Patrik Schumacher’s WAF speech revealed him as an apologist for the politics of disposability, with no respect for the registers of care, compassion, and democratic vision, says Ian Ritchie
An inability to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness is not a mark of intellectual audacity. There is nothing wrong with self-interest. If Patrik Schumacher, in his keynote speech at the World Architecture Festival, had said that under his aegis ZHA architects would focus only on the wealthy clients who allow them to exercise their creativity to the fullest, free of much regulation, one could understand, though the practice and executors of Zaha Hadid’s will have since issued a statement asserting the contrary. The moral fault lies in trying to disguise selfishness and by trying to persuade oneself and then others that it can be turned it into a laudable and sustainable philosophy.
Regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum, it is unfortunate that Schumacher revealed himself as a thinly disguised apologist for the politics of disposability and neo-liberal ideology. He is prepared to assault the social contract with the pernicious logic of exceptionalism. The people dismissed so casually in this faux-argument are not faceless units in the capitalist machine, but human beings, with hopes, aspirations and interests – just as he has – though with many, many more fears. These key workers, without whom our cities do not function, also have children who aspire to good things.
‘Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day,’ Walt Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871), ‘there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.’
Schumacher’s solution: give the free market complete control of housing and public spaces and everyone will benefit
This logic leads to the destruction of social bonds and modes of collective reasoning, the destruction of public spheres and cultural apparatuses crucial to a sustainable society.
It would be unjust to describe Schumacher’s WAF speech simply as an offensive entrepreneurial capitalist manifesto, although much of what he said was clearly unacceptable to those people in the audience, including myself, possessing a social conscience.
Schumacher’s point that planning regulations and density standards need a rethink is legitimate, as is his reference to Oliver Wainwright’s criticism of the leeway given to planners to interpret design and planning rules, which creates excessive cost and uncertainty to housing developers. It is also true that the vast majority of English housing development is undertaken by private enterprise. However, like his other theses for ‘solving’ the housing crisis – some extreme, some less so – it essentially promotes the same solution: give the free market complete control of housing and public spaces and everyone will benefit. The evidence is that an unrestrained free market does not and will not work.
With the zeal of a recent convert to capitalism, Schumacher comes across as a spokesman for a hyper-competitive free-market ideology in which the responsibilities of citizenship are reduced to the demands of a consumer culture. Here, civic virtue is measured by the individual’s degree of financial success and disproportionate consumption of resource, eg empty houses, and the concept of progress is defined by the yardstick of data, empiricism and efficiency. The registers of care, compassion, and democratic vision are all lost, as are the discourses of community, justice, equality, and the common good. This is invidious. It implies knowledge of the cost of everything and respect for nothing but entrepreneurial values, which has profound consequences that, whether we like it or not, need reiterating.
Unrestrained free market capitalism is a simple algorithm. It optimises, harshly and blindly, whatever the market values at any given moment. Evolution uses a similar algorithm, for which the currency is genes rather than capital. It is not an intelligent algorithm, and arguing that it should be used to design the built world is weak and feeble thinking.
Noam Chomsky observed that this neoliberal mode of austerity and precarity is part of a business model ‘designed to reduce labour costs and to increase labour servility’ while at the same time making clear that ‘what matters is the bottom line’.
The legitimation of systemic economic uncertainty and precarity of housing under the umbrella of ‘entrepreneurism’ and consumption, privatisation and deregulation, undermines the sense of communal responsibility for the wellbeing of others. Let us be in no doubt; this puts democratic values and social protection at great risk. We need only use our eyes and pay attention to recent events. It will promote the growth of the precariat and foment social unrest, which will affect everyone.
‘Insecure people make angry people, and angry people are volatile, prone to support a politics of hatred and bitterness,’ writes Guy Standing in The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.
Schumacher has been consistent in his criticism of what he sees as the architectural profession’s unnecessary focus on social housing
Schumacher’s protest that he was simply being provocative and trying to stir debate is disingenuous and should not be allowed to serve as a free pass to say anything and then negate any ill intent. It is also puerile, though timely, when Oxford Dictionaries makes ‘post-truth’ the word of the year. The use of boundary testing to see what one can get away with is something we’ve seen rather too much of lately, and a large part of Western society seems to have landed itself in a post-truth maelstrom.
What Schumacher said was unambiguous. For a long time he has been consistent in his criticism of what he sees as the architectural profession’s unnecessary focus on social housing. In this speech he went so far as to state that there is no increase in homelessness; the contrary evidence is that it has increased in London by more than 10 per cent per annum since 2010. How much more objectionable could one be in the context of praising wealthy owners of second homes in London who give ‘key parties – these are amazing multiplying events’ which make our speaker ‘very happy’?
In his subsequent apology it is interesting to note that he appears not to apologise for what he said, but that it caused his friends and colleagues embarrassment. His regret is not for saying that some Londoners are more entitled to live in the centre of the city than others, but for the ugly image he has now acquired. He won’t touch again upon the topics he discoursed about with such conviction not because some of the demands he made then are offensive, but because the topics are ‘too sensitive’ to discuss and he puts the onus on others for not having understood what he was trying to say. If, in spite of what he said, he dreams of a caring inclusive society – although how that squares with the content of his speech is hard to understand – he needs to learn how to express himself more clearly.
Architectural dreams are never neutral. To the degree that they have an impact in organising a future for others, they always have a political and moral dimension. We have to decide what kind of future we are helping to create; one in which the great majority of the population have the opportunities necessary to lead satisfying lives, or one in which a tiny minority of wealthy individuals use the rest of the world as a playground.
In an age in which the level of worldwide income disparity has begun to alarm even policymakers at the highest level, any architect who acts as an apologist for a culture of commodified self-interest and Darwinian survival-of the-fittest ethic that disconnects urban planning from public values, the common good and democracy itself, needs to be reminded by the rest of the profession that expression of his personal views needs to be tempered also by their impact on the architectural profession as a whole. Alienating the very people on whom we all depend and must build relationships with – the clients, the public, the local and statutory authorities, whose funding and permission is needed in order to make any potential architectural project a reality – in the search for personal publicity and self-advertisement is not intelligent.
Architects are often placed between the world of creativity and the world of capital and they must mediate, not necessarily choose a side. What we need most from our profession is an intelligent approach to planning and design for our shared future world, and one that promotes a better environment and society for everyone. A wealthy country which is unable or unwilling to house all its people, educate its youth and care for its elderly and sick is a country which is failing – it is uncivilised in the most basic sense of the word. Responsible people in our profession should work with politicians to change this state of affairs.