The 5th Annual A+Awards — the world’s largest awards program for architecture and products — is open for entries, and the deadline has been extended until January 27! Click here to find out how to submit your project.
Many of the most well-known architects throughout the past century have been outspoken in the extreme: Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” More recently, French architect Jean Nouvel lambasted the treatment of his project, labeling it an “architectural structure that wavers between fakery and sabotage.” It is no wonder such strong words are used when the stakes are so high: Architecture not only frames the spaces in which people live and work; it also has the power to profoundly affect the socioeconomic prospects of entire populations.
Enter Patrik Schumacher, principal at Zaha Hadid Architects. Schumacher is known for his provocative statements on architecture and urban planning, broadcasting opinions that frequently elicit dramatically polarized responses from his peers and the public alike. His words are no less radical than the buildings he has designed in partnership with the late Dame Zaha Hadid, many of which have become instant icons for the countries in which they were realized. His constant desire to push limits — both in architectural discourse and the built environment — makes him an ideal judge of innovation and “outside-the-box” thinking within the profession.
Patrik Schumacher at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin; via World Architecture Community
It is therefore fitting that Patrik Schumacher is the latest juror for the 5th Annual A+Awards, Architizer’s global awards program for architecture and products. Schumacher joins a long list of creative luminaries, including architects such as Ma Yansong, Bjarke Ingels and Jeanne Gang, who will run the rule over this year’s projects and cast their votes for the Juror’s Awards. In advance of the final deadline for submissions, Architizer sat down for an exclusive interview with Schumacher, discussing his most recent debates with the profession and the public at large, his use of social media as a vehicle for architectural discourse and the future vision for Zaha Hadid Architects.
Paul Keskeys: Thank you for joining this year’s A+Awards jury! I want to start by asking you how the firm has developed over the past year, after the sad passing of Dame Hadid last March. How has the studio evolved since that moment?
Patrik Schumacher: Sure; let me first of all emphasize the continuity of ZHA in terms of all the ongoing projects, which number about 80. Twenty-four of them are on site, under construction, and many more are in late stages of design development, about to tender and soon to go on site. All that is 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 with positive results, 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, with an enhanced motivation because we want to make sure that we’re surviving and continuing Zaha’s legacy.
“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.”
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 in 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 very important to us — we don’t want to change character. We want to remain innovative, cutting-edge, speaking with artistic and cultural credibility, and remain a leading voice in the field. That’s my mission.
Spittelau Viaducts Housing Project by Zaha Hadid Architects, Vienna, Austria; photograph © Margherita Spiluttini
You’ve been in the spotlight quite a lot recently after your speech at the World Architecture Festival (WAF) in Berlin. How do you reflect on both sides of the debate after you gave your presentation there?
I think there is a big debate out there that we have been facing in the media for quite a while now, the so-called housing crisis, or affordability crisis, which exists in London but also in various cities in the U.S. 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 other projects we’ve done — for instance in Milan and Singapore — in terms of completed large multi-unit residential schemes. I was also showing new residential projects under construction in the U.S., in Miami and Manhattan.
“Nobody with ambition, perhaps nobody at all, can afford to stay provincial, cut off, and thereby relatively unproductive.”
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. I pointed to the underlying historical forces that imply that we are witnessing 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 are agglomerating in urban centers, which are becoming 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 has engendered is very different from the period of the mid-20th century, which was basically a manufacturing society based on mechanical mass production. Back then, there was 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 from each other so as to remain undisturbed. That was Fordism with modernist urbanism.
Now we witness a totally different socioeconomic 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 computer-controlled and increasingly robotic production systems. Everybody feels the need to move to the center where the reprogramming 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.
Jeremy Melvin, Curator of World Architecture Festival and Patrik Schumacher, Berlin 2016; via World Architecture Community
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., neoliberalism — 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.
“What motivates my thinking is the same set of fundamental values that we all share, namely a real concern about the commonwealth, prosperity and future prospect of society.”
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 a very, very touchy and sensitive subject, and too emotionally charged. 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 commonwealth, prosperity and future prospect of society. My public interventions have indeed been animated by a deeply felt humanistic motivation; I am thinking about the human potential for flourishing in our era, including everybody’s flourishing — inclusive, not exclusive. My title at WAF 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.
These 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 away 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. 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; I was literally chased down the road by demonstrators screaming, “Stop the fascist.”
Protestors outside the office of Zaha Hadid Architects, London, U.K.; via Dezeen
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 screaming abuse at the same time as they were running. I guess I would be enjoying the reminiscence less if they had actually caught up to me to rough me up. I’m rather philosophical about all this. I have also gotten 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 to sustain me through this unexpectedly stormy onslaught.
Of course my main worry in all this was: What does this do to my company, Zaha Hadid Architects? 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 clientele, old and new. I think the media frenzy is one thing and what people really think is quite another. Anyway, the responses and interactions I have had with various clients are thankfully not confirming my worst worries.
“I was hoping I could maintain a certain separation between my role as theorist and my role as leading representative of ZHA. In principle this should be possible, in reality perhaps less so.”
I take a philosophical stance, trying to understand and contextualize what happened. For me it’s a lesson of course, 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; we understand the reasoning behind this framework and can represent all stakeholder positions we encounter and are 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 higher rationality of alternative rule sets.
At the World Architecture Festival I was talking 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 such 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.
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.
Patrik Schumacher in London; photo by David Azia via the New York Times
Following on from this, your firm sent out an email emphasizing the independence between its practice and the specific ideas you put forward in Berlin. How do you reconcile being an independent thought leader in the profession, but also representing your firm?
This email caused some 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 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 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.
“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.”
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; 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.
This does not mean 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, such as 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 architectural academic discourse, I have been less political, but I also started to lecture on a "Market-based Urban Order."
If I’m giving a seminar at the European Graduate School, or at the Architectural Association, 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 that 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.
Via Patrik Schumacher’s Facebook page
Speaking of debating about architecture, you use Facebook — perhaps more than any other architect — to communicate your ideas to the public. How did you begin to use that platform, and what kind of benefits do you see from speaking directly to people this way? Do you think other architects could utilize it more?
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 4,500 people, including many real friends and acquaintances, many of them architects. My audience on Facebook is thus different from the audience of, say, 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 sometimes also stir controversy, although they are never just trying to generate agitation — they’re serious propositions and reflections.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter often bring on tough responses, but I have a thick skin; I’m happy to see past 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, if there’s a shred of an argument in there, I might come back constructively.”
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’ve received has often been building up to over 100 comments, much more than you may usually find, for instance, on Dezeen. That’s been encouraging. 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 have never felt 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 with just 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.
Morpheus Hotel at City of Dreams (renderings) by Zaha Hadid Architects, Cotai, Macau; images courtesy ZHA
Bringing it back to architecture, I wanted to ask you what’s on the drawing board at ZHA. Are there any new projects that you’re particularly excited about developing in 2017?
Yeah, I mentioned the extension of the Berlin National Gallery — we didn’t get it; it went to Herzog & de Meuron 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. 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 starting the 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’re always working on multiple competitions. Many buildings are also under construction. It’s still exciting for me to see how they evolve, like Macau’s City of Dreams, where I recently attended the topping-out ceremony, or Beijing Airport, one of the biggest airports in the world, which is a new adventure for us.
Since we won Beijing Airport, we have also entered a number of further airport competitions. We were on the shortlist for Mexico City Airport, as well as Chengdu Airport. Airports represent a totally new level of project for us as a 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, one 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. The project focuses on the agent-based simulation of interaction and occupancy processes in a corporate world.
Beijing Airport (rendering) by Zaha Hadid Architects, Beijing, China; image by Methanoia, courtesy ZHA
“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.”
I am trying to generalize circulatory crowd modeling into a generalized life-process modeling. 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 creative development and coding work that’s going on in many banks. We’re 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 fascinating challenges we hope to get involved in, and we have our own internal research team that 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 possibilities 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.
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.
Patrick Schumacher at the studio with designer Ross Lovegrove to discuss the autumn show on parametric design, which Schumacher curated at the Design Museum in London; via Ross Lovegrove
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 have set another intelligent colleague free to focus on research, the result has been very rewarding. Within a few years, many research projects — 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 moving forward.
Wonderful! So, just to finish off with the A+Awards — are there any particular qualities you will look for when you’re assessing the entries? What kind of projects will stand out for you in this year’s awards submissions?
We’re looking for originality and 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 through 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.
“In each project, we are looking for an element through which the project can be pointing beyond itself, and become a manifesto for things to come.”
Even at ZHA, we must balance the pursuit of originality with the delivery of excellence. We are now very mature and can deliver best practice globally. However, we are always 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 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.
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.