NEW RULES: Zaha Hadid Architects

11 July 2018

Our cities have collapsed into a state of “garbage-spill urbanism”, argues Patrik Schumacher, and only a complete change of approach can get us back on the right path. But if the response is to scrap political interference, empower market forces to make planning decisions and persuade his contemporaries to embrace parametricism, there are still a lot of people out there left to convince. Phin Foster hears the principal of Zaha Hadid Architects make his case.

Earlier this year, the City of London released a series of specially commissioned renderings outlining the extent to which the UK capital’s skyline is set to change between now and 2026.

The intention was to put out a good news story in the age of Brexit, with 13 skyscrapers from some of architecture’s biggest names being approved for construction in the Square Mile; almost 1.4 million square metres of offi ce space coming under development; and new capacity required for an additional 100,000 workers over the next three decades. London is still a booming global metropolis, the message went, and is very much open for business.

The release went viral, but not necessarily in the manner its authors had anticipated or intended. This emerging cityscape, previously condemned as ‘a tortured heap of towers’, prompted pundits to line up and lament a perceived lack of joined-up thinking and a failure to learn from mistakes of the past. Planners remained in thrall to iconography and celebrity, they howled, valuing size above context and creating a topography lacking in coherence or identity.

As is so often the case when debates concerning urbanism and our built environment enter the public arena, outrage around the 2026 skyline seemingly united conservationists on the right and anti-capitalists from the left. More surprisingly, perhaps, was another voice in the mix, somebody whose musings have prompted the Guardian to ask whether he might just be “the most hated man in urbanism”: Zaha Hadid Architects’ (ZHA) principal Patrik Schumacher.

Curing outdated urbanism

The architect and academic is an unlikely bedfellow for either group. He leads a global practice synonymous with the creation of iconic architecture, founded by a practitioner who was popularly considered as being in the vanguard of the starchitect movement; he has proposed eliminating social housing and privatising public space; and he’s a committed free-marketeer, confidently extolling his views in a crisp German accent.

But while his prescription may prove a hard sell, Schumacher’s diagnosis of an outdated approach to urbanism in desperate need of reinvention likely resonates across large swathes of the political and social spectrum.

“It’s easy to make iconic buildings, but the real question is whether we can create recognisable urban identities,” he begins. “In places like London, all these icons have the paradoxical effect of creating homogenisation through difference; unrelated elements conglomerating into a condition that I call garbagespill urbanisation.”

Schumacher, who marks three decades with ZHA this year, has travelled the short distance from the practice’s London HQ in Clerkenwell to Islington’s Business Design Centre to present a keynote on what he has defined as “the elegant city”. We’re sat in the middle of an increasingly busy and boisterous tradeshow floor – a useful metaphor for his critique of contemporary, “noisy” urbanism.

Architecture must speak, he argues, but it should aim to do so in an articulate tone and a single language. The feasibility of such an approach in an architectural milieu that continues to value difference is open to question. What even is the dominant contemporary architectural movement, and to what extent do recent precedents on singular visions and the legacies they wrought demonstrate the value of such an approach?

“Modernism delivered the mute city, this kind of production rationality that leaves no real space for design identity,” Schumacher says. “It became a problem. Postmodernism then brings in colour and motifs in an attempt to create variation, but this means that, in the end, it just becomes another collage condition. There’s no order; psychologically, we can’t absorb the text of a postmodern city.”

Presenting the urban environment as a readable entity is a theme that the 56-year-old returns to time and again. The very nature of what our cities need to be is changing, he argues, and so too is the architectural discipline.

Until recently, human behaviour was predictable, his argument goes. Working life existed in a non-malleable framework, where strong demarcation lines existed between personal and professional, private and public. You could quite easily design a cityscape to meet anticipated demands, but these boundaries have been eroded at an unprecedented rate, and the way in which we imagine and draw our cities is not evolving at nearly the same speed.

“We must encounter and value variety, but maintain legibility in the face of that complexity,” Schumacher states. “Social processes that are becoming more complex and dynamic need the built environment to serve as a matrix of organisation and orientation; otherwise, we’re constantly lost. We need to not look at our role as creating shelter – that shouldn’t be the essence for architects – but in terms of ordering social processes, creating different territories with varied protocols of interaction. It’s important to understand that compositional stance isn’t something that gets in the way of function; it’s actually our means of delivering social functionality.

“These spatial orders are not stationary, they keep changing and that’s why we need to upgrade the stylistic repertoires and move into something ever more complex. The mechanical mass-production society where everything is routinised, living the nine-to-five – you can plan a city around that. Now, with much more complexity, a kind of network condition where we roam the city, seeking connections, where the cafe can be your office, you cannot have a single hand planning and designing from the top down,” he explains.

Controversial views

Here’s where we first venture into the more polarising libertarian elements of Schumacher’s world view. It is a ‘market knows best’ philosophy that is anathema to a large swathe of public and professional opinion, the ten years since the banking crisis having done little to assuage anger about the various legacies of corporate deregulation.

“The city delivering all these things should no longer be planned,” he emphasises. “Planners pretend they still have a constructive role to play, but they are doing more harm than good. Whatever works now is working because technology has enabled entrepreneurs to have a degree of freedom to set up shop next to each other, to co-locate in a network fashion that no planner could have ever anticipated.

“The manufacturing society necessitated that we separate work and residential, but now everything is fused into one complex network. The various components should come together in close proximity. We now design buildings without allocated desks through projects that bring multiple companies together. The politicians must be convinced to get out of the way and allow developers to tease out what the best utilisation of a land parcel is, instead of these arbitrary land-use plans, which proscribe what goes where and are no longer fit for purpose. Just look at residential. We’re only selecting what the politicians allow us to select and standards mean the right product is uneconomical. Let us, the users, decide upon the conditions we’re happy to live with.”

But if the point of planners – in theory – is to ensure that some semblance of order is retained, what then defines and guides the visual identity of the marketdriven urban environment?

Depending on your opinion of ZHA’s output, Schumacher’s response to this question can be interpreted as either utopian or megalomaniacal. For a number of people it will likely be both. All architects must embrace parametricism, his call to arms goes, the algorithmic design movement of his own invention.

On discussing how today’s cities are often only given tangible shape, rhythm and identity by the natural elements to which they’re anchored – think the Thames snaking through central London – Schumacher argues that his rule-based set of design principles can adapt and evolve to a city’s changing demands, much like these ecological features, while creating a coherent, consistent, versatile language shared by numerous practitioners driving design decisions from the bottom up. There is a clear paradox in instigating a market-based philosophy through a collectivist architectural approach, and one imagines that a number of Schumacher’s contemporaries will take some convincing – not that the architect seems afraid of initiating the conversation.

“Natural formations have what we need: versatility, variety, complexity,” he explains. “However, they’re always ordered and never random because they run on principles and rules. Nature never pollutes itself. We need a similarly rule-based system for building up our cities. It must be the amalgamation of multiple authors working in parallel and in sequence, but they should be able to forge that characterful, complex order you find in nature.

“It comes down to convincing the architectural community that they give up their own personal preferences. Not caring what anybody else is doing and just wanting your own aesthetic is selfindulgent. We need to take each other to task, convince through criticism, and make colleagues see that this is exciting and challenging. We want to be meaningful in our work and that can come through working together, rather than in isolation or even opposition.”

To fit on or break the mould?

But if we are to adopt a single school, why parametricism?

ZHA’s work has been consistently criticised for not relating to the environment in which it sits. It’s often sculpturally breathtaking but, from Baku to Beijing, the style is seemingly unwilling or unable to compromise aesthetics to fit the local palette. Is Schumacher not trying to move the mountain to his self-anointed Mohammad?

“It’s a style that can cope with the level of dynamism, complexity and variety required, while forging a unity and identity for different districts and cities, which is unique,” he highlights. “We have this new repertoire that’s much more complex, but it’s not garbage spill. This is achieved through algorithms and rule-based adaptive systems, so, rather than having a collage condition, you get an order that is unified and differentiated. That’s the elegant city.

“We must reject monotony and chaos. Can we get order through leaving everybody free to do their bit? That’s the challenge, but I believe it is possible if architects are all connected through a discourse, an ethos, principles and methodologies that imbue the rationality of adapting, and creating ways of maintaining continuities and building up identities collectively. Even if you have people only building in four or five styles, the city quickly collapses into garbage spill – no matter how beautiful and carefully designed each individual building is. If things don’t connect, they’re nothing more than random events.”

Start now, Schumacher says – again using London as an example – and within 20 years, we’ll be seeing tangible, large-scale results. He has been modelling a lot of this work at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, his students sharing and contributing the same rulebased approach, independently building designs to an interconnected cityscape.

But that is the virtual world. Schumacher’s call for a complete overhaul of the architectural discipline also sounds like a demand that we tear down our cities and start again. Certainly, the renderings he shares of this work do not resemble any of our contemporary urban spaces. On that note, however, the architect sounds somewhat more sedate and conciliatory.

“Nobody believes any longer in the tabula rasa condition,” he acknowledges. “It has to be about integrating with what already exists and gradually substituting. Historical assets will remain, but you’d also have unity and diversity at the same time, maintaining legibility in the face of complexity. We can generate continuities and variation in a way other architectural repertoires simply can’t, creating ensembles that have an overall global figure and demeanour and poise, but are always site specific, open ended and constantly adaptable.”

That is Schumacher’s vision for the elegant city and, while he insists that such an undertaking cannot be designed by a single hand, it is very much cast in his own image.

It’s unlikely that this parametric utopia will come into being in time to render the City of London’s 2026 skyline obsolete, but in a political environment where public responsibilities, from housing to healthcare, are increasingly ceded to private enterprise – and a new breed of tech multinationals arguably wield more power than any corporate entities in the history of capitalism – one has to wonder whether it is really as farfetched as it first sounds.

© Zaha Hadid Architects
ZHA won an international competition to design Aljada’s Central Hub in the UAE.
The world-famous firm is also working on the Sberbank Technopark in Moscow, Russia.

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