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Architecture needs a spokesperson; don’t let it be Patrik Schumacher

Ellis Woodman

Zaha Hadid Architects’ director may be able to grab headlines, but looney-tunes ideas would make him a problematic champion for the profession, says Ellis Woodman

Whatever you make of his politics, one thing Patrik Schumacher cannot be accused of is a want of showmanship. ‘MOVE OUT COUNCIL TENANTS, SAYS STAR ARCHITECT’ read the front page of Friday’s Evening Standard following the Zaha Hadid Architects director’s click-bait speech in Berlin. The paper even roped Sadiq Khan into rebuffing looney tunes proposals for city-centre social cleansing and building over Hyde Park. We can assume it was a slow news day, but hats off to Patrik; he pulled off a media coup of quite epic proportions.

In the Standard’s comments section and on social media, his cheerful readiness to offend was quickly associated with that of America’s president elect. Yet where Trump is a cynical populist, Schumacher most certainly is not. Pricking liberal sensitivities would seem to be as far as his expectations run. We might easily imagine a Schumacher candidacy in the 2020 London mayoral elections but – beyond the local membership of the Ayn Rand fanclub – it is harder to think who might support it.

Schumacher standard headline

Schumacher standard headline

A more pertinent comparison is surely with the grand master of architectural self-publicists, Le Corbusier, who in 1925 proposed replacing two square miles of Paris’s historic city centre with an expanse of cruciform skyscrapers, and decanting the area’s impoverished residents to the city fringe.

Like Schumacher’s assault on Hyde Park, the choice of one of the most picturesque parts of Paris as the site of the Plan Voisin was calculated to push buttons. So too was the preposterously rationalist argument in which Le Corbusier couched the proposal: ‘Heaven preserve us from the Balzacian mentality of [those] who would be content to leave our streets as they are because these murky canyons offer them the fascinating spectacle of human physiognomy! Reason, and reason alone, justifies the most brilliant solutions and endorses their urgency.’ A century later, Schumacher is peddling very much the same tough love.

It would be tempting to dismiss his speech as a harmless wind-up were it not for the fact that Schumacher’s public profile is rapidly eclipsing that of every other architect in the country. Not since Richard Rogers set about defending the profession from Prince Charles’s attacks in the 1980s has a British architect so energetically claimed a role in the public discourse.

Not since Richard Rogers has a British architect so energetically claimed a role in the public discourse

Rogers went on to secure a still more direct relationship with power through his leadership of the Urban Task Force and subsequent role advising London’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone. I am guessing Schumacher is not going to have the ear of Sadiq Khan or Gavin Barwell any time soon, but we might ask which other British architect has the seniority and appetite to claim such a public role?

Certainly, David Chipperfield has not shied from making public pronouncements on the UK’s planning culture and has the profile to ensure that he is heard. Through her work as a commissioner for the National Infrastructure commission, as a columnist for Building magazine and as chair of the Independent Design Panel for HS2, dRMM’s Sadie Morgan has committed herself to a more sustained engagement. But I struggle to think of others.

Given the current vacuum of policy advice, there is a very real need for senior members of the profession to step forward. The government has lacked a statutory adviser on built environment issues since the withdrawal of Cabe’s funding in 2011, while the closure of Design for London two years later significantly reduced the capacity of the architectural and planning team at City Hall. Patrik Schumacher may have the requisite taste for the limelight but he remains a highly problematic spokesman for the profession. It is time for more of his contemporaries to claim their place on the stage.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Someone once said that the overwhelming political motivation of the British middle classes is fear of embarrassment. We saw a fair smattering of that following Brexit, when London's elite fell over themselves in shame to dissociate themselves from those nasty working class Ukipers who had the temerity to disagree with them. And we're seeing it again here with the Schumacher affair.

    It is indicative of the moral timidity of the architectural profession that it has sat by in obedient silence while their clients have employed their skills to pursue a programme of social cleansing through estate demolition that has seen thousands of council homes demolished and tens of thousands of households made homeless, but when Patrik Schumacher talks about building on Hyde Park it's up in arms.

    There is nothing in Schumacher's recommendations - whether about the privatisation of public land, the abolition of social housing and rent controls, or the manipulation of planners to push through private developments - that is not already being put into practice by London councils, builders, housing associations and developers, all aided and abetted by architectural practices like HTA Design, Mae, PRP, Karakusevic Carson, dRMM, Haworth Tompkins, etc.

    Following the Government's Housing and Planning Act, the building of social housing is a thing of the past. Under the estate demolition programme being pursued by Tory and Labour councils alike, social housing is, as Schumacher says, being 'abolished'. Under the mass transfer of council housing stock to housing associations, public land is being privatised. And under the changes to planning legislation, not Hyde Park, but dozens of previously public parks are being handed over to private developers in sweetheart deals. And the Government, while seeing fit to cap benefits that will affect between a quarter and half a million children, has consistently refused to introduce any rent controls.

    While we at ASH disagree with and oppose everything Schumacher has said, he has done nothing more than given voice to the class war that is being waged though housing in this country. I can understand his confusion at what all the fuss is about, and attempts to back pedal. But I'd have thought that, after all the years Patrik has spent in this country, he'd know that in England what you say, not what you do, is what matters.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • I'm not sure why you would call only for senior members of the profession to step forward. They haven't been of much use so far (have they?) and being older does not automatically make you wise or right as well. I would rather see more of my contemporaries taking the stage and shaping the future of the profession, after all we will be in it much longer.

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  • Isn't the translation of Schumacher "cobblers"?

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