in particular with intelligent and articulate contributors who are also on Facebook, whether it's architectural historians, theoreticians, other architects, or architectural students. I did initiate some quite interesting conversations and debates on Facebook. The extensiveness of commentary and counter-commentary I'm receiving has often been building up to over one hundred comments, much more than you may usually find for instance on Dezeen. That's been encouraging of course. My topics were mostly architectural but I also had some political posts and I touched on planning and gentrification before, but nothing quite as touchy as the privatization of social housing and of public spaces. I never had to feel badly beaten up on Facebook.
Comments in The Guardian were very, very strong and it’s a little bit depressing that this becomes such a vile scene. That's usually not what I'm getting on Facebook. I get the occasional harsh phrase, and as I said, usually I can turn these around. In this case, with the Evening Standard and the Guardian, I just couldn't see myself get into the mud flinging. I came back just with two long statements to clear the air a little bit and to put out my own thinking against what has been reported, but I couldn't get into the trenches. There was no way. I had to pull away from that.
Paul: Yeah, great. Yeah, just bringing it back to architecture [inaudible 00:25:16] politics. Bringing it back to architecture. I just wanted to ask you what's on the drawing board and your current projects and is there any kind of new projects that you're particularly excited about or anything that you're really looking forward to developing in 2017?
Patrik: Yeah, I mentioned the extension of the Berlin National Gallery. We didn't get it. It went to Herzog & DeMeuron by the way. But I am fond of our proposal and I might consider publishing it. We have so many competition wins, commissions and works built or under construction that we haven't actually published any lost competition entries for a long time. So there's a huge pile of projects which nobody has seen which at some point we should perhaps exhibit or publish, all the lost work, all the aborted work. There's a huge invisible part of the iceberg there.
I'm very much looking forward to start Munich concert hall as I mentioned earlier, and we're working on a big mixed use, multi-tower scheme in the center of Frankfurt. That's also a competition we are currently working on. We're always working on multiple competitions. Many buildings are under construction. It's still exciting for me to see how they evolve, like Macau’s City of Dreams, where I’ve recently joined the topping out ceremony, or Beijing Airport, one of the biggest airports in the world, and for us a new adventure.
Since we won Beijing Airport we have also entered a number of further airport competitions. We were in the short list for Mexico City Airport, as well as Chengdu Airport. Airports represent a totally new level of project for us as traditionally more artistically based firm. I'm excited about that. We're also doing a number of large corporate headquarters. This is another new category for us.
I'm very interested in corporate environments. I consider corporate environments to be one of the most interesting domains where the new complexity and dynamism of our civilization challenges architects most directly. I'm conducting a research project in this domain, trying to understand how complex interaction processes are channeled and facilitated by various spatial configurations with a new degree of complexity, inter-awareness and synergetic interdependence. My research project focusses on the agent-based simulation of the interaction- and occupancy processes in a corporate world. I am trying to generalize circulatory crowd modelling into a generalized life-process modelling. We've been pitching for Google a number of times because Google would be a signal client for me and my research agenda. We have won the competition for a very big new work space for Sberbank in Moscow, for mostly creative development and coding work that's going on in many banks. We also designing a major corporate headquarters for a multi-firm Chinese conglomerate. We're investing in new typologies like the mega atrium tower.
This is an exciting new venture for me, a three-dimensional interior urbanism, opening up towers from within. This type delivers a lot of inter-visibility, inter-awareness, and interaction potential within a truly metropolitan interior world.
There are a lot of interesting, fascinating challenges we hope to get involved in and we have our own internal research team which I'm expanding. I am investing more in research than we have ever done before, in a bid to remain cutting edge. We recently opened a show in our gallery which is called “meta-utopia” about exploring new fabrication possibility based on robotics with contributions from our research group as well as from invited outside contributors. We are investing a lot in developing algorithms and design intelligence related to the design integration of various engineering constraints but also in relation to new robotic fabrication technologies.
However, beyond this focus on new engineering and construction technologies I am most keen to enhance our grip on the social functionality of architecture, in particular with respect to complex corporate spaces, via the development of new computationally based methodologies. Overall we are very driven, eager to make our mark.
I would like to see the firm grow, to make a bigger impact, and not least to fuel the research department. I think to progress further we need to invest in research. Each time I had set another intelligent colleague free to focus on research, the result has been very rewarding. Within a few years many researches - for instance our investment into shells and tensile structures - started in the teaching arenas, migrated into small experimental structures, then into small buildings, and are now scaling up to large projects. We're full of energy and enthusiasm about developing the firm forward.
Paul: Wonderful. Yeah, so just to finish off thinking about the A+ award. Are there any particular qualities you look for when you're assessing work and what kind of projects will stand out for you in this year's awards submissions?
Patrik: Well, I expect we're looking for originality, innovation of course, but also excellence and the compelling application of the new ideas. Excellence and originality come together only rarely. Usually ideas have to move across several attempts at implementation by several authors before they reach maturity and excellence. So I think we have to allow for both striking originality and compelling excellency to count as award worthy.
Even at ZHA we must balance the pursuit of originality with the delivery of excellency. We are now very mature and can deliver global best practice. However, we always are also looking for moments of originality, for an innovative aspect in each project.
In each project, even in well-rehearsed project types, we are looking for an element or aspect through which the project can be pointing beyond itself and become a manifesto for things to come. In large projects that can only be a certain aspects, of the project. Small projects – especially in the context of the art world – can indeed become predominantly manifesto projects. That’s why we are still keen to pick up small cultural projects, even if it’s no longer possible for us to avoid running a financial loss on such smaller projects. But such projects can be great R&D vehicles.
Paul: Yeah. Wonderful.
Patrik: I think awards are an important part of the discursive culture of architecture. Awards are important to pick out the best and brightest of the upcoming generation. Something original with future potential is more than ever the most noteworthy within our discourse and discipline. That's also reflected in the history of architecture. It’s always the original advances that are most remembered and recorded for posterity, but only if they are picked up again and again until they reach the moment of excellence or perfection. Only an avant-garde that ends up delivering a new mainstream will be remembered as an important avant-garde. Again, that’s why awards should honor both originality and excellence.
Paul: Yeah, wonderful. That was all my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add at all?
Patrik: No, I'm happy. I think I said what I wanted to say.
Paul: Thank you so much. I'll be in touch. Thanks, Patrik.
Patrik: Sure. Pleasure.
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