Curated by Paul Finch, editorial director of The Architectural Review, this year’s World Architecture Festival in Berlin focused specifically on the challenges facing the housing industry. Leading architects including Ben van Berkel, Wolf Prix and Sir Peter Cook gathered a repurposed vintage boiler house in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood to discuss their approaches to design competitions, the joys of working with students and how they continue to find inspiration from their travels and interactions with talented students.
The moderators posed the big questions facing the industry: As the world’s urban population continues to grow, architects and city planners need to work together to create sustainable, affordable living spaces for citizens of varying income levels. How do we create a market for construction that promotes progressive, innovative design and lessens financial risks for developers and investors?
Patrik Schumacher, an outspoken partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, proposed a controversial solution to London’s housing crisis: eliminating social housing, housing regulations and a plan to privatize all public spaces in the city. His plan, made up of seven well-defined theses and several demands for the future, sought to give the architecture industry over to the free market and wipe a blank slate on city codes that have developed over multiple generations. Schumacher told the audience: “Market processes deliver land and real estate resources to their most profitable uses; they establish a viable programmatic order.”
Via Dezeen; © Matthew Joseph
When it comes to planning new projects in highly regulated urban areas, Schumacher feels that developers can’t hire architects to create location-specific, creative work when all dimensions have already been rigidly prescribed by prohibitive building codes and city planners. As a result, developers are not encouraged to take the risks needed for architectural innovation to take place. Gentrification, in his view, is simply a sign of urban progress, and the liberal media’s approach to the topic has been unfair. Schumacher’s presentation was met with significant pushback from the audience, including one member who asked, “Why not privatize the air we breathe?” — a barb met with applause from some people in the audience.
Schumacher later posted on his Facebook page that he’d been called the “Donald Trump of architecture” and felt these negative reactions represented the worst of the industry’s left-leaning liberals, whose desire for consensus and common standards of living must be challenged for the good of the industry. Many members of the audience felt he violated the moral standards that we as an industry like to think we can all agree on: housing for citizens at every income level, affordable living spaces and basic compassion for our neighbors.
Seeming to speak independently from its principal, Zaha Hadid Architects has since disavowed Schumacher’s comments in a strongly worded open letter. It is unclear who authored this letter and who authorized its publication, but it is clear that not everyone within the practice shares Schumacher’s stance.
World Architecture Festival in Berlin; courtesy of the event
Whether you agree with Schumacher’s assertions or not, his theses certainly provoked discussion about how city planners might amend — if not abolish — certain urban building laws. Some designers asserted that having clearly dimensioned limits can provide a helpful framework for designing viable spaces, while others feel their creativity is shackled by too many preestablished rules that feel outdated, arbitrary or irrelevant. The debate surrounding urban planning legislation requires participation from architects themselves — not just developers and planners — who can reflect on what building conditions enable creatives to do our best work.
Disagreements, deep discussion and debate are what make an architecture festival successful; without an international platform to present ideas, the conversation around the housing crisis can’t move forward. At the end of the day, the organizers of World Architecture Festival achieved their ultimate goal: to bring the industry together to learn, connect and, sometimes, respectfully disagree.
Top image: conceptual rendering from “The bottom-up urbanism of Patrik Schumacher”; via Market Urbanism