"It is time to stop listening to Patrik Schumacher" says Phineas Harper

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"It is time to stop listening to Patrik Schumacher"

Patrik Schumacher's vision for a deregulated and privatised city is nothing more than a rehash of failed establishment ideas, and we shouldn't pay any attention, argues Phineas Harper in his latest Opinion column.


How exhilarating, an architect's lecture has made the mainstream news. Not only has the speech - first reported by Dezeen - been picked up by the London Evening Standard, but it made their front page. Inside, London mayor Sadiq Khan provided in-depth quotes responding directly to the architect's many proposals. Social media networks have lit up with public discussion of the manifesto. Finally architecture is contributing to political discourse. Surely this is a breakthrough for the profession, a moment to savour? Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact it is an embarrassing affair which will have damaged the reputation of architecture in the minds of many. Zaha Hadid Architects' director Patrick Schumacher's jaw-dropping attack on council tenants, civil servants, public parks, national infrastructure and more left many speechless with frustration.

Giving a keynote lecture slot at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin, Schumacher unveiled an urban vision of hyper-exaggerated "laissez faire" economics with total faith placed in "the market" to solve all conceivable problems. It came across like a satire of Hayekian economic theory, distorted to grotesque absurdity and applied without nuance to modern cities, except he meant it.

His position is nothing more than a sound bite repeating the word "market" while Rome burns

Schumacherism is a rehash of failing establishment ideas taken to extreme conclusions. It offers nothing but colourful clickbait for those who get a kick from online outrage, yet it is not the man himself we should decry but our own industry which again and again provides him with high-profile platforms. Schumacher is invited to give lectures around the world. Magazine editors seek him as a guest contributor. Just this week the Guardian ran a nearly 2000-word profile exploring his ideas and background. Why? His position is superficially eye-catching for its Katie Hopkins-like callousness but is nothing more than a sound bite repeating the word "market" while Rome burns.

This September at an Architecture Foundation debate I saw Schumacher argue in favour of child labour claiming that for under 18s to "fulfil their potential in the marketplace" it is necessary to abolish laws which prevent kids from being put to work. Later I saw him tell a recent graduate to her face that she would be doing better in life if her family had not claimed benefits during her childhood. These are not the arguments of a wise man who understands society's ills and hopes to confront them. They are a dogmatic denial of reality – a fantasy that complex problems have simple solutions.

The fact that the architecture world continues to give Schumacher airtime reveals the intellectual weakness of our profession, unable to see through the specious dogma. Are we really so cowed by fame that we lose all critical capacity when confronted with an outspoken starchitect? Everyone loves to have a devil's advocate to stir things up, but the ideas behind Schumacherism are just the broken neoliberal position with go-faster stripes and a spoiler. The time has come to change channel. It is time to stop listening to Patrik Schumacher.

The fact that the architecture world continues to give Schumacher airtime reveals the intellectual weakness of our profession

It is on economics where Schumacherism really falls apart. Ben Clark, a London-based urban designer whose paper on funding new cities was awarded a Wolfson Economics Prize by the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange, takes a dim view.

"It's economically illiterate" argues Clark. "If laissez faire politics is his thing, Patrik Schumacher should try learning from the likes of Adam Smith, godfather of 'the free market'. Smith never saw the 'invisible hand' of the market working alone, and had a sophisticated understanding of the role of the state. In his seminal text the Wealth of Nations, Smith recommends using some of the rents within cities to pay for public services, for example. Simply privatising and deregulating absolutely everything down to the last park and street as Schumacher proposes is sheer market fundamentalism, and will only intensify our current crisis."

Schumacher made the comments during a keynote speech at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin, which was live-streamed by Dezeen and can be watched here in full

I do not believe, as some do, that Schumacher is malicious or evil. He is generous with his time, supportive of open debate and seems to have his heart in the right place. I also appreciate the irony that, in calling for less attention to be paid to Schumacher, I am paying attention to Schumacher. But as a profession we need to wake up and act more responsibly. In constantly pushing Schumacherism, we enfranchise him as an unappointed spokesperson for the industry, one who alienates and confuses the very people we need to build relationships with.

Imagine, for example, how Friday must have gone down inside City Hall; the new mayor is asked for the first time in his tenure to urgently consider and reply publicly to an architect's grand proposals, but is then presented with the ideological extremist theories of Schumacher – Khan will surely think twice before giving architects or architecture his time again.

In the aftermath of the Evening Standard article, activists began sharing the ZHA office number online hoping to clog their phone lines with protest calls. A better target might have been EMAP, the company which owns the World Architecture Festival (WAF), as well as the Architects' Journal (AJ). It was WAF after all who gave Schumacher the platform in Berlin, and AJ that published a follow-up article from editorial director Paul Finch branding Schumacher's salvo an "uncomfortable" but "necessary challenge".

Schumacher is not a valuable provocateur. He is not a refreshing new voice

This year has proved that outspoken characters can easily supplant thoughtful examination of the world's problems with untruthful ranting while enjoying a sycophantic media reception. Schumacher is no exception. He is not a valuable provocateur. He is not a refreshing new voice. His proposals lack anything approaching a thoughtful interrogation of the real world. They are like the views of an extremist blinded by ideology but given credence by a fawning architectural press.

He insists the market can solve the housing crisis without having any explanation for why, as the Guardian's Oliver Wainwright has pointed out, "Britain's housebuilders are sitting on 600,000 plots of land with planning permission". He claims the market can produce vibrant fulfilling neighbourhoods while unable to articulate how it is that, as Owen Hatherley has shown in a recent We Made That newspaper, "Left to themselves, particularly when given nearly unlimited space, what developers will do is provide low-rise housing, retail parks, car parks and shopping malls with public space between at the very best an afterthought". He is adamant the market can never make mistakes, but fails to acknowledge the total market failure leading to the 2008 crash.

It is Schumacher himself who seems to have the most healthy attitude to his own ideas. "I'm not certain about what I'm saying," he admits, "but I think these arguments are worth floating". It is high time the architecture world took away the arm bands and let them sink.