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Our digital age demands a whole new architecture – director of Zaha Hadid Architects

All sorts of bizarre forms, buildings made of mushrooms – modern architecture is pushing the boundaries of our imagination and looking into what life might be like in the future. We’ve spoken to architect and philosopher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, Patrik Schumacher.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Patrik Schumacher, welcome to the show. It's great to have you with us. So I'll start with this. The father of skyscrapers, Louis Sullivan, said that form follows function. And then there is Oscar Niemeyer, who said that form follows beauty. So I was wondering which view is closer to your own?

Patrik Schumacher: Maybe Oscar Niemeyer is a bit closer. But what is curious to note is that Louis Sullivan, who coined the phrase which later on was the mantra of modernism of a stripped bare functionalism, was actually the most ornate of all architects. That was the final apotheosis or flowering of an incredibly ornate and rich and virtuoso ornamentation. That's an interesting irony of the history of architecture, but I don't believe in ‘form follows function’ as a design principle. But I do believe in the end that form sustains and supports social functionality, but as a method for designers, I don't believe that. And I believe very much like Oscar Niemeyer in beauty.

SS: So I know that you once said, an architect should be able to understand what is happening now and predict what kind of architecture people will need in the future. And that, in essence, means that an architect needs to be not just an engineer but a futurist as well in some sort of way. So which one of those do you love more in yourself? And does the engineer and the futurist sometime come into conflict with each other?

PS: I'm much more of a futurist, so I make the distinction between architecture and engineering. Architecture is driving innovation in the realm of social functionality. Spaces are for me framing social interaction and communication and are themselves communications, and the engineer is delivering the technical feasibility to make these beautiful spaces of engagement real in the material world, but we are conceptualizing this, we are thinking about how we want to encounter each other in spaces to be and to have interaction processes unfolding. And that's where beauty comes in as well. Spaces which appeal to us, which also signal to us the situation. And in a way beauty, architectural beauty signifies social functionality. So it's not the opposite of function. It's some kind of sensuous messaging and understanding and communication of the function of the space, the character of the space come through its formal expression and a beautiful space means that the space that should be good for us. So we have an intuitive grasp of what is good for us, good food, but also a good space. So you see it's a form of knowledge.

SS: Yeah. And the way you speak, Patrik, is a vivid illustration of the fact that you got a PhD in philosophy. So I wonder how philosophy and architecture go together. How do they mesh together?

PS: Very well, I mean, I just wanted to add one more phrase: the perception of beauty is also emotional intelligence. So we've learned that these are cognitive processes... Yes, architecture and philosophy go together like philosophy goes together with every discipline at its frontier. The protagonists who want to push forward, they always touch philosophy because we're fundamentally questioning the underlying principles and purposes of a discipline. And that happens in every discipline. So philosophy touches all these disciplines at the frontier of innovation.

SS: Your new style, which is called parametricism in architecture, you're saying it's a brand new big global concept which encompasses everything from urban design to fashion. Now, for dummies like me who doesn't have a degree in philosophy, explain in simple words what is it exactly and why is it revolutionary?

PS: OK. Because it's the style of our epoch. Every element of architecture or any design becomes soft, plastic, malleable, valuable and adaptive to the many different contingencies and variants, which our complex social world demands and calls for. And in a space also on new computational design technologies where we can model, simulate and through algorithms proliferate these forms, but also we can now execute them through robotic fabrication and 3D printing, etc. So both on the level of what the world demands in terms of its complex new dynamic life forms and the variability of human interactions and ways of living, and on the technical translation side, the possibility of doing that through new technologies. That means we must be generating a totally new built environment to be true to our time. And it goes through the world of artefacts as well as through architecture, interior, fashion included. It's the style for the computational age, for the knowledge economy fueled by computation.

SS: Exactly the point of my second question. So parametricism is a reaction to time and technology that we are surrounded with, right? It is moving away from the rigid forms, rigid zoning. It's all about fluidity. So is creating a free-form building only possible with the help of a computer?

PS: That's right. The virtuosity of fast information processing and construction, which only machines will afford us - that's what the style is based on, so it will only intensify in the near future, we hope.

SS: Being a futurist in a way, how long do you think parametricism will last in the 21st century?

PS: OK. There that kind of predictability of the futurist ends, that's not understood. What I know is that in order for a new shift to another style to happen, that's not something subjective, that doesn't depend on a creative genius, that depends on the conditions of societal life and material production shifting once more. I can see one possibility on the horizon which might make a big impact, namely if interaction in virtual spaces and telecommunication takes over so much of our life that we no longer have to engage in real space in cities. At the moment, we are living in an era of urban concentration, of simultaneous engagement, where we still congregate in work spaces and social spaces. As long as this happens on that new level of dynamism complexity, we will have parametricism. If life de-materializes where we can become stationary and only interact through communication systems, then the game is up. Something else will happen which has no name yet.

SS: OK, I see. And what do you make of the so-called bio-architecture, that seems to be the trend lately? There is this American-Israeli architect Neri Oxman, experimenting with casein, the protein found in milk, which can be as hard as cement. Do you think we will see traditional concrete and steel and glass give way to eco-materials?

PS: I think that's partly possible. I mean, some of these experiments are very small-scale and that might move into fashion and product design first, but that is also the case with parametricism to some extent. So I don't know how much of these experiments of Neri’s and others’ scale, but I'm very interested in it. And I'm interested in biological processes, biological engineering, genetic engineering, as well as computational evolution and genetic coding, which is modelled and analogous to biological processes. So there's some very strong interest and synergy between the science of biology and the science of artificial life and intelligence.

SS: So we've spoken a bit about the future and the way you see it in your field. Let me ask things about you. Do you see yourself as an artist? Because an artist can always say, you know, ‘I don't really care what others say, this is my vision’, and create whatever he or she wants. Does an architect have the right to enjoy this level of freedom? I mean, it's not like a book that you read and you can put away. If you build something, it's pretty much there forever.

PS: Absolutely. I mean, art and architecture are very different... We feed off the artists. The artists are freewheeling explorers, reckless, potentially idiosyncratic, self-indulgent to the Nth degree, but they generate mutations, innovations, material which might or might not be useful. Most of it might not be useful. So artists, a freewheeling field of experimentation. And also speculative writers, science fiction writers, they can have a go and fantasize. And I think this is background material. This is a raw resource which then architects can work with. But we have a different responsibility. We’re actually creating social spaces for the many. And we're using big resources of entrepreneurs and investors behind them stand to save us. So we need to make sure that we use resources spent to enhance life and then not just thrown away through its self-indulgent delusions, illusions, fantasies which don't really impact. I mean, we want the life for everybody to become better, more prosperous. I'm talking about material, freedom and prosperity for all. That's what our vision is based on. We have pioneers and entrepreneurs pushing that. But in the end, it's the real world you want to control and enhance and make beautiful.

SS: So here's the world that we're heading towards: rising population density, soaring land prices and, I don't know, like, flying cars mean that the cities of the future will grow vertically, right? Not horizontally. What's your take?

PS: Yes, absolutely. I'm very excited about the new transport possibilities, drones, autonomous cars. I believe also a lot in walkability and walking, walking through the spaces. And that's where we can really have much more interaction. Also, visual transparency, I believe in density. I don't want this kind of carpet of suburban distribution. I think we should pull together in high-density urban environment. And we see that tendency. We see cities grow, this urban renaissance, and we can build up high end. We have generated some interesting topologies. Our tower is a hollow. So that on the inside, the thousands of people who congregate in a tower can have intervisibility, see each other communicate with each other. And then they also have big windows to the outside. So from tower to tower, there could be bridges and communications. So it's a three-dimensional web of interaction, of communication. That's what I see with all the new means and modes of transportation, but also active travelling, meaning cycling, walking is very, very important.

SS: So let's talk about ideology a bit more. When I step into, let’s say, a Gothic cathedral, right there is this height and there is light. And the idea is that a human is supposed to feel the grandeur of God. There's Napoleon's empire architecture and it's all about the grandeur of empire. Or like even if you take the dictator architecture of the thirties - it's all about being monumental, uniform, like the ideology behind it. Does contemporary architecture have an ideology behind it?

PS: Um, yes, I think there is an ideology, I mean, I certainly promote one, which is the ideology of freedom, of entrepreneurship, of individuality and of self-organization, participation. So not so much centralization, large hierarchies, command and control, but much more bottom-up processes of many… maybe of kind of swarm intelligence, collective intelligence that everybody is self-directed in their work and pursuits. But then through communication processes, through market processes as well, we have filtration and selection and a social order which establish itself more much of an emergent order bottom-up. And the cities should express that. That's what I call the network society as well. So we are networking laterally and we have a lot of self-initiative. Now, the spaces for that… I think what thrills us is this kind of web of urbanity. We don't want the kind of windswept, empty plaza with an axis and the monument. We want the kind of buzz, an urban buzz of streets filled with events, with street theatre, with the spaces, with conference centres. Maybe I love going to conferences and debates and such events like the Battle of Ideas in London at the Barbican, for instance. These are the kind of things we are thriving on, that give us ideas, empower us making connections with other people to set up projects. We're not going to work for 30 years in one monotonous routine. We are continuously reinventing ourselves and that network society and the spaces - they have their own beauty. They have their own - maybe I wouldn't call it monumentality, - but a thrill, and we’re building these spaces, we actually build one recently in Beijing. Interior urbanism, big atriums... We’re actually doing one for Sberbank in Moscow. We have done that office building in Moscow where there is a big vertical space of congregation with bridges, with balconies, where it's all about seeing and being seen making connections. Being part of that process of that self-organizing, buzzing process of innovation, prosperity generation we all can be creative now. We’re all creators in this new knowledge economy because the physical work is done by robots or by software of services. And we can reprogram the robots or we can upload the new software basically daily. So this physical culture of production can absorb an enormous amount of innovation so we can all be innovative and we do that by coming together in these cities of knowledge and exchange and creation.

SS: I heard Zaha Hadid once say that many cities around the world are overly obsessed with the past. Do you see this also as a bad thing?

PS: There is some of that. What I don't like is if cities become museums or when the centre of a city becomes a museum / retail mall. And when museums are looked at as tourist traps rather than hubs of creative industry communication. So I see there's a tension with... But I also do think that some of the historic quarters of our cities, actually, they have the robustness and the density which we need again. So if you compare the 1950s of the last century to what we need now, actually a 19th century city, which was more of a walkable high-density city, offers more to the contemporary life than the urbanism of the 1950s. That's why when this paradigm of Fordism, of command and control and distribution collapsed, the rediscovery of the urban centres, historical centres, made sense. But now we have to build on top. We don't have to be shy in subverting and evolving this. But we can also within that keep historic assets. For me, the best example of this is the City of London. What I mean here is not Westminster, which is quite sterile and frozen up, but the City of London, the original medieval town, which is now this kind of financial centre where you have the historical assets, these little jewels of medieval spaces, and then onto that fantastically rich and dense and high-value cluster of towers and spaces of communication for today, for the financial sector in particular. That's a fantastic model.

SS: Architects today strike me as progress-driven (when I listen to you, especially), in love with new materials, ways of thought, novelty, like modern artists. However, if I don't like a painting, I don't look at it, like I said, different with architecture. For instance, I'm forced to look at Tour de Montparnasse forever until I die or it gets demolished. Do you feel that architects have this responsibility like politicians in a way to take the aesthetic sense of the public into account?

PS: Well. I don't know. I believe that architects have the responsibility to express and deliver the spaces which they understand would enhance productivity, enhance life. And yes, there is this taste to be taken into account. But I believe that usually, in this sense, in this game of aesthetic rejuvenation and expression, we are artists and experts. I think we can guide and lead the market. I mean, even entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and many other great entrepreneurs, they didn't do market research what is people think they need. They have an intuition of what could make life better and then charge forward and deliver. And then the validation comes afterwards. It’s also with great artists who seemingly do something provocative and outrageous like Christo when he wrapped the German Reichstag. It seemed like an absurd and surreal thing, which the general population was expected to hate, but everybody adored it and thought it was a wonderful occasion and became a love fest around it. So even on pure aesthetic grounds, but also in architecture, there's more to it. The look and feel we give something expresses what goes on there and what if what goes on there is life-enhancing and beautiful as a human experience, then we will associate that look and feel, that aesthetic with those interior ongoing and will learn to love and like it. So aesthetic sensibilities shift and change through the leadership also of entrepreneurs and great artists and architects. So I don't believe in following a kind of average. That never led to progress. I think progress is always delivered by authors and key individuals who take risks. And if they don't, if it doesn't catch on, then it will also don't make a huge impact on the city and will be substituted quickly. If it catches on and finds imitators and a following because it makes sense, it is uplifting, it is efficient, then it transforms the city in its image. One good example for me is that Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, that beautiful, elegant steel and glass skyscraper which first emerged in New York City on Park Avenue in the early 1950s, when everything around it was still kind of stone, brownstone. And then it seemed like an alien invasion, something out of another world, and maybe an insult to sensibilities of the time. It looked back 40, 50 years later. The whole city has been transformed in its image. So I think that's what I believe. And I believe in leadership and visionary leadership. And Le Corbusier is another character. I could cite his sketches and drawings of 1920s where reality around the world, including Moscow in the 1950s and 60s. That doesn't mean that this vision is now still the vision. So all these visions have their sell-by date. As society and technology moves on to new makes a new leap, we all have to kind of re-learn the beauty of the new possibilities. That doesn't come around every decade, but I think it comes around whenever there is an epochal shift in technology and social sensibilities which come along with that. And that's less predictable. But it is necessary that the protagonists, the avant-garde of architecture, is fulfilling that role of translating the new conditions into the built environment and into the world of artefacts.

SS: Patrik, thank you so much. 

PS: My pleasure. 

SS: It was such a wonderful insight into the world of architecture. Thanks for your vision. We've been talking to architect philosopher Patrik Schumacher, discussing their urban philosophy and the future architecture.

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