This has been buzzing about the architecture discussion boards for a week or two now, since Zaha Hadid’s second-in-command unleashed a rather delayed reaction to 2012’s winning entries in the Venice architecture biennale, which focused on housing and on documenting slum conditions.
Ok, where to begin? Maybe let’s let Mr. Schumacher speak for himself:
“STOP political correctness in architecture. But also: STOP confusing architecture and art.
“Architects are in charge of the FORM of the built environment, not its content. We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor – as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency.
“Unfortunately all the prizes given by the last architecture biennale where motivated by this misguided political correctness. STOP political correctness in architecture! And yet, architecture is not a l’art pour l’art discipline. 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.”
Now, I’m all for the broadest possible acceptance of all views in our discipline, and I’ve been known to throttle projects–student or otherwise–when they try for a facile veneer of ornamental social concern instead of addressing deeper, difficult issues. But the term “politically correct” is the last resort of the disingenuous, and you can bet that anything following the phrase “stop political correctness” will be self-serving, queasy rhetoric about how the ten percent’s rights are being trampled upon by the inconvenient opinions of the 90%.
So, to parse this. First, architects damn well control the content of the built environment, but in ways that we don’t always grasp and are rarely good at controlling. By simply accepting a job our work validates and leverages the ‘content’ of our client–we’re tacitly endorsing it and whatever comes with it. And the values that we bring to the table during design produce the ‘content’ of the finished product whether we want them to or not. Where we direct resources is inevitably interpreted as a statement about our values, the values of those who built the thing we designed, and the values that are, for better or for worse, being imposed on the people who live with the building every day.
If–for example?–your firm sees no problem with accepting a multi-million dollar project for a World Cup stadium in a country that has a repressive political regime (Schumacher has a funny definition of “conservative”), you might as well be casting a very large vote for that regime. If you’re a well-known, internationally recognized architect, you’re also implying to the public–who aren’t all that good with political nuance or irony or anything subtle like that–that the culture you represent similarly endorses the goals, values, etc., of whomever is building that stadium. It’s inevitable. We look back in history and can’t help but think of Michelangelo and the Medici as inextricably linked, for example, making all involved more complicated, less easy to pigeonhole as enlightened or despotic (Philip Johnson? Luigi Moretti?). If that government happens to not care–again, hypothetically?–that a World Cup stadium project is likely to mean the deaths of thousands of workers over the course of its construction, you can’t get away with claiming that the construction has nothing to do with you. Seriously. Even if fans don’t link the finished building with those deaths, much of the world won’t ever see that stadium without linking your work to the worst day of those workers’ families’ lives. By any humane reckoning they ought to count.
SHoT, the Society for the History of Technology, has a great unofficial motto: “technology isn’t good, technology isn’t bad, and technology isn’t neutral.” I’ve always taken this to mean two things: first, that technology simply amplifies whatever values it’s applied to, often to unintended effect, and second, that if we can’t predict or even in hindsight know whether the outcome is good, bad, or indifferent, we need to be particularly thoughtful and cautious about development and later historicizing. I guess I see architecture in the same light; whatever we’re building, it’s going to monumentalize and entrench some ethical framework or another. And those frameworks will always–always–bump up against limitations and real-world complications that will produce wildly unpredictable consequences. It’s our responsibility to be as judicious as we can in taking on jobs–skeptical of every intention, maybe–and as diligent as we can in executing them, trying to foresee whatever possible outcomes might be and doing our best to steer the projects into directions that have the greatest possible upsides. Throwing up our hands and saying “not our problem,” or–even worse–deciding that the best way forward is to simply ignore any value-laden outcome at all and resign ourselves to making formally pretty things and calling that world-breaking simply isn’t getting it done.
I’m piling on, but if it’s impolite to call a firm whose work requires enormous outlays of fiscal, material, and human capital to achieve what they call a “complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics?” Then I agree with the call to “stop this political correctness.” We might should have an honest and probably painful conversation about the actual politics (which is what I think he actually means by “content”) of work that privileges form over ethics, and about self-serving claims that one can be above such concerns.
Update–25 March 2014, 1203 edt. Here’s the International Trade Union Confederation’s Report on working conditions at the 2022 World Cup sites, and a recent article in The Peninsula Qatar that disputes its findings. Both are worth a read.