patrik schumacher’s biennale rant

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.

3 thoughts on “patrik schumacher’s biennale rant

  1. I wonder who one could still work for by your standards? You don’t live in the real world. You think it immoral to build a stadium in Qatar because its expensive relative to the poverty levels in the middle east. If we can’t build in Qatar for the reason you give, I guess we can’t build in the US either, considering that poverty and destitution (and very little social equity) exist there. You call Qatar a repressive political regime (although you are too timid to explicitly name them) … and we have also been criticized for working in China and Azerbaijan. By the way we also have been working in Mubarak’s Egypt. Should we have abstained from all this and abstain in the future? To leave them brewing in isolation? Yes, isolation would result if this boycott would be generalized according to your criteria? That is always the unspoken implication: withdraw from these jobs. I applaud the journalists who point towards problems like construction health and safety, if it is excessive. But, again any such figures need to be put into perspective. Health and safety becomes more of a priority the higher the generalized standard of living has risen. Our current health and safety regimes are rather recent and continue to improve. If you have witnessed the roads of India you realize the relative value of health and safety. And: all valuations are relative. Yes, if we close our eyes and dream of a better world we would like everybody to be taken care of as well as we are able to take care of ourselves. But this abstract dream cannot be a yardstick for condemnations, boycotts, regime changes etc.
    What about Zaha’s statement about the government’s responsibility for overseeing construction health and safety? What is wrong with this? It’s first of all the contractor’s duty and then the government’s duty of supervision. But I need to explain a bit more about (deliberate?) misrepresentation of the situation out of which a supposedly cruel, incriminating headline was snatched. First of all the Guardian’s article headline – Zaha Hadid defends Qatar World Cup role following migrant worker deaths – is misleading as no such “defense” was articulated. The second misrepresentation is the implication that workers have died on our construction site. However, this construction site does not exist. Construction has not yet started! What is the Guardian who publishes such headlines expecting from Zaha Hadid? The public condemnation of our client? Or even the withdrawal of our design? Is the Guardian boycotting all reporting on the world cup?
    Once more about “repressive regimes”. First of all it is an ahistorical, utterly (and tragically) misleading fallacy to measure and judge these developing countries by our standards which were still openly violated only 2 generations ago (and are still violated today) even in the most advanced countries like the US. This fallacy leads to the doctrine that “regime change” can leap frog these countries to become like “us”. There can be no shortcut for the ardent long process of building the institutions of civil society, and democratic governmental checks and balances with the attending ethos that we have come to expect as global best practice. And yet, the difficulty of building and maintaining these institutions and checks and balances is evident with all the corruption scandal s that keep coming to light in the advanced economies too. And also, at this point we should not forget the severe human rights and international law violations committed by US government agencies in recent years. Does this imply that we cannot work for the US government or public sector? I believe our projects in China, Azerbaijan, Qatar etc. make a progressive contribution to the development of these countries in comparison to the boycott strategy implicitly recommended by our dreamy moralists. I guess the only clean hands that can moralize and lecture us from their cushy and safe armchairs with a squeaky clean conscience are academics like you. The problem is that the fallacies you pander and spread are doing more damage than good in the world.
    A final thought about expensive public buildings in poor countries: I believe that such public buildings can be uplifting and have utility for the general population (including the poor) much in advance to the benefit that would be delivered if such a sum would be distributed to the poor directly. This insight hit me when I was in Isfahan. Here the splendid public monuments with their plazas and gardens make for beautiful spaces for family gatherings and meals. The relatively small public monumental core of Isfahan is surrounded by a ring of very poor shanty town dwellings and workshops etc., and it is the poor who enjoy the luxury of these beautiful public spaces on weekends. I feel the investment in this civic infrastructure was worth its while many times over while the small hand outs that would have been available to everybody in case of distributing the money would have dissipated within a week. (You might argue that other social investments could have been made instead. However, the track record of (usually foreign aid financed) social investments is discouraging, because for these investments to make a different much more in terms of institutional preconditions is required than is available in poor countries.)


  2. Appreciate your taking the time to reply, and I certainly agree with your last point. I’m researching in Rome at the moment, and the public space in front of MAXXi is full of neighborhood families every afternoon when I leave the archives there. That’s a welcome reminder of the power of good urban places, and one that I’m grateful for daily.

    I’ve updated the post to link to both the ITUC’s report on working conditions in Qatar, and to a 16 March article in the Qatar press that disputes those findings. My readers are pretty bright and can make up their own minds, but the situation there is only the latest media-frenzy to illustrate the post’s larger point.

    I think every architect draws their own line at what’s acceptable or not. You might be surprised to know that many American architects won’t design prisons, won’t work on Department of Defense contracts, won’t work on residential projects over 500 sq. m., etc. You and I will probably never agree on where that line is, but my larger point is that every building involves an ethical, political, social calculation, and that we can’t so easily shrug off the consequences of what we design. To reiterate: “whatever we’re building, it’s going to monumentalize and entrench some ethical framework or another.”

    Happy to leave it there and to let your response speak for itself. My students will be amused to hear me described as a “dreamy moralist” who “doesn’t live in the real world,” but I’ll take it.


  3. The subtext for this discussion: design professionals* are also in business. If you own a firm, you’re a business owner and the ethical issues are no different than with any other business. If a client is someone you have qualms with serving or a project is one you have qualms designing, you should not accept the work. This means having (a) the financial resources and (b) the nerve to walk away from some potentially lucrative contracts. I’m the first to say that my record is not perfect, although I try.

    We need to say no to some clients because it’s right to do so. This is also related, IMO, to all other ethical issues. We have to pay our interns a real wage because it’s right to do so. We have to be fair in hiring and promotion – even if our firms are too small to be regulated by the EEOC – because it’s right to do so.

    Most design awards have traditionally been given solely on the technical merits of the work. Fine. That is an important, if not the dominant, aspect of our work. But as you say, the technical aspects do not exist in a vacuum devoid of social context, and if awards choose to recognize the context, good on the award givers.

    *I’m an engineer, not an architect, but the issues are similar.


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