"We need more Schumachers to shake up thinking" says Austin Williams
Patrik Schumacher at World Architecture Festival

"We need more Schumachers prepared to shake up consensus thinking"

Patrik Schumacher's views on housing may be hard for some to swallow, but pressuring him into silence sets a dangerous example, argues Austin Williams in this Opinion column.


Something strange has happened in the past year. Sensible people have taken leave of their senses. Intelligent people have started throwing the word "fascist" around. People who would once have defended democracy are seeking to challenge it. Universities, bastions of free speech, are being admonished for inviting controversial speakers, with lecturers warning students about offensive books and students demanding that unsavoury historical statues be removed from campuses.

Into this heady censorious mix wanders Patrick Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, making one of his customarily blunt speeches at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin. He argued that we shouldn't sanctify social housing, that we should abolish rent controls and privatise public spaces.

Within hours all hell broke loose. It didn't matter that Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing said that "privatisation of public land, the abolition of social housing and rent controls, or the manipulation of planners to push through private developments (is) already being put into practice by London councils". It didn't matter that architect-turned-developer Roger Zogolovitch agreed that scrapping many regulations could solve the UK's housing crisis.

Schumacher's sin was that he has dared to challenge the post-war consensus

Schumacher's sin was that he has dared to challenge the post-war consensus, making him the ultimate hate figure, the neocon, whatever that is. Arguing to dismantle the welfare state has been deemed an act of war (a perception not lost on the Twitterati, who have been posting images of German-born Schumacher replete with a Hitler moustache).

Like Heatherwick's remarkably swift fall from grace for designing a bridge – a pretty good bridge as it happens – Schumacher's transgression was a refusal to sanctify public space. But in some ways it is irrelevant whether we agree with those who end up on the wrong side of something deigned as the orthodoxy. Refusal to fall into line once the shrill critics have had their say seems the real sin. Both Schumacher and Heatherwick have compounded their faux pas by their refusal to capitulate when the moral majority want contrition and an apology.

Hopefully Schumacher will refuse to be cowed. I don't care whether his argument is "economically illiterate" or not a "thoughtful interrogation of the real world", free speech means nothing if people are not allowed to say what they think without being shouted down. I don't agree with his recipe for a market-led nirvana, but free speech is not free if you have to stick to a script.

Architect Ian Ritchie wrote that "being provocative and trying to stir debate is disingenuous, and should not be allowed to serve as a free pass to say anything". There we have it. Schumacher has to learn what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. He crossed the line set by our moral guardians. And that is a lynchable offence these days.

Free speech means nothing if people are not allowed to say what they think without being shouted down

I am sure that some people will say that their response is just harmless banter, that it is their freedom to critique the powerful voices in architecture. Many too will excuse this intolerant behaviour as a legitimate criticism against Schumacher's "offensive ideas". But the tone of a critique that effectively calls for someone to be denied a publishing platform, even suggests they are unfit for their job, smacks of a witch hunt. And the consequences are not harmless, as Jon Ronson showed in So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book that examined the career-destroying phenomenon of social media denunciations.

People have every right to criticise and condemn Schumacher. In fact, he and I have argued over many issues over the years. So I am not offended by the criticism against him, or suggesting he should not be held to account for views that others object to. What I am condemning is the censorious tenor of the debate, and the dangerous consequences of turning on someone for expressing views deemed beyond the pale. Offensive ideas are nothing to be afraid of. We even teach children (or at least we used to) that sticks and stones are one thing but words are nothing to worry about. So the first response to Schumacher's diatribe should not be to reach for the offence button, but to instead grow some balls and maybe argue back.

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

The big issue is that the contempt for Schumacher's speech is being used as a way of clamping down on radical comment. Although carefully presented as individual criticism of the architect's ideas, it is in fact a demand that he be silenced. It is a call on the press to no longer publish certain views and certain people that are deemed unacceptable. We have to recognise the difference between not liking what we hear and turning off, and demanding that the media remove offending opinions.

The press has no obligation to do anything it doesn't want to. If the Sun wants to refuse an article from Jeremy Corbyn, or the Guardian wants to refuse to take an article from Nigel Farage, it is their prerogative. It's called editorial independence. The difference is when we publicly lobby for newspapers not to carry articles by people with whom we disagree. That is a completely different thing altogether. That is a call for censorship. Pure and simple.

We need to calm down and remember that engaging in free and open debate is a hallmark of civilised society

Indeed, within days of the original article on Dezeen, there was a growing coterie of commentators hinting that Schumacher should be removed from his job, or that he should not be allowed to speak at universities. Refusing him a platform is just a politically correct way of saying he should be banned.

Maybe we need to calm down and remember that engaging in free and open debate is a hallmark of civilised society. We need more Schumachers prepared to shake up consensus thinking, daring to say the unsayable, so that we can all reflect on conventional thinking. We need more debate, of whatever shade, not less.

Image courtesy of World Architecture Festival.