Schumacher + Scavnicky + WASH

WASH: You mentioned a couple of times that the architect’s job is in the last two millimeters. Please explain.

Patrik Schumacher: Yes and for non-architects it isn’t just a millimeter, its just pure surface—

[Patrik Schumacher points to an iPhone screen]

If we accept architecture as pure surface, why is it that this thin layer can have so much cultural and social impact?

I think it is because the surface is what we encounter. It has immediate impact, it is both signal and information. It doesn’t need material depth. It just needs to be perceived. Same thing goes for an iPhone screen. Naturally there is some engineering business under the hood, but experientially those cogs are non-essential. 

At one point during your lecture, you said social order requires spatial order. Your comments were complemented by a graph where on the Y-axis you plotted “order”, and on the X-axis you plotted “aesthetic freedom’. Styles such as Classicism, Baroque, and Parametricism were shown to maximize both order and aesthetic freedom. Yet what we find interesting is that both Classicist and Baroque periods are historically associated with highly authoritarian and imperialistic regimes, so we question whether order and aesthetic freedom can naturally coexist? Especially in a political and socioeconomic sense.

It’s interesting you mention that. I believe that a higher degree of social order is attainable through freedom because we use self-ordering. Creative and productive capacities are unleashed through freedom, so it’s a similar coincidence between freedom and order. If we have actual authoritarian regimes, poor information processing leads to crude decisions which leads to a lot of socioeconomic chaos. Or there are instances of very simple and primitive orders, such as an order of poverty. A contemporary example of that would be North Korea. It is very authoritarian – it has some sort of order, but I’m also sure that there is a lot of underground things going on which keeps the system going, but let’s get back to this ordered yet free “libertarian” political outlook. The idea is to unleash degrees of freedom and entrepreneurial freedom that let the self-regulating and self-ordering mechanisms of the market work in ways that establish a rule-based order in which people act freely but in a self-responsible fashion. And then I believe peoples’ various individual plans will tie in with each other into a spontaneous order of self-organization. And I supposed I could call it the invisible—

Ryan Scavnicky: I’m not so sure that freedom is some sort of zero-sum game—with final output or even gain. When you’re opening social order to create itself, I think you’re already allowing for existing systems of oppression to just continue in a lot of ways. I agree with you on a lot of things that you’ve commented on in the past. For instance, I agree that architects are not politicians. Nor are we environmentalists. Our responsibility is to make architecture. For me, that means constantly doubting what sociopolitical impact architecture has and discovering where that line is. What effect do architects have? One thing I don’t think we can allow ourselves to do is to simply back out and say that freedom in general is going to work out and everything will be okay. I believe we have an obligation to try at least some sort of counter structures to what we feel is oppressive. For me it’s a way to empower or oppose, in some fashion or effect, an agency in some way against that which is oppressive.

So, what you’re talking about is an appeal to the state, right? Because what I’m talking about is freedom as a political concept. I really want to roll back the state and draw back domains of action to self-initiated individuals... or freely-associated individuals in cooperatives, corporations, associations, clubs, charities, and give them more degrees of freedom. Of course, you could criticize and think, “well, but who or what controls these institutions? What keeps them in check from becoming oppressive?”

To clarify, when I speak of degrees of freedom, I speak of those that don’t resort to violence. And today, the state enjoys a virtual monopoly on violence. I’m also not saying, at this point in the argument, that there should not be a state at all. But we should roll back the state, so that we can allow interactions and free contracting with fewer limitations.

I do believe that the state is in fact the oppressor in instances when it blocks possible interactions between people. Behind this oppression is a conservatism that wants to keep things as they are. In other words, the state doesn’t want a lot of people to find new ways of interacting, and I think that may lead to stagnation.

I think we need to be weary of political processes becoming corrupted. Essentially agents who prevent some form of interaction as to prevent competition—especially special interests lobbying the political process. This process is sometimes idealized as being democratically deliberated for the benefit of all, but power in the world attracts corruption to itself. And so, we need to roll that back.

Degrees of freedom would be beneficial to us, and of course there are not many offers for us to access (for employment for instance), so we need to be careful not to sleepwalk into these things. We need to appraise what’s an offer because now there are things on offer which might be, in a certain sense, risky if you like. But I think we shouldn’t infantilize people too much; they have been infantilized far too much. But my main “thing” is that the current system isn’t working. We are stagnating. We have a scandal of ten years of zero productivity growth in the UK, while these technologies have been pouring in, while we have AI, while we have digital media, and while we as architects know how much more productive we have become. We now have BIM modeling, parametric modeling, and many things can be achieved with the same number of people. In many other places of society, there have to be reductions of what we’re doing, as the net gain is apparently zero ten years on. And so I don’t want to have another twenty, thirty years with zero gains in productivity again. Because then my life will be over, we’ll had no fun, nothing will have changed. And in such a world, what’s the point of staying around?

I want to get back to this idea that you’re wanting to structure different ways of interacting, and that to me is a great goal, right. Let’s, as you say, use architecture to structure new ways of interacting, but what if the result of opening these floor plans or showing the actors interacting with some furniture leads to merely the exacerbating of the existing power system? In a way, power—derived either from the state or from private entities, and I don’t want to get into too much of a political conversation.

Well I want to roll them back. I think when we talk about these prohibitions, they originate in the political domain, so it becomes very political. And they apply first to employment relationships; for instance, what kind of economic entity association you confound. It has to fit into particular formulas or you can’t do it. So, you have to pre-fit employees into a kind of straight jacket; and this goes for any form of interaction. I think that’s a problem.

Yeah but isn’t the negotiation of those things a negotiation of society itself?

Why don’t we free consumers to choose what they prefer? Then everything could be much more forward for many. You could also increase density of interaction. A city could become that hub and more people could fit and participate in the city. And who are you actually protecting? The best protection for someone that is seeking an apartment to rent is the competition and the supply of alternatives. If you constrict this, then you’re left with only a few choices and you have to suck it up and choose one of them. So that’s not empowering, that’s problematic. It also means that there’s no discovery process because you can only regurgitate these standards, and nobody can come up with new ideas. These ideas of co-living (emerging in the UK) are all illegal in many ways, and you must use loopholes to push forward new ideas.

But by saying these things, aren’t we getting away from this idea of what architecture is?—In that I understand these political arenas and their effects, but as architects, are we not always looking to be the forces that restructure those, rather than being independent agents who respond to them? And engaging with some of these limitations and how it relates to the greater understanding of—

Look overall, residential projects are not the arena of innovation unfortunately. It’s terribly boring, and terribly predictable, and terribly conservative. So we have to look for other arenas where we can still have degrees of freedom to push the discipline forward. 

Is that because of housing laws? Or is that because of capitalism? Or is that because of people’s aesthetic taste and genres?

That’s part of it. I’d rather have the freedom to try to offer something new, and find the market and convince people through a new exciting product, rather than to be shut down from the get-go by some oppressive bureaucrats. It must be said that there are exciting entrepreneurs with successes finding loopholes and offering exciting new products, and of course that’s important and that challenges the political order. So, I’d say that I think it helps if somebody is breaking the rules and finding loopholes.

But are the loopholes the reason an architecture is good?

I’ll repeat what I said, I’m opting for more degrees of freedom, and I call the market a discovery process; capitalism is a great engine of invention because it puts steam under everybody’s project. Finding an innovative and new way, an edge, and an advantage. Spurning and pushing everyone forward rather than feeding complacency of safe privileges protected by trade barriers and licensing barriers.

No, but look, I see the limitations, and I see the criticism and I am already working on overcoming them. As some of our projects become larger, that coherence and single-system-ness becomes monotonous, becomes disorienting so that’s why I’m moving into Tectonism. With the Google campus they have a different tectonic system but on the scale of Google campus you end up repeating and you don’t get enough difference throughout, so then you need multiple authors to come together, but then they shouldn’t create a collage where you don’t know what belongs together and what does not.

In the end, I think we must find a methodology where multiple authors synergize in a dialectic of emergence, bottom-up, to deliver these projects to scale. Otherwise, they become too monotonous actually, and that’s a critique I would have for most of our large projects; that they are actually too coherent. I like Jeff’s intuition in the phrases he delivered. In terms of coherence it is very good, so we need to intensify it. It’s dialectically developed; you can’t do it in one go. You need to work through heterogeneity, which is initially raw and then becomes worked and becomes synthesized into a high order continuity: cross differences. So that’s the project and it can most probably not be done by a single author. So every criticism becomes a self-criticism.

Who’s the author delineating the boundaries between those co-authored objects?

The boundary is perspectival. From your project, the boundary expands into my project, and from my project, my boundaries expand into yours.

Everyone’s boundaries are in everyone else’s projects?

Yes. It’s just what you affiliate to. Even something far away that resonates with you can be made part of a dialog and suddenly it’s part of your ‘parti’. So the whole point is the ‘parti’ is not constrained to the site which is allocated to you. It’s the same with our own project. The street pulls out so it’s part of my ‘parti’; I’m charging it up so to speak.

Okay, well let’s rehash the conversation of what the role of fashion is in all of this. Is it not the role of fashion, rather than architecture, to engender difference at an individual scale? You’ve also said that the individual wants to have their choice in the living situation. So, is it not the role of architecture to engender differences at the scale of living, which of course for you, is the individual author inside of a parametric totalizing system?

I think you can do both at the same time. You can make something different and similar at the same time. Different color but same material for instance. Very simple. Different shape, but same material, or same shape and different material and different color. Because every object has multiple aspects through which it can be both be similar and different to various degrees. You don’t have to affiliate something by making it similar in all respects. You can align it geometrically; that’s a strong sense of belonging. Additionally, you can merge the color tone but with a differentiated material, and this material can be like something else. You can, in the end, make something which is multi-faced, multiply affiliated. There’s a pure heterogeneity and I’m creating now something in the middle, or through this, which picks up all on them and mediates them in a way that forges unity; so these are just extensions of some system. I can construe anything. The Parametrism paradigm allows me to forge a unity which absorbs any and all of them and in the end still become part of my ‘parti’.

Just to explain some of my positions in this regard. To me those things, let’s say “objects” like an Ikea cup, an iPhone, a rock, and a tea bag, all actually represent these ownable aesthetic categories that are generated as images, and that we, along with these objects, exist in this completely flat ontological aesthetic structure. And I find that it is through the role of the image, or through the role of the architect in a sense, to try to break that; to try to find some agency within that feedback loop. Which in what I see, or what I am thinking here just reinforces those loops, and I am more interested in the way that we, almost provocatively, show that feedback loop as being able to be entered or broken in some way.

Okay, this was more of a straightforward composition.

[Patrik holds out his iPhone]

So I can start to say “This is a rectilinear form, this is a rectilinear form, and they’re in orthogonal alignment so they start to be part of some system,” and from here to here I could make it morph gradually. This is a little rounded fillet, and let’s increase the fillet until it’s round, so we can make mediations in this direction, and then the fillet loses itself, etcetera, etcetera. This is a little hard to absorb, but you can go from facets until… you morph and mediate and resonate and build something. In the end, it’s a composition which absorbs all of them as a natural part of a unity. You can start with disunity and end up with a higher order of unity. So you can invite a compositional unification through additional elements and in-betweens; you could also put something on top, which somehow draws it together and you can lasso them. There are many things you could do. But that’s the kind of a Parametricism project – wanting to do this. Why would I want to do this? Because maybe these things become synergetic with a new entity coming in and picking up the club and the university and the shop into some kind of synergetic synthesis.   

We think that what you base a lot of your thinking on, at least partially, is the Austrian School of Economics, which examines subjective choices of individuals, and you often talk about productivity and how we’ve had very little of that over the last few years and we’ve only been—

Treading water—

Treading water and finding new derivatives of finding value that is increasingly automatized. So what we’re curious about are these ideas of change and agency, and perhaps what does the future of architecture look like without the actor?

It’s a necessary substratum of progress. Of course, you can have some degree of progress within the exact same old built environments. But to really take off, you also have to transform that. You need to have to come out of your suburban isolations and pull into the city. You feel it in your bones if you sit in the province, here it’s different, but you’re going to be blunting your own prospects, your careers, what you can contribute to the world. It’s clear. That’s why people pull in. That means you have to make space. Yeah, you could keep more in the suburb, but progress would be slow. Let us take in my theory of society; there’s multiple sub-discourses and systems which help to order and frame social interaction. So, space is one–social order is spatial order. We need to upgrade and update. Another one, the universe has also has some kind of normative rules, morals, and legal orders. So, you could imagine, to some extent, that there was progress. You have to adapt and reform and you have to evolve. It’s nearly inevitable. The same is true of the political order. If we freeze all of this, we still have science and technology, but of course they’re also constrained because a lot of biotech, genetic investigations, genetic modifications, is banned and blocked, but I’m sure that stuff is still going on. If only the technology progress goes and everything else is frozen up, it’d be very, very slow, and a lot of contradictions begin to build up, and then you end up in a revolution. But the problem with revolution, is that it could also retrogress in a strange way. Tragically, into something like the Arab Spring; where these poor people are in a worse place, in most countries, than they were before the revolutions. There’s lots to criticize about where they were, but there wasn’t proper leadership, and there certainly wasn’t an importing of Western ideas of democracy. Syria is a total disaster.

The bottom line is that if you don’t adapt and evolve, you have will encounter a big bang and then you’ll probably regress. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but if you don’t let these things flow in and open them up, then you may be risking degrees of freedom. You do not have to go all out at once. Just kind of let the genie out a little bit.

I wonder how your architecture responds to the actors, the human actors, and maybe contemporary ways of seeing. In that communication, as I’m sure you have a way of understanding, is mostly structured through digital landscapes, or digital space. Not necessarily physical space.

Digital landscapes… which are also designed by our colleagues.

The question then, is what about ways of seeing the urban environment? You mentioned in the lecture that you’re going to find your way somewhere with your phone, but maybe there will be drone vision, or machine vision. Does the architecture want to respond in its mapping, or its characteristics, in ways that allow machines to see the environment?

Yeah, I accept that. And obviously, we should also see the machines so you have a double functionality. What I realized, because my students in the AA have been doing a lot of drone flying, and therefore, use a lot of artificial vision systems, is that they’re very similar to what we need. Contrast, outline reinforcement, etc. There’re certain coincidences so if we see it better, the machines also see it better. It might be slightly different, but there’s also similar constraints on pattern recognition in a confused and complex scene. That’s why I was thinking of outsourcing and automating the phenological project, which is about legibility, perceptual tractability, through machine vision systems. Now I can say this, but doing it is another issue—lots of challenges. In the end we may be able to convert render images through a machine algorithm filter to see if that information is coming through. It’s all in the program, in the map of future research.

I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes. I mean that’s a wild thought.

Doesn’t that open the possibility for machine surveillance to empower potentially really predatory forms of government?

That’s why we should stop the government before they get up with all these horrible capacities! 

They can probably already see what they want to.

It’s a problem. There is the ideal conception of government. There is government for and by the people. I mean of course these ideas make sense, to some extent. But also, we don’t want to overpower a central bureaucracy. We don’t want a majoritarian dictate, but at the same time we have to worry about whether this majoritarian dictate a minoritarian dictate masking as a majoritarian dictate. So there is an ideal sense of what the political process should deliver and you can argue about it, but we should also take a close look at what the processes actually are and whether they actually can deliver on the theoretical ideas.

So this kind of libertarian vision is also very hard, as these comparisons of abstract groupings may look at the reality of things, and becomes kind of a skeptical about creating these state machineries which are meant to be government for the people, by the people, but in the end they may turn out to be something rather different. And of course, there is a complexity barrier and information processing barrier where this kind of government is meant to be an overarching central planner to some extent. Setting rules at least, if not making all decisions. But the whole model presumes that the government can fix lots of constraints and rules and guarantees. But politicians and governments are not well informed enough; there’s no way of gathering all the knowledge of all the intricate local contingency decisions. Governments often don’t even know what they’re adjusting decisions towards, but they’re adjusting the decisions regardless.

You keep talking about state agents being inefficient—

You don’t want to switch from your healthy food to burgers because you will kill your stomach, or kill yourself just because of that architecture infatuation. I’m going to some lengths, but not to self-destructive lengths. 

We do however think there is a model for architecture outside of government structures. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Urban Think Tank—they installed a convenience store from the Torre David. In Latin America especially, there’s entire informal cities that are springing up out of nowhere. The Torre David was a bank tower that was squatted.

Yeah I suppose there are degrees of freedom there. 

Existing outside of governmental control, these little heterotopias are ever-changing and accumulating themselves in novel and adapting structures.

Look, I don’t think that it is an ideal thing, but within the constraints, freedom delivers the best that it can at that stage of development.


Patrik Schumacher is an architect and architectural theorist based in London. He is the principal of the architecture practice Zaha Hadid Architects.