"Architecture is not art" says Patrik Schumacher
in Venice Architecture Biennale rant

| 39 comments

Patrik Schumacher portrait

Venice Architecture Biennale 2014: director of Zaha Hadid Architects Patrik Schumacher has taken to Facebook to launch an attack on political correctness in architecture and a perceived trend for prioritising art over form-making.

In a post this morning, Schumacher accused the judges of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale of being motivated by a "misguided political correctness" and said that architects need to "stop confusing architecture and art".

His comments come just a week after Rem Koolhaas revealed that his plans for this year's Venice Biennale would focus on presenting research and the history of architecture, rather than contemporary architecture projects.

"Architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content," said Schumacher.

"We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor - as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency."

An installation documenting the Torre David vertical slum in Caracas won the Golden Lion award for the best project at the last biennale, which was curated by David Chipperfield. Best pavilion was awarded to the Toyo Ito-curated Japanese pavilion, which focused on alternative housing concepts for the homes that were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Two weeks ago, Zaha Hadid responded to questions about migrant worker deaths in Qatar, where her stadium is currently under construction, by saying that architects have nothing to do with the workers. "It's not my duty as an architect to look at it," said Hadid.


Patrik Schumacher's Facebook post in full:

"STOP political correctness in architecture. But also: STOP confusing architecture and art.

"Architects are in charge of the FORM of the built environment, not its content. We need to grasp this and run with this despite all the (ultimately conservative) moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyse us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor - as if the delivery of social justice is the architect’s competency.

"Unfortunately all the prizes given by the last architecture biennale where motivated by this misguided political correctness. STOP political correctness in architecture! And yet, architecture is not a l’art pour l’art discipline. Architecture is NOT ART although FORM is our specific contribution to the evolution of world society.

"We need to understand how new forms can make a difference for the progress of world civilisation. I believe today this implies the intensification of communicative interaction with a heightened sense of being connected within a complex, variegated spatial order where all spaces resonate and communicate with each other via associative logics."

  • redsquirrell

    Whoahhhh. The mind boggles.

  • OnBlaast

    He’s not an architect. He’s a computer programmer.

    • vitruvius

      Architects spend 75% of their time on computers. You picked the wrong profession.

    • Arthur

      Such an arbitrary thing to say. Please develop your thoughts into something that makes sense.

  • Elvis

    What is wrong with peace, love and understanding?

  • Denise

    I’m trying to get my head around how the poor projects are paralysing the progress of world civilisation – help?

  • Nick

    I’m trying to get my own head around how Zaha and Schumacher’s multimillion pound forms have anything to do with the urban poor and not the super-elite? What on earth is he talking about?

  • Thomas Wensing

    Lady Thatcher famously remarked “there is no such thing as society.” Well, apply that to the architecture of the past thirty years. The result has been a profession that has been hollowed out to making ‘intelligent’ form for the 1%, housing shortages and the excesses of billionaire’s row. And if you’re an important figurehead, do not take the opportunity and responsibility to criticise these developments. One may offend the client.

  • Dave

    It’s almost as though even he himself has no idea what he means anymore.

  • Stefan Wülser

    Interesting post which raises a lot more questions than it answers. If architects are not, who is in charge of political correctness of the programming of city space then? Politicians and developers both have other priorities. so if architects focus on the design of the space to cover a program and only questions this part who will ever question the mix of functions in a street?

    Should we rely on a perfectly balanced liberal market where everything regulates itself? Do we need an institution to negotiate between the ideals of city worth living in and the different development (like gentrification) driven by money instead of specialised knowledge and conscious planning?

    A doctor will not only design your artificial hip joint, he will also evaluate if you need one. The fact that a lot of today’s architects focus on content and not form is not a coincidence, it is based on the vacuum in a system with research on one end and empty design on the other. There certainly is need for a link.

    • Peter Farman

      Completely agree. Architecture as with other disciplines can contribute so much to broader society through its ability to organise and structure space in ways that allow end users a freedom to inhabit.

      Rich or poor, conservative or radical – each architectural proposition has a place as long as a genuine level of critique has been applied in its inception.

  • Leandro Llorente

    What is essential is invisible to the eye – Exupery. If form is the architect’s gift to civilisation, it is about a form of “thinking” and the physical form is the least of its concern when defining a primary aim.

  • augar

    Oh the crippling irony. Isn’t the ability to address/affect social context through design exactly what sets architecture above art? Reducing all that social potential to form-making shouldn’t be our aim.

  • Just sayin’

    I think social responsibility should always be everyone’s concern, but it’s a fact that architects are not involved in decision making processes anymore. They are responsible for “how”, not for “what” and “why” unfortunately. In this respect Schumaker’s provocation makes sense to me.

  • TFO

    If I talked to my clients using his cornucopia of words, they would fire me.

    • davvid

      Ugh. More whining about arch-speak.

      • TFO

        I don’t think so. I’m just confused because where he starts is not where he ends. If we are going to have any real impact we’ve got to speak more clearly, succinctly.

        I suppose you could argue he’s talking to his peers, and I buy that. And I’m down with reading and parsing some heavy stuff. But he’s just not being clear.

  • bonsaiman

    Man, you should try to teach your boss architecture is not art. Go ahead, do it NOW!

  • Cantolivre

    To be honest Schumacher’s position is very similar to that of Oscar Niemeyer – a dedicated utopian communist. Architects are not politicians, or even the instigators of the built environment. Poverty reduction, social inclusion etc. are for politicians to solve.

    Architects can influence decisions to social ends, however they are not the ones paying. If society wants more socially inclusive design then they need to start talking to the people that make the rules, architects don’t.

  • Vitruvius

    Fashion is cool. If you don’t see the relationship to architecture, then you must favour stagnation.

    • davvid

      Even fashion responds to societal concerns.

  • James P.

    He’s right. Look at the Beaux-Arts buildings from the City Beautiful movement 100 years ago. They created great structures of value that defined communities for many different uses.

    Every time I see patronising shipping container architecture “for the poor” I cringe. Everyone wants to live in Hadid, Prada, Apple, the best of design. Textured, colourful, useful, spiritually lifting. That’s what Le Corbusier thought – the best for all. Now everyone hates him for it.

    • smack

      No. Everyone hates Corbusier because he had terrible ideas about urbanism and contributed to the ruin of many major cities, but nice try.

      • Peter Farman

        Everyone, interesting generalisation. I would argue that Corbusier’s visions were problematic from certain perspectives but actually arguably very successful from others. Seoul and other rapid globalised cities would support this position.

        • smack

          i was using James’ own phrasing. You’ll notice he said “everyone” hates Corbusier because he created textured, colourful, and useful buildings, which is just a goofy, silly claim and doesn’t adequately explain why some people dislike Corb’s legacy.

    • mitate

      From Peter Behrens onwards, Modernist architects believed in the best simply because simple crisp design demanded it. When there’s no ornamentation to take the eye, everything has to be top quality. Mies was the master of it.

  • ramubay

    “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”

  • mick

    What an hideous post. Let’s just stop being politically correct everywhere! Don’t worry about the poor! Let’s all move to Dubai or whatever.

  • Ben Hurr durr

    Could you be so kind to explain in what way Zaha’s projects are 0% content? I’m really curious to hear your opinion, because people say this quite often. Are they uninhabitable, impossible to use buildings with no doors, stairs, rooms? Are they just giant sculptures that clients get tricked into paying for, but get ‘no-real building’ in return? Have you actually ever been into one of Zaha’s buildings, or at least studied one of the projects beyond three images you see online?

    • Cristin

      I have been to many Zaha buildings in fact. Granted, they are formally beautiful inside and out. Nonetheless, there is a constant shallowness in the larger scale (hence everyone’s criticism). There is no overarching ideology of how the built form affects individuals, or even whole communities.

      This is not critical for them, only form. Not even on sustainability (eg. Qatar’s fully air conditioned stadium). Zaha has taken formal explorations to a whole new level which is what has made her known. Is this enough to make a great architect?

  • farwest1

    Schumacher is confusing two distinct issues here: architecture’s social agency, and its relationship to art. Regarding his art argument, I agree. Architecture has an instrumentality that art does not — it is useful, practical, functional. It has obligations to society and to the urban.

    But that’s where he loses me. Architecture is manifestly about social life and economics. It has many contexts (historical, cultural, geographic) that any good architect engages with before even thinking about form. Then programming and even massing come into play, which configure social space. All architecture is political.

    That’s why what Schumacher and ZHA design strikes me as immature — they play with shapes at a mega scale. They play with patterns. But they don’t use the breadth of skills and disciplines required of a fully engaged architecture.

  • amaury

    Well, if this is a kind of influence then what would happen with the future of architecture representation?

  • TFO

    Haha! Sure. Keep thinking that. 10% of architecture is design, the rest is persuasion of the client, regulators, contractors and public. I like to think I’m giving 100%.

  • https://www.behance.net/marcopaffi Marco

    You are completely right!

  • davvid

    No. He’s saying “MY architecture is going to be for elites”.

  • Jlo

    Zaha is a fashion setter.

  • Marco Geilenkirchen

    I think their work is really spectacular. Almost everything they build transcends its function and becomes, in case of a building, an icon in the city.

    Back in the nineties I was introduced to Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar and at that time I couldn’t see how it would ever lead to human speech because it felt so mechanical.

    Listening to Mr. Schumacher’s story about this new style (the parametricism) one might get the idea of the rise of a new totalitarian order that’s ready to overgrow our cities, but when you in fact look at and listen to what the works say when left speaking for themselves, that’s not the case at all.

  • Tiagof

    Nadir Afonso, 1920-2013

  • Tiagof

    In 1948, Nadir Afonso, in ESBAP defended the thesis “Architecture is not an Art”, directed by Le Corbusie. Just to remember.