on architectural bullsh*t

December 28, 2016 § 3 Comments

Late to this fray, but the Patrik Schumacher debacle from last month can’t pass without comment…especially given that we’ve tangled before.

Schumacher, either still a partner or an ex-partner with Zaha Hadid Architects, depending on which gossip mill you believe, used the podium at last month’s World Architecture Forum in Berlin to declaim eight ‘points’ that would, he argued, revitalize London and help alleviate the city’s affordable housing crisis.  His plan, which dezeen helpfully published in full, amounted to scrapping public housing, eliminating planning regulations, and privatizing public spaces in the city.  These suggestions, to put it mildly, caused a bit of a stir.

Surely, the Forum knew exactly what it was getting.  Schumacher has been throwing these sorts of ideas around for several years, pointing out that if the poor and middle classes were gentrified out of cities, then the urban housing crisis would be solved.  This sort of jaw-dropping tautology is a key tenet of the fringe economic theory known as Anarcho-Capitalism, a free-market fundamentalism that, among other things, argues for a privatized justice system, so that the market can then sort out which forms of justice are most efficient.  In celebrating that sort of optimization it doesn’t worry about what happens to those who, for instance, can’t afford premium justice plans, or a subscription to private police or fire departments—one way or another the market will ‘take care’ of them.  It’s the sort of disingenuous philosophy that makes even hard-right critics blush—“Marxism of the Right,” as one journal put it.  When a movement’s devotees point to Somalia in the 1990s as a model you should, maybe, be skeptical, but Schumacher has become one of Anarcho-Capitalism’s leading voices, speaking earlier this month at a forum in London devoted to socially Darwinian ideas that resonate with his urban theory—calls to deregulate genetic engineering of humans and the sale of organs, and to rely on IQ testing for social and economic benefits among them.

So, how does this trans-Randian world view square with his architecture?  In his writings, he’s called for a paradoxical—and anything but anarchic—“hegemonic parametricism” that would do away with the “garbage spill” of existing cities’ architectural, urban, and (one assumes) social diversity by imposing a parametrically-controlled optimization of urban form.  The market, “determined by architecture’s private clients within a market process that allocates land resources to the most valued uses,” would clean up “garbage spill” cities, rationalizing uses and massing into a “legible urban order and identity;” great, swooping curves and smoothly-surfaced structures that would produce a “variegated, information-rich urban order.”  This new urban order would reduce the neural strain that diverse cities impose on their residents, who would now be able to apply the cognitive energy thus saved to be more efficient and productive.  It’s a strange combination of social and economic Darwinism with the sort of stylistic authoritarianism that Anarcho-Capitalists might revolt against—his images of antiseptic, gleaming white, ‘gradient swarm’ urban formations suggest nothing less than sets from an ill-conceived remake of Logan’s Run.

Schumacher’s most telling quote, however, comes not from his voluminous writing, but rather from an interview done in the wake of his Forum talk with Phineas Harper, Deputy Director of London’s Architecture Foundation.  Stung by the backlash his comments brought, he seemed to not exactly backtrack, but to cloak his long-held beliefs in what has become a standard social media apologia:  “I’m not certain about what I’m saying…but I think these arguments are worth floating.”  Americans will recognize this as a strategy borrowed from the Trump campaign—“I’m not sure, but some are saying…” This formulation succeeded in disseminating damaging, wildly untrue rumors while keeping its speaker at an apparent critical distance, damaging opponents while elevating Trump above the fray.  The campaign used it to the point of self-parody, but with devastating effect on an electorate more gullible than anyone thought possible.  Schumacher has used it, somewhat less successfully, to propagate a caustic socio-economic theory in which he clearly believes while presenting himself as intellectually disciplined, disinterested, and open to all possible solutions.  (Hint: he hasn’t written extensively on any others).

“I’m not certain, but these arguments are worth floating” is, in the sense that Harry Frankfurt defined the term, pure bullshit.  Frankfurt’s 1986 essay on the topic saw a surge in popularity when it was released as a short book in 2005.  “On Bullshit” bears continued reading in an age where, as he says in his opening, a “salient feature of our culture” is that “there is so much” of it.  Frankfurt distinguished “bullshit” from outright lying, or making statements that are intentionally false.  Bullshit, for Frankfurt, requires instead a total disregard for factuality.  Whereas lying requires “falsity,” bullshit requires “fakery.”  It’s deployed not to deceive someone about a fact, but rather to deceive someone about the speaker; either that speaker’s qualifications, intentions, or “enterprise.”  Bullshit is, in other words, self-serving, without even the attention paid to truth by liars.  The bullshitter seeks to convince us not of their “correctness,” but rather of their “sincerity.”    Schumacher’s writing parses in these terms, and Frankfurt’s further discussion of bullshit as something “produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner…never finely crafted” applies to much else that passes for urban and architectural theory—heavy with undefined but arcane buzzwords, run-on sentences, and errors evidencing a complete lack of care or editing, keen to give the appearance of evidentiary strength and rhetorical depth on the part of the author, while unbothered by the disciplined research and craft needed to actually achieve these.

Frankfurt’s comments on craft as an antidote to bullshit are, I think, the crux of his argument for architects.  Like any good philosopher, he pulls in an architectural metaphor (via Longfellow and Wittgenstein) to make his point:

“In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the Gods are everywhere.”

For Frankfurt, the values associated with craft in art’s ‘elder days’—self-discipline, thoughtfulness, care—aren’t necessarily antithetical to bullshit.  There is, after all, the “finely wrought” and sophisticated bullshit of advertising, public relations, and politics (not to mention social media—remember that Frankfurt is here writing in 1986).  It is, instead, the laxity that accompanies bullshit, the sense of a “slovenly craftsman” who is “trying to get away with something,” that rings true when we think about the bulk of work produced in what Schumacher calls the “parametric style.”  For as much as this could be defined by its compelling, digitally-generated forms, such a style could also be identified by the lack of care dedicated to its execution, (engineers and contractors are usually the ones to pick up the slack of making the ‘parametric style’ stand and keep out the rain).  The bluffing that comes with staged and composed digital renderings—finely wrought, to be sure—will do the job of convincing the public that the buildings in question are as impressively built as they are conceived.  But ‘calling bullshit’ on them by showing up and experiencing them firsthand calls that bluff in extraordinary fashion.  In this sense, Calatrava’s designs might be the paradigm of architectural bullshit, in that their histrionic structural forms have nothing to do with how buildings are stand up—I’ve flogged this horse enough elsewhere.  What links Calatrava and Schumacher—and, for that matter, OMA, BIG, and any number of other digitally-savvy firms producing visually captivating and experientially disappointing work is the bluff of architectural sincerity.

This is a state of affairs in which images can be staged, enhanced, or even digitally altered (i.e., to remove inconvenient mechanical plant in one notorious recent example).  Ideas about urban planning can be floated purely for their page views without regard for their political and social consequences.  Revolutionary constructivist aesthetics can be deployed for a (decidedly reactionary) spa and health club for plutrocrats.   When Frankfurt wrote about “so much bullshit” being a “salient feature of our culture” in 1986 he was dealing with amateurs.  Thirty years has increased the torrent and the pace of it exponentially, and architecture has done more its part.  Does Schumacher think that creating millions of economic refugees and clearing the world’s urban centers of their messy diversity is a viable way of revitalizing (already vital) cities?  That ‘hegemonic parametricism’ is the messianic optimization tool that will best serve his fellow genetically engineered, IQ-tested, capitalist ultra-elite?  Who knows, and who cares?  Schumacher isn’t a fascist, as some have argued.  He’s a textbook bullshit artist.  And, I’d argue that, as with any of Frankfurt’s ‘bullshit artists,’ we ought to ignore the content of his statements and focus instead on his delivery.  “Since,” Frankfurt concludes, “it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts,” the bullshitter “must therefore try instead to be true to himself,” i.e., immune to the veracity or consequences of whatever he says, as long as it serves his interests.  Anarcho-capitalism?  More like the first marketing salvo in the 2021 Trump Presidential Library competition.

That argument is “worth floating,” anyway.

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§ 3 Responses to on architectural bullsh*t

  • Don Friedman says:

    Great rant. One comment and one question…

    The comment: Schumacher may not be a fascist – I don’t know him and I’m perfectly happy to believe you on this. That said, the stated desire of a small subset of architects to erase the messy and intricate details of cities in favor of their won designs (FLW with Broadacre, Corbu with the Voisin Plan, and Rudolph with LOMEX all come to mind) is a fascistic impulse. It doesn’t matter whether then neon letters at the top of the tallest tower spell out the great leader’s name or the beneficent corporation, we’re all expected to forget what used to be there, raise our heads in awe, and OOOOH in unison.

    The question: where does this impulse come from? I’d like to blame The Fountainhead, but obviously the impulse has been around a lot longer than that piece of trash.

    • twleslie says:

      There’s an old saw out there that there are two types of architect: those that also think they can design furniture, and those that also think they can design cities. If you think you can do both, you’re almost certainly wrong about at least one of them. Buildings are a weird middle ground, and the design sense it takes to get one up and running doesn’t totally match the product design know-how of furniture or the more complex socio-economic reality of cities. Wright was equally terrible at both ends of the spectrum, Corbusier at least designed some good chairs. You can decide for yourself whether ZHA’s furniture is any good, but their urban schemes are pretty much pretty shapes. We’d all like to think our talents are scalable in any direction, I guess.

  • Don Friedman says:

    There seems to be a bullshit zeitgeist this week: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-bullshit-is-no-laughing-matter

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