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Harvard Design Magazine
Patrik Schumacher 2004
Ten Questions for Thinkers about the Present and Future of Design
Published in: Harvard Design Magazine, No.20, Massachusetts
Being as specific and detailed as possible, please answer the following questions in 500 to 1000 words for each. If you need to slightly alter any questions to make them more fitting for your thinking, please do so overtly. You are invited to answer one additional question that you invent. Feel free not to answer up to four questions.
Answers provided by Zaha Hadid & Patrik Schumacher
1.) What do you think are in your country the most important current issues or challenges for architects, landscape architects, and/or urban designers (hereafter called "designers"), and why?
There are no nationally specific challenges for architecture today. Our divers cultural backgrounds really fade into the background as we cope with the challenge to creatively interpret the next stage of our internationalized post-industrial civilization. We work globally – however only within the most advanced metropolitan centers. We are true cosmopolitans who would like to refrain from speculating about the influence of local national experiences. Any such speculation can only serve to distract from the issues of the current metropolitan condition.
The key challenge which we perceive for our own work concerns the architectural contribution to a multi-valent, layered, and dynamic urban society. We have to deal with social diagrams that are exponentially complex when compared with the social programs of the early modern period. The apparent chaos of cities like Tokyo acts as paradigmatic condition. We perceive here the challenge to develop a rich and nuanced language of architecture that can serve to register and order this apparent chaos in a legible way. Instead of relishing in chaos or going for a rearguard minimalist reduction of complexity the attempt is made to process and articulate more information into a more complex order – facilitating swift orientation despite the higher informational burden.
Thus our work is focussed on the attempt to develop a new language of architecture that is able to organise and articulate an increased level of social complexity. This includes the attempt to organise and express dynamic processes within a spatial and tectonic construct. This ambition operates on many scales: from the organisation of whole urban quarters, via various building scales, down to the interior furnishings. The challenge is to increase architecture’s capacity to spatialize and articulate the complexities of contemporary life processes with its multiple interpenetrating agendas.
2) What recent architecture, landscape architecture, and/or urban design projects or kinds of projects do you consider best and/or most important, and why?
We are accepting the distinction between avant-garde and mainstream architecture. This distinction is important in order to evaluate a project. Different (but related) criteria have to be applied. The mainstream project has to be judged with respect to the application of best practice standards to a given concrete task. The significance of the avant-garde project can not be reduced to the contribution it makes to a given concrete life process. Rather it is pointing beyond any concrete problem towards the potential for new generic resources (formal/organizational repertoires) for the future problem solving capacity of the discipline. Its value resides in its manifesto character. Originality and innovative potential is more important than the actuality of its performance. Such projects are investments that might be redeemed in future mainstream practice.
We are working in the avant-garde segment of the discipline and profession. The discourse of architecture with its apparatus of publications is doing a good enough job at identifying original and forward looking projects. There is not much to be gained by picking a specific example here. The usual suspects are really the only examples around. No surprise discoveries should be expected. Important work is identified even if the outspoken reasons for its evaluation are often somewhat mystified and fetishistic. This fetishism is a function of the fact that actually realized value is sacrificed for the mere potential of future use-values.
3) What recent design projects or kinds of projects do you consider overrated, and why?
4) Do you think the social and cultural influence and power of designers are increasing, decreasing, or steady? How would you describe the level and kind of that power and influence? How far apart are the realities and the ideal?
It is difficult to generalize here. In fact we make quite different experiences with different projects. The power of the architect very much depends on how the client is constituted/organized and on the tightness of the regulatory environment. In the US and Britain the architect usually is called into a very tightly structured process with clear objectives and leadership already in place from the side of the client. On the European continent the architect is expected to take on more of a leadership role – both in terms of conceptualizing the project and in terms of leading the process of the project development. However, there are still differences between France, Germany and Italy. In Italy we have had the most free and satisfying relationship in developing the project in a productive collaboration with the public client (ministry of culture).
In China we are facing a most interesting client keen to import our expertise – however not without strong opinions. Here it seems the field is wide open for far-reaching, large scale experiments – as long as the project can be coupled with an effective marketing strategy.
5) To what extent can and does design (all others factors being equal) affect the quality of life of individuals, small groups, and/or large groups (such as the residents of a city)?
As designers we have to operate with the working hypothesis that design matters immensely. This is the only viable heuristics for architecture. The difference that design makes manifests itself most strongly in an arena of rapid, massive development like China. Here the market is expanding and differentiating with a breathtaking speed. Three years ago a system of morgages was introduced. This unleashed a huge wave of buying residential property. There seems to be an enormous need and desire that is fuelling a construction boom in residential estates. Shopping for houses is becoming a new national sport. The aspirations of peoples lifes seems to center upon the character of their homes and its environment. Buying a house is a major event in the biography of those young couples who are the main demographic group of buyers. This massive market pressure coupled with the ability to appropriate land and invent large urban or semi-urban environments brings design to the forefront. This does not only concern the individual units but also the collective spaces and the whole ambience of a newly designed pieces of the city. The succeeding marketing strategies are verified by way of drawing the hard won resources of the buyers representing a hugely important aspect of those people’s aspirations. It is quite exciting to be asked to compete in such an alert and excited market.
6) Do you think designers can and should play an important role in preventing and/or reversing degradation of the natural environment? If so, what role? If not, why not?
We do not think that the discipline of architecture can really take on this agenda of the preservation of nature. Architecture is about the creation of artificial , social habitats – mostly urban. Architecture might exploit and co-opt the natural environment for the purposes of creating effective environments for the various societal processes that need to be given room to flourish. The natural environment becomes a domain of architecture only to the extent that it is drawn in to play a role in the overall construct of society’s habitat – not to the extent that it wants to be left alone. Certain aspects of environmental sustainability can be represented within the design-process by bringing in respective specialist engineering disciplines. For architecture with its focus on performance with respect to the facilitation of (specific segments and institutions of) social life environmental sustainability is just one more constrain (like the budget, or constrains of available construction methods etc.) that might be imposed as a limitation. This does not exclude that some architectural researchers might take on these constrains as primary concerns to develop models of environmentally sustainable buildings. Such attempts are useful experiments. For us however, this to foreground this agenda would be a distraction from our primary investigation into the possibilities of retooling the discipline to cope with more societal complexity.
7) What seem like promising new roles, activities, and territories for architecture, landscape architecture, and/or urban design in the next decade?
There are two ways of locating the most interesting and rewarding arenas for avant-garde architectural work. Innovation is always suspended between two poles: the investigation of the domain of problems on one side and the expansion of the domain of potential solutions (and techniques of elaborating solutions) on the other side.
On the side of techniques and solutions there is still a lot of work to be done in exploring the expanding domain of digitally based design and manufacturing tools. On the side of problems and challenges for architecture one of the most exciting domains might be corporate re-organisation where new concepts (matrix organization, network-organisation, self-organisation) and new complex and dynamic patterns of collaboration are still begging for a congenial translation into spatial systems.
At the same time as a restless society pushes architecture by posing a new set of characteristic problems, the new digital design media and the micro-electronic revolution pulls architecture into an uncharted territory of opportunity. The key question here is whether the exploration of the new creative opportunities can be directed towards offering new architectural resources that can help to answer the problems thrown at architects today. Within the discipline of architecture this polarity of innovation has often been an occasion for a productive division of labour between the analysis of new societal/programmatic demands on the one side and the proliferation of new spatial repertoires on the other side. Embodied by Dutch avant-garde and the US avant-garde respectively, both aspects have been pursuit semi-independent from each other, with considerable success. This however, lead to two opposing ideologies, perhaps equally one-sided. The independent elaboration of the two domains begs the question of their synthesis. The synthesis requires a broad-minded as well as light-footed oscillation between the two domains. This is no trivial matter, but itself an act of creative intelligence. There are no one-to-one correspondences between "problems" and "solutions". No obvious matches anounce themselves. Solutions can go in search of problems as well as problems in search of solutions. What we call design research is the attempt to systematise this oscillation within a well circumscribed frame that narrows down both the realm of problems and the realm of solutions.
However, this demand of synthesis should not be misunderstood as a demand to abolish the initial or parallel bifurcation of the research agendas. This bifurcation is a necessity in the attempt to cope with and process the challenges posed by a rapidly evolving society.
8) What do you consider the strengths and weaknesses of design education? How might it be improved?
Although we are both teaching we are perhaps not the best placed to comment the requirements of education. Teaching - for us - is research rather than education. We are using the various graduate programs which are teaching as semi-detached research departments. Obviously in the process young architects are also developing their skills and architectural intelligence in ways that make them attractive collaborators after their tenure as students has been completed.
The teaching of architecture has traditionally been operating on the model of apprenticeship. To a certain extent this still continues, inevitably, as architecture is a profession as much as a discursive discipline. Since the Renaissance this practise of apprenticeship has been combined with the dissemination of theoretical treatises. On this basis a formal education was first institutionalised in France with the founding of the "Academie de l'architecture" in 1671. Academic teaching was adopted in England and America at the end of the 19th Century and is now everywhere the primary mode of professional training. However, there is as yet no institutionalised form of research in architecture. Instead the task of innovation within architecture is left to the "avant-garde" segment of architectural practise on the one hand, and to post-graduate architectural education on the other hand. Each of these two surrogate processes has its peculiar limitations. Avant-garde practise, as professional practise, is struggeling to turn any particular commission into a vehicle for the investigation of new architectural principles that might be abstracted and generalised. This in turn demands the renunciation of full attention to all aspects of the concrete project at hand. Also, the establishment of a coherent research agenda across a random string of commissions is rather difficult. An academic institution is unconstraint with respect to the establishment of a coherent research agenda, but a special effort is required to steer a course that remains relevant to the concerns of society. A severe limitation for research in educational institutions resides in the short-term tenure of the student-researchers and the attendant burden of taking on a whole new generation of students/researchers every year. However, the institutions of post-professional education seem to offer the most promising opportunities to construct a systematic research practice within architecture.
9) Do you think that design is any more subordinate to profit-driven business than it was thirty years ago? If so, what, for you, are the implications?
Everything in the contemporary world is more subordinate to profit-driven business than thirty years ago. The causes of this fact operate at a very deep level of contemporary civilization – both in terms of the patterns of material reproduction as well as on the level of fundamental social relations associated with these patterns. The era dominated by a largely state-planned welfare economy is over – also with respect to the construction of the built environment. Commodification continues. However, not all segments of the architectural market are subjected to this logic in the same way. The avant-garde segment we are working within is given quite a bit more space to manoever than the mainstream commercial work. This is because our work is considered as a kind of multiplier. Economically our buildings operate as investments into a marketing agenda - e.g. city branding - with a value that might at times considerably exceed the budget allocated to the project itself. Of course we still have budgets to work within – occasionally with some room for re-budgeting. However, our projects are usually not measured in terms of industry standards of cost-effectiveness. Our work is payed for by funds which have been extracted from the cycle of profit-driven investment – either as public tax money or as sponsorship money administered by a board of trustees attached to a cultural institution. Obviously such funds too are indirectly contributing to an overall business rationale. But as designers we can enjoy and utilize the relative distance from concerns of immediate profitability to further our experimental agenda.
We understand that this position is peculiar to a rarefied segment of the profession.
10) What do you think about the gap between popular and highbrow taste in design and how do you think designers should respond to it?
This distinction has been pronounced dead so many times, and yet it does not give up its imposing presence and effectiveness. The distinction is a tangle of inevitable as well as questionable components. There is the inevitable distinction between avant-garde and mainstream – overdetermined by an unfortunate social logic based upon class-differentiation which can only serve as a barrier towards communication. The tangled and contradictory nature of the distinction makes a principled stance difficult, perhaps impossible. The celebration of populism seems as fallacious as the withdrawal into an exclusive elite communication. Yet the discourse (and practice) within and around architecture has to be layered and requires a series of interlinked and interpenetrating arenas of communication. Instead of assuming a divide one might think of a series of concentric circles, or rather a multitude intersecting series. Within each series one might assume a tendency to move towards popularization, however without dissolving the tighter circles focusing on more sustained pursuits requiring a more elaborate, specialist discourse and practice. The distinction between avant-garde and mainstream is made productive in the continuous transference and selection of ideas from avant-garde into the mainstream. This does not exclude the reverse track from mainstream into an avant-garde based reflection of phenomena emerging spontaneously within the mainstream (retro-active manifesto). Thus the distinction serves a certain purpose in structuring cultural practice/communication.
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