# ARCHITECTURAL THEORIES /// A Conversation with Patrik Schumacher

Few days ago I wrote an open-letter to Patrik Schumacher in reaction to an article he wrote in which he doubted that architecture could be a site of radical political activism as well as affirming that architects are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ . This letter was followed by an impressive sum of comments which, for most of them, participated to this debate as well as the problem of architecture education in the United Kingdom (which was the original topic of the article on Architectural Review). Three of those comments were written by Patrik Schumacher himself, and it seems only fair to publish them here as a response to my letter.
In a more personal note, I have to acknowledge that, despite our opposite interpretations of the problem, Mr. Schumacher responded very calmly and constructively thus disregarding the personal attacks that I opened my letter with, and I am thankful for that.
The following pieces of text are his comments and are followed to my own response to them:

Patrik Schumacher | February 10, 2012 at 6:15 am

the debate is productive … unfortunately some of you misconstrued my point. We all might participate in the political process as citizens, voters, party members, demonstrators etc. … however, in our capacity as avant-garde architects we are called upon to adapt the thinking and design resources of the discipline to those socio-economic and political tendencies that emerge as legitimately victorious from the political process proper. We are not called upon to second guess or sabotage the results of the political process. Architectural discourse is not the arena for a sophisticated political discourse. As professional architects we are also not called upon to undermine prior decisions. Who could give us this right? Self-appointed?
What would give an architect the right to second guesss for instance the decision to invest in a public building with a particular programme and represented by a legitimately constituted client representative. The attempt to subvert such legitimate intentions would be arrogant, pompous, unjustifiable. The politics of the new building has been defined already. It is now our job to translate its political intentions in a congenial, effective, sensitive way … innovative in terms of its architectural translation. In a competition setting we might try to reinterpret the political agenda of the project, in an open discourse with the legitimate jury. Thats fair enough. If we go too far we might loose our chance. Perhaps thats a risk worth taking. That level of subtle activism within the institutional processes is welcome.
Those of you who – like some of you seem to – have no trust and respect for the political process and who thus think that the political system does not deliver, who think that politics presents the bottleneck of progress, those of you should exit architecture and enter the political process proper in full force … or at least seriously engage in a political debate, perhaps join a (radical) political party … and become true activists within the political arena proper. Architecture and architectural discourse cannot substitute itself for this real political discourse where you do not have to convince or charm other architects or architecture students with imagery but where you have to win arguments in debates with seasoned political activists. … And only in the political process proper you can legitimately and effectively influence and change the constitution of the clients of architecture, for instance by nationalizing real estate development if you e.g. think private interests should be excluded from development. However, to try to subvert or sabotage privare clients where they are granted to legitimate rights over a site would be ineffective, as well unacceptable, would violate democratically constituted and confirmed rights.
Realism: the realism I imply for student’s creative work has nothing to do with banal dull pragmatism. I am looking for an original, skillful, sophistcated, creative engagement with contemporary design tasks that might become real briefs, perhaps high density, mixed use urbanism in urban brown field sites … interpreted in a progressive understanding of the dynamics of postfordist network society … where an intesification of relations and communicative interactions between the different programme components would be desired … The task here would be to device new repertoires that could facilitate the organisation and articulation of inceased communicative complexity, maintaining legibility in a dense, complex information rich scene. …

——

Patrik Schumacher | February 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply | Edit

I would like to ask Leopold about his political position and outlook. Do you have a clear political position? Is it far off the mainstream? Is it a vague sense of unease or is it a well developed, comprehensive, systematic, articulate political position? If not yet the latter, are you aspiring to achieve full, articulate clarity of conviction? If so, how do you intend to achieve this? In which discursive arena?

——

Patrik Schumacher | February 11, 2012 at 2:21 am | Reply | Edit

Is all power and all political power a negative force? Power is an efficient way to achieve social synthesis (integrated action). Political power is necessary to order society. The build environment has its own unique ordering capacity – this is per se neither hurtful, nor violent, it facilitates the structuring of social relations. (The absence of social order is hurtful and violent. Social order is fragile and society might degenerate/regress in the absence of ordering mechanism. … I wonder if you would describe yourself as Anarchist? … I myself have sympathies in the direction of libertarianism or anarcho-capitalsm … but my architecture can only be based on the assumptions of mainstream politics, the political agenda that is in fact empowered. A practicing architect can only decide in this way.) The political question is not power yes or no – or architectural order yes or no – but where the decision making and control capacity in relation to architectural ordering initiatives is located. To enter a democratic political debate about this matter one would have to assess alternative institutions in terms of their overall rationality and chance to enhance global productivity/welfare/freedom. And after the political question is settled (in the political system) there remains the question of the most pertinent, effective architectural solution to the ordering agenda of the legitimate (political, economic, social) power. This question can no longer be answered in the political system, nor in the economic system. This question can only be answered in the architectural discourse, according to its specific categories and criteria of success, i.e. according to the double code of utility and beauty.

——

Mr. Schumacher,

thank you for your responses. You asked me about my political interpretation of society, what follows is an attempt to articulate an answer.
As you guessed, I am very suspicious about any forms of power that subjectivize the other. You would argue that those forms are necessary and, although I think that this is debatable, if that is the case, I think that such power has to be considered with great concern, awareness and care. Furthermore, each system that imply such forms of power should include in itself a part of its own contradiction to avoid the exacerbation of the power.

You wonder if I would call myself an anarchist and the answer is no. I find the law an interesting construction when it is built-up through the process of an immanent collective ethics rather than a transcendental moral. I am much more interested by the revolutionary process than the revolution itself. I don’t consider my political engagement as a dedication to the implementation of another paradigm but rather in the collective creation of moments of resistance against a dominant power (whichever the latter is) . It is thus problematic for me to be a practicing architect (which I am) as architecture, when not questioned for its political implications, would necessarily serve this dominant power.

You take the example of an architecture competition for a given city that you have been to participate to after that the political ‘spirit’ of this project has been already negotiated, and you say that architects have to consider this spirit as a given they need to work with. I could not disagree more. If this politics does not correspond to the architect’s personal ethics, I consider that (s)he should either refuse the commission or propose an alternative that would radically change this politics. Would (s)he design an office building whose construction would involve the destruction of hundreds of homes ? Would (s)he design a prison ? Would (s)he design an Israeli settlement in the West Bank ? Those are as extreme as ordinary examples but there is no reason that such questioning does not function for smaller political impacts.

As architects we are accountable for participating to the implementation of a politics centered on the bodies as, by its physicality, architecture is indeed inherently violent on those same bodies. In most countries of the world (the case of many South American countries is interesting as an alternative), one live either in the tyranny of an authoritative power or in the cogs of a capitalist system (sometimes both !); in both case, the body is captured, literally in the first case and for its production capacities and its desire in the second one. Architecture is deeply linked to this capture and I consider as the role of those who participate to  its process of creation (architects, but also a lot of other people) to be aware of that. From there, I believe that a creative process can involve this violent power of architecture (which cannot be diffused anyway) as a form of political resistance against the subjectivization of the bodies by a dominating power. It obviously does not mean that those bodies will be liberated by architecture but simply that they would be able to negotiate a certain form of ‘sympathy with the obstacle’ (quoting Reza Negarestani).

I would like to finish this response by recognizing that it might be easier for me to affirm this list of principles than for somebody who is confronted to them on a daily basis as well as struggling to survive economically, nevertheless I think that one should simply not make concessions without being able to carry their responsibility.

Thank you for your time

12 Comments on “# ARCHITECTURAL THEORIES /// A Conversation with Patrik Schumacher

  1. Wow, it’s quite incredible to actually encounter someone consciously espousing Schumacher’s view! There seems to be a total foreclosure of politics involved. The way I read it, he’s arguing that politics is a totally immaterial process unaffected by the material distribution of the world — which is a nonsense in my view.

    His only imagination of an architecture that opposes the political status quo is that an architect deliberately undermines the interests of the client or other stakeholders — a severe poverty of imagination!

  2. guys, thanks for you comments …
    obviously an architect might refuse certain commissions that go against his/her ethico-political outlook … this kind of renunciation of work would rightly be admired at a principled stance …
    another matter is oppositional political activism via architectural design … I still insist that this is neither feasible nor justfiable because it would undermine legitimately formed rights … if you say that these rights are not legitimately formed and you do not trust in the political-legal system to remidy this then you might want to get engaged within the political system directly and test there your intuitions, expose them to critical ebate, convince others etc. …. staying within architecture as an individual saboteur cannot work (Carl Douglas, why don’t you give us a piece of your imagination?)
    Leonard, it seems you are living a contradiction … you are a practising architect within a regime you consider oppressive and it seems you consider your practice to be complicit with this regime … I recommend you either adjust your practice to your theory ot vice versa.
    my position on these issues is fully formulated in Volume 2 of my ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’ which will be available this spring.

  3. Patrik,
    interesting slip-up on my name !
    I am glad that you understand the contradiction that I live in, however I have to stress the fact that a contradiction is not an antinomy. As complex as it is to work simultaneously with the two axioms that you enunciated for me, I actually tend to think that this effort is precisely what can achieve an interesting output.

  4. Apparently Mr. Shumacher haven’t heard of the real avant-garde (not as he pretentiously assumes) that went on to use architecture as a tool of political propaganda an activism. It takes only to flip through the pages of a history book to understand how negligent and bland his argument becomes.
    Just as architects can also sabotage banal programs and be responsible for what they build and their political implications. For example if you as an architect knowingly get a commission un-democratically and instead of doing a building for the public (with public money) go ahead a do some banal private, urban cancelling project, then you are being completely political, and creating a problem.

    Architects can be problems, and solutions, to think that we just ‘respond’ to the market, and to the political agendas is just assuming a laissez faire attitude.

    Just to give you some examples of how the architecture apparatus can be political (created as tools of power) you can look at the work of Albert Speer. I will recommend you Dejan Sudjic: The Edifice Complex to see some more examples or the research of Eyal Weizman on how architecture is used in Israel as a political tool.

  5. I think it’s really generous of Patrick to take the time to read and formulate and answer to all the comments. I also think he and the practice he works in, have all the right in the world to engage and create design solutions in which ever way they seem fit. They should also have total freedom in the academic arena to propose, explain and even try to spread whichever conceptual frameworks they choose. But I think the key problem I have with Patrick’s position in particular is not his talent, commitment to his office and students or even his theoretical position. The key problem for me is the tone in which he delivers his ideas and the undertone of ‘this is the only truth and only path’. I think its very conterproductive to try to erradicate the compateition ( in terms of trying to discredit all other streams of thought within academia…..which was the initial aim of Patrick’s article which sparked this whole discussion). I have to go back to my comments on Leopold’s initial post and say that yes, i do agree with Patrick that the visual fetish some schools ( very high percentage) in the UK have for dystopian, apocalyptic, meachanical, etc is not teaching the most appropiate lessons to the students in regards to the core architectural issues ( which again to me are mainly a dialogue between structure, space, tectonics, form and programme….and how this dialogue is constructed and interwoven to express a message). But i also feel by the same token, that the production that comes out of places associated to Patrick like the AA’s DRL suffers from the same deficiencies. I have been to DRL jurys, I have had DRL coleagues, I have studied under DRL tutors and I have to say with all honesty there is no architectural knowledge ( in the traditional sense) being imparted there. So you could say….while the Bartlett clones waste their time with dystopia and hand sketches that all look the same, the DRL clones waste their time with grasshopper, maya, processing etc. Again I bring forward the analogy of the democratic and republican parties in the US……now more than ever it is obvious that both parties are the same, paid by the same people….they just offer opposing flavours of the same corruption. In the same way, have an education system where tutors just become famous because of the gimmicky imagery they show on their school websites ( be it maya and parametrics or robots in brixton). So the thing that to me becomes the most problematic is the insistence in indoctrinating the students and trying to sell off one’s snake oil as the real one and only miracle cure ( i think Eric Owen Moss said it the best on his debate with Patrick). I think as educators we all should have a space to stand up and preach our ideas if we are really convinced that they will have a positive impact in the student’s professional future, but always allowing for the student to decide for himself, and actually encouraging him to look at other streams and directions. I think Patrick is definetly right…there is a big problem in the UK schools……there are these two behemoths the Bartlett and the AA ( where I would say DRL stands out the most and represents the school at least infront of international students) which influence one way or another all the other schools. We all know how many of these strong famous tutors have connections and influences that go beyond the academic environment…..( getting you jobs, being jurys in international competitions, maybe even getting you projects) so the sphere of influence and the anxiety to belong to one of these camps is just to overwhelming to the vast majority of students. I wonder, wouldnt it be great for a tutor to tell his students, hey this is all the knowledge I have and all the interesting theories I have developed…..why dont you now go and learn some other things from some other talented people and come up with you own? why dont you go and challenge my doctrines ans think for yousellf?

    So to conclude….I think both camps ( patrick’s and the rest) produce very engaging imagery……but obviously the focus is not on the students learning, the focus is on the tutors self promotion, on the fame of the school abroad in developing countries ( where students have the money to pay to come to study) . on showcasing these tutors and their offices in these developing countries to get new commissions. Just see this almost obsene proliferation of AA visting schools, of Columbia ‘LAB’s’ ( my alma mater)…….what are these schools implying? that architecture education in India, Brazil, China, Russia, etc is not to the level of American and British education? isnt this a type of arrogant cultural imperialism?. Why is it the AA having dozens of schools abroad?…..why is there not a chinese school sending out satellites to the west? or an iranian or an indian school? is their architectural tradition less than ours? ( maybe in fact they dont do it because there is no money or projects to be won here in the west). I think in a small scale this prevalence of the strong tutor figure who develops a style of imagery ( sorry but after really studying projects from many schools up close, imagery its all that it is) and indoctrinates his students in it and tries to discredit everyone else’s ways of thinking is the same approach as cultural domination…..cultural colonialism….trying to impose your truth over others. Then I think the really interesting thing would be to dig deep into the reasons of why these tutors engage in this behaviour…..are they just ego maniacs? is it for potential money interests perhaps? surely is not for the benefit of the students, as I think indoctrination is surely an antithesis to education right?

  6. I do not see how blogging, lecturing and publishing articles/books amounts to “indoctrination”. I guess we are all just entering ongoing debates or initiating new ones. …. this is not more or less self-serving than anything else anybody else does in whatever arena of society. … I gues we all serve ourselves best if we can offer something that other people (in our field or beyond) find enlightening or inspiring. I could be as suspicious of Eduardo’s motives as he is of the motives of “famous tutors”. Its more productive to engage directly with the arguments.
    … I support the AA visiting schools as a great opportunity for foreign students to get a taste of the AA and for the AA alumnis to keep the conversation going. To talk about “domination” and “cultural colonialism” is absurd. I am certain that Eduardo would not refuse to teach at a visting school in China.
    With regards to AADRL investment in computational techniques: such investment can be very productive and we try to demonstrate this by forging meaningful innovative projects. That the results are often unresolved and overly exuberant, and thus vulnerable to criticism can be admitted without throwing us indiscriminately into one with the Bartlett. By the way I have the feeling that the Bartlett is trying to move away from the legacy of Peter Cook and Neil Spiller.

  7. Patrick, again I have to say that it really says a lot about your commitment to architectural discussion that you take time from your busy schedule to interact with us. I sincerely thank you for that.
    In terms of all the vast responses to Leopold’s post and in relation to your article which started this whole discussion, I think all the people who posted their opinions had many different angles and actually where referring to slightly different things. So I thought it would be good for myself to clarify the key ideas I tried to put forward in the first place.
    I basically found it ironic that in your article you conveyed the idea that schools in the UK who repeatedly engage in dystopian, detached from reality projects were not teaching their students the necessary tools to be successful in a ‘real’ architectural work environment.
    I found it ironic because on the one had I totally agree with you….during the last couple of years the projects I have seen shortlisted on the President’s Medals are based more on their degree of compliance with a certain drawing / graphic style and style of topic, than with any deep understanding, deep exploration, deep questioning or just reference to (A)rchitectural topics. I wouldn’t mind robots of Brixton, and any socio political comment they wanted to make….but I did mind that this project was more preoccupied showing a mastery in animation and industrial design and not a pertinent ( as its meant to be an architecture degree granting project) preoccupation with architecture. I didn’t see any comment on spatial characteristics, formal characteristics, ways in which a building is put together, materials selection that could enforce the political message the student was trying to convey, reference to any past historical / theoretical examples etc. Sure, maybe this is the way the profession is going….but for all this experiments that stand on the edge of what can be called architecture, the conditions that created the need for architecture are still present and valid…..so my sole comment is….shall this be labelled architecture? Or shall we split it in architecture and experimental architecture?
    Now finishing the ‘way I found it ironic’ bit….I do so because Patrick, with all due respect to the immense amount of effort and dedication you, the rest of the tutors and the students put in to the school’s work every year, I do feel these agendas and engagements teach the students in your camp, as much about the realities of ‘real work’ as the lets call them ‘dystopian’ clones. As I did not study at DRL I can only comment about the examples I have seen interacting with ex DRL students in the professional arena, and with the juries I have been lucky to attend to. Its impossible for me to summarize all the anecdotic occurrences but I will list a couple of recurring themes which made me feel that the programme was lacking in terms of preparing students to jump into the office environment.

    Firstly, I always noticed that in most project you never see a human figure for scale….you see amazing section that look like bone structure, you see renderings of urban spaces, but you never see people on them…..Chimera, Shampoo and other amazing projects…..projects that went into detail to take the formal strategy of the big scale, into 3d sections of apartments, rooms, etc……but refusing to show people. And I find this problematic because I feel that students are hesitant to show people because it undermines the ‘DRL asthetic’. Now surely there is the possibility that the students have actually done a lot of sketch work and analysis of how the architectural spaces they are creating will interact with their human users…..and in the end purely for aesthetic concerns regarding their renderings they have chosen not to show human figures using their spaces. But I doubt it. I doubt it because I have been there and done that. And I doubt it as well because I work with some of these people, and I know they don’t know how to design for human inhabitation…( neither did I after graduating from Columbia…..i did though after graduating from my 3rd world school).
    Secondly, I’ve noticed the prevalence of the digital process over the material construction reality, For example using processing to come up with an interesting three dimensional structure, and only afterwards thinking how would you build it in an efficient way. And sure, ive noticed that now more students are incorporating ‘material constraints’ a priori…..but the focus is always to prove that yes you can build the unorthodox geometry that comes out of maya or processing….nevertheless I always wonder why would you? From a purely anti-entropic point of view…why waste your time with proving ‘I can build this’ when there are much more clever, subtle, architectural approaches that are more embedded into a building. Why would you have double curvature glass, to achieve a free flowing form? Is in not more logical to try to get the most common piece of glass and try to make something good out of it?…… my gut feeling is that the freedom of expression within the computer screen that these pieces of software give us and the elimination of any constraints that building technology and huge capital provide some ‘lucky’ architects actually makes us less ‘clever.’ I find this ‘anything is possible’ attitude not positive at all. I really liked what Zaha said in her discussion with you, in the part where she muses about a scenario in which she would have been taught like that:

    http://www.aaschool.ac.uk//VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=1514

    Again Patrick, I don’t want to undermine the effort put into the work carried out at the school, I just want to ask, do you think the digital techniques taught at the DRL programme are superior in terms of real life work advantage over the digital techniques used in all the dystopian projects? I think we will all have our answers and points of view of course….and we can’t generalize all students, but I think this discussion about weather going for ‘dytopian’ or going for ‘elegance’ is irrelevant. I think architects of the past like Corbu, Mies, FLW, Khan, Utzon, etc, drew all their architectural genius from thinking about society, about politics, about the human condition PLUS they were all master builders….i just don’t see any high profile school producing students who are willing to be like this anymore. Again, you can say that that’s the past and the profile of the architect is different now….but I would ask if that’s an evolution or a devolution of the profession? Because sure, architects are building bigger now….but I don’t know if you can say with all the advantages we have now, that we are designing better.

    I think this is just a mirror of society and devolution of quality in general….you can see it in the film and music industry now….nobody in their right mind would argue that musicians now are better than musicians from 20-30-40 years ago…and never mind from centuries past. I sometimes think that the whole circus of the schools, and secretive digital techniques, and end of the year shows and visting schools, its basically a show like the X-factor. And I say it in a very serious tone. All show no substance, weather this show is a parametric themed show, or a dystopian-grotesque show. I feel we are all going for quick-affect. I feel Eisenman is right when he says that in an airport bookstore there are a lot of books, but zero literature.

    Also to end, I’d like to quickly address the responses you give on your post above.
    1-on indoctrination: I don’t claim that blogging or teaching or lecturing is indoctrination. I commented on my post that the way in which you put parametrism as the only viable way forward sounds like indoctrination. So I am mainly commenting on your one. I think your discussion with Eric Owen Moss is very interesting to summarize this argument

    http://www.aaschool.ac.uk//VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=1505

    2-on me being interested on a visiting school in china: I love teaching, but I my soul was crushed by helping out a diploma unit and seeing the reality of what goes on. But even if the answer was yes, I’d love to teach a visiting school in china….my argument wasn’t about us wanting or not wanting to teach in china, it was about why would china want us over there? dont they have their own architectural traditions? Is the knowledge exchange the same between china and us? Are there the same numbers of visiting schools sprouting out of china as they sprout from the AA?…sure London ‘is like an aircraft carrier’ where bright minds convey and this cosmopolitan aura makes the AA a great incubator of thought….but I am guessing hong kong is the same right?. So my point was not about how beneficial it would be for me to teach a visiting school in china….is exactly the opposite….what does china gain from any visiting school?……( of course if we think ‘they’ are inferior to us, if we think their architecture, methods and techniques are less then us…then yes, they do gain from us going over there). So what I point out is the imbalance…..like when the Amerindians where blessed with the culture the Spanish conquistadores brought them. Or when the rest of the world gets the prevailing culture of the west…..a local mcdonalds or a starbucks..
    Or better actually when Monsanto sells terminator seeds to Farmers in india:….sell them seeds that are sterile, and also kill the local viable crops, so then each crop cycle, the farmers need to go back to Monsanto to buy their exclusive patented seeds. I think it’s a great metaphor….to the visiting schools, sell your knowledge, package it in such a way that it undermines the local knowledge, so the locals then have to go back to the source of the visiting school to keep getting the knowledge….It’s crack whore economics…..its the mortgage default crisis….( I personally think this is the outcome and this is the pattern that arises….but I want to say that I truly don’t believe people involved in visiting schools have this agenda in mind….i think they truly have a positive motivation….but then again good intent does not guarantee good outcome)

    3-on giving digital techniques a too prominent role in terms of architectural production within schools:
    I’d say Zaha said it best on the link I posted above.
    Thanks again sincerely Patrick for taking time to discuss with us. Again all I’ve written might seem to you or to other people totally out of place. And as I mentioned earlier, I think we all are meaning to do our best…

  8. I have to admit I must almost implicitly agree with Mr. Schumacher on the above-formulated issues.
    A lot of unreferenced and unexplained mumbo-jumbo on Leonards ;) part imho I’m afraid, although I acknowledge it’s trickier to write in foreign language. I would elaborate but with all respect it’d be too much to write so I rather channel my energy into other avenues.
    Some of the comments really make me smirk :)

  9. Pingback: # ARCHITECTURAL THEORIES /// Open-Letter to Mr. Patrik Schumacher: Yes, Architects are Legitimized and Competent to address the Political Debate | The Funambulist

  10. (SIDENOTE, not addressing the topic of archi education in general (good luck with that) but rather the Presidents Medals)

    i gave a quick peak to Presidents Medals website (part of the subject of the original article by Mr Schumacher) and couldn’t find the criteria based on which the entries are judged
    Is it graphical presentation? originality? or something else? mix of all of them? …
    it is hard enough to compare same subject entries in a competition, and i think, it is nearly impossible to compare totally different projects from all over UK…
    graphical presentation is probably the easiest (the only thing) to compare, even if it doesn’t speak directly about the architectural qualities of the project.

    bottomline: each award, Presidents Medals included, has a subjective point of view… deal with it… D’You Know What I Mean?

    (Juror A: So, guys, which one do you find more socially pertinent, that lunar DNA-research-clinic or the house for schizoprenic-cyborg with asthma?
    Juror B: Both are great, but the cyborg house East facade is not insulated enough by far…
    Juror B: Yep, you’re right, Moon clinic it is then…
    Juror C: Let’s go for a pint fellas…)

  11. eduardo,
    As a Columbia grad it seems you have run out of steam and instead of engaging or investigating you are trying to justify a resort to conventional endeavors and claiming progress as a myth.

    Please spare us from nostalgia and listen to some Crystal Castles

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