The PC [politically correct] takeover of architecture is complete: the Pritzker Prize has mutated into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now “to serve greater social and humanitarian needs”, and the new laureate is hailed for “tackling the global housing crisis” and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.
I respect what Alejandro Aravena is doing and his "half a good house" developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high-density urban civilization.
I would not object to this year’s choice half as much if this safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern was not part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my view signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage about the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.
— Patrik Schumacher, via Facebook.
Patrik Schumacher’s very public reaction to this year’s Pritzker Prize announcement didn't exactly come as a surprise. The outspoken director of Zaha Hadid Architects seems to have a propensity for controversy and doesn’t shy away from a good altercation with strangers on the social web.
Despite the severity of his words or the platform used to convey them, it would be wise to avoid any temptation to personalize the discussion. There’s likely much more to consider than the mere clash of individual personalities or “styles”. In fact, however inadvertently, his stance portrays the greater divide that stands before the architectural profession in the 21st century.
At the core of this dispute stands a divergent understanding of the role architecture should play in society today. In his repeated affirmation of Parametricism as the paradigmatic style of our era, the forefront of architectural discourse and innovation in an age of globalization and market-led economies, Patrik Schumacher has emphasized the notion that architecture and politics shouldn't be associated.
Socially-engaged practices, such as the one recognized by this year’s Pritzker, stand on the opposite side of the barricade. Architecture should not only be politically engaged, it is inevitably an extension of a political discourse.
Image credits: Hufton + Crow.
The idea that Parametricism, both as a movement or a conceptual discipline, is devoid of politics seems to have correspondence with the neoliberal stance regarding the “amorality” of economic agents – an affirmation that is everything but neutral concerning “morality”. If anything, it is in fact a politically charged manifestation of the ideas of its time. Paradoxically, the term was officially “coined” by Patrik Schumacher in 2008, at the peak of the greatest financial crisis of our generation.
If Parametricism is indeed an architecture of its time, it seems to reflect the peak of an era of irrationalism, the product of forty years of credit-based monetary expansion. A financial, economic, political, social bubble. An architecture fitting for a culture of "non-crisis".
That era, as we know, began its demise in that same year of 2008. And, just as much, Parametricism runs the risk of becoming an architecture of the past, even in its forthcoming manifestations. What does the world of architecture, and architects around the world, have to learn from it? Hyper-structural buildings often characterized by a gross disproportion between the container and its contents, with an inversely proportional relation between the built and the lived; an architecture fiercely engaged in providing to the visitor the ecstasy before its own obesity.
As we are learning fast, bad politics will always result in bad architecture – and that’s something that not all the rhetoric in the world can hide.
Image credits: Vhils.
One question remains though: where is the forefront of architecture today? What epitomizes the vanguard? Aravena’s “half a good house” or the latest curvy condo in NY? If architecture is to affirm any kind of ethical commitment towards society, these interrogations should be acknowledged: do we really care about the cutting-edge skeletal residential tower by the beach in Copacabana, when you have over one million people living in favelas in the background?
By disregarding socially engaged architectural practices, Patrik Schumacher displays a tragic absence of understanding of the profound transformations that are likely to take place in this century. Having exhausted a financial model of debt-based-growth, beyond all sustainability, we are likely to witness unforeseen changes in our economic paradigm that will ultimately impact our professional landscape.
After the downfall of the CDO market and its worldwide ramifications, after the sovereign debt crisis instigated by the same rating agencies that were giving triple-A status to subprime mortgage-based CDOs right before the collapse, after the recession caused by misguided austerity policies that increased unemployment and poverty, we are now witnessing symptoms of an alarming shutdown of the global economy – impacting heavy industrial machinery enterprises, extracting industries, oil and gas companies, and now, financial markets around the world.
Making matters worse, we are simultaneously facing unquestionable signs of the impact of human activity on the planet. During this century, we are likely to face environmental transformations that will impact agriculture and other forms of human production. We will confront water shortage in several parts of the globe and a dramatic need to embrace more sustainable forms of energetic consumption.
Image credits: JR.
All these changes will impact our political and social landscape in ways we cannot yet perceive, but already we are faced with massive migrations, poverty and relentless inequality. And just as much, architecture too will be summoned to participate in the process of finding answers to these manifestations and the ways in which these will be expressed in the built environment. It's only by facing the prospect of these interconnected transformations that we can establish a true notion of what is critically relevant in our times.
This is the great architectural divide that stands upon us today. One may seek refuge in the ivory towers of globalized corporations, with these harsh realities far away from view, and find a comfortable living designing for the one percent. Just don't act surprised if your work is not particularly engaging, and least of all relevant, to the other ninety-nine.