NEWS FEATURE: What does Patrik Schumacher’s extraordinary email, leaked to the AJ last week, tell us about his practice’s leadership succession – and esprit de corps? Richard Waite reports
It is difficult to gauge what on earth is happening at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). The latest revelation, an email by current practice principal Patrik Schumacher attempting to quash speculation about internal rifts, which was leaked to the AJ, suggests those within the practice are also unsure about the company’s current direction.
Anyone would find it difficult to take forward an architectural brand like Zaha Hadid Architects, without its mould-breaking figurehead. Unless a detailed succession plan is in place, the loss of an eponymous founder inevitably leaves a void.
So when Schumacher, the heir apparent to Hadid, her collaborator since 1988 and the new public face of the firm, started making controversial speeches, it caused problems, not least because many among the firm’s 400-strong workforce objected to their content, too.
Shortly after Zaha Hadid’s unexpected death at the end of March last year, Schumacher had spoken confidently in the New York Times about ZHA being a ‘viable, vibrant address for major work of cultural importance’. The same article, published in April, quoted ZHA’s chief executive Mouzhan Majidi as saying: ‘She left us at the busiest time ever.
‘We feel very confident that we will carry on and go forward with her vision and her legacy and the experimental research she established in the office.’
Forest Green Rovers competition
Indeed, everything at the architectural powerhouse appeared to be moving along steadily and surely. The company scooped 10 major new projects last year, including the new Forest Green Rovers Stadium in Stroud and the St Kilda Road residential tower in Melbourne, Australia.
The practice went on to be named the AJ100’s fastest-growing practice and ploughed on with more than 50 projects in 27 countries – the highest number of ongoing schemes at any time in its history.
In early May representatives from Bournemouth Borough Council visited the practice and were sufficiently impressed by the post-Hadid set-up to task ZHA with designing the town’s £25 million cultural quarter project overlooking Poole Bay.
And, although some staff decided to move on – and were replaced – the wins and accolades kept coming.
In a talk about Hadid’s legacy, Schumacher claimed: ‘I am as much an author of the works of the practice as she is’
Yet the idiosyncratic behaviour of Schumacher, suddenly no longer in Hadid’s shadow, began to surface at the Venice Biennale where observers noted how he was becoming increasingly vocal about his own strident views.
In a talk about Hadid’s legacy at the Battle of Ideas on 22 October, Schumacher admitted that he was ‘struggling with the perception that the oeuvre of the practice was attributable to just one person’. ‘I am as much an author of the works of the practice as she is,’ he claimed.
But it was at the World Architecture Festival in November that Schumacher dropped his biggest bombshell – a challenging urban manifesto in which he proposed that social housing be scrapped, Hyde Park built on and all public space privatised.
During the same address in Berlin he called social housing tenants ‘freeriders’ and ‘privileged’, adding that it was unfair that they were keeping more productive workers, including those at ZHA, from living in the centre of London. If before he had confined himself to parametricism and design theory in his lectures, now he was airing polemics.
While the initial response was muted, the story slowly began to snowball, culminating in a front page story in London’s Evening Standard in which Schumacher was criticised by London mayor Sadiq Khan. This was followed by protests against Schumacher and a picket of ZHA by Class War and the London Anarchist Federation.
Soon after, on the evening of 28 November, the executors of Hadid’s will – her niece Rana Hadid, former Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo and artist Brian Clarke – took the unexpected step of issuing a statement saying the late architect ‘would have been totally opposed to these views and would have disassociated herself from them’.
If everyone at the practice was fully behind Schumacher, why would anyone leak the email?
The next day, a similarly chastening statement was issued by the practice. It asserted that Schumacher’s views did not reflect the studio’s future direction and that the company was dedicated to honouring Zaha’s legacy, ‘working with passion and commitment to design and deliver the most transformational projects for all’.
According to Schumacher’s email, which was sent from Hong Kong hours later and copied to all staff, this statement was issued without the authorisation – express or otherwise – of the company’s directors. It was the well-meaning damage limitation efforts of ZHA’s head of press, Roger Howie, gone rogue, the email suggested. There was no internal problem. There was unity in the practice and Schumacher himself was firmly in charge.
But one has to ask: if everyone was fully behind Schumacher, why would anyone leak the email, knowing that its contents would lead to more articles about both him and the company?
And, notwithstanding the immense risk the experienced Howie would have been taking to have issued such a statement without the authority of the firm’s leadership, why was it that other press contacts at ZHA had issued similar statements on behalf of the practice the night before Howie’s ‘heroic solo effort’, saying that ‘Patrik’s personal discussions [did] not reflect the views of the practice’ and that it was ‘our understanding that Patrik was brainstorming his thoughts to raise awareness and broaden dialogue towards finding solutions to critical issues’?
Despite repeated requests, no one within ZHA has been willing to talk to the AJ about the email leak and the managerial structure of the practice - though Schumacher did address some of the issues in a frank interview with website Architizer (see below).
But confidentially, sources within the practice have told the AJ that some employees, even at the highest level, felt very uncomfortable about Schumacher’s manifesto and supported Howie’s press release.
Meanwhile, email leaks are doing nothing to assure those on the outside that there is unity within the practice and a steady hand on the tiller.
It is unknown, especially given the suddenness of her death, whether Hadid herself had drawn up a clear succession plan.
What is clear from the rumblings within the practice is that there are those who feel that Schumacher’s personal views have no place in the future of the practice and are not what Hadid would have wanted.
Extract of Fighting Talk interview with Schumacher in Architizer
’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.
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.’
Schumacher’s email in full