In this episode, AnylabTALKS guest is Patrik Schumacher principal of Zaha Hadid Architects. This exclusive interview was recorded in Zaha Hadid Architects Studio in London. Patrik is one of the most influential figures in architecture today, with his educational background in both philosophy and architecture. We talk about his leadership in a world-famed firm carrying one of the biggest names in modern architecture, Zaha Hadid; his passion for being creative and the era of computational intelligence.
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Transcript of the episode
*This interview was recorded in Zaha Hadid Architects Studio in London on May 7, 2019. The transcript has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.
Nurgül Yardım, host: It’s awesome to be with you here Patrik, such an honour. I want to begin with what originally made you become an architect. It’s long ago…
Patrik Schumacher: Well too long ago… I mean I was fascinated with architecture as a teenager. Actually when I came across images of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion in art class and also the time there was a film running on German television about the work of Mies. So I like that modern architecture that dematerialised, elegant, steel and glass kind of architecture is very different and implied transformed the future world. So, that attracted me to architecture.
NY: Then I’m wondering how your involvement with Zaha Hadid Architects and how this journey exactly shaped your life.
PS: Well, it’s most of my life, it’s a lot going so… Well, I was still a student, and I was in London. I started architecture in Stuttgart, and I came across some of her work. She had won the Peak competition. There was a small publication from the AA called Planetary Architecture, and I saw some of the drawings. Anyway, I was bored with Germany and Stuttgart is very ordinary so I was attracted to London. I started here and then also followed up on her work and she won some competitions again. So I was aware that she is a global architect with her drawings, and I thought this is the most intense, beautiful and intricate work. And while I was a student after my first year of studying as an exchange student, refuse to go back to my school and instead join the firm. The studio is this space actually, so that’s where it started. She had just opened and got these spaces I think a year earlier. And it’s just this room and other room with only a handful of people. And so there was maybe like four or five employees. When we did competitions, more people also came ex-students and current students too. She couldn’t hire permanently, but who would help so. And I got into it, a lot of work, every day until midnight and more. And then very soon after I joined them to key designer.
NY: It’s a beautiful place as well as with the remembrance of a lot of things…
PS: It’s very memorable; we’re sitting in the same room today.
NY: I think architecture coming with these feelings along with us. And I know this is a naive and difficult question but could you sum up in your view how ZHA has changed over the last three years after Zaha passed away?
PS: The main development Zaha Hadid Architects happened through the ’90s and the first decade of 2000, the 21st century where we matured and became a large firm willing and eager to build. We established the organization in the last few years before that she was passing and we had become a very professional organization with the board of directors with proper processes. These were hard times that you had to be very professional and very efficient. So all of that is in place, and we’ve been working, myself and Zaha are on everything together for many years with the teams as a lot of independence. Zaha was missing as a friend, as somebody who was around, charming and energetic but in terms of the work process, everything continued and luckily clients stayed with us. We were also invited to new competitions for some jobs. We won new important works. So there is no much change in terms of the work experience here and the portfolio and types of projects, and that’s we’re grateful that we’ve been allowed to continue without our charismatic leader.
NY: It’s kind of, and I would like to quote you. “That’s different from maybe other studios that are more centred on one creator. We created more of a creative culture where we give a lot of scope and leverage”. How would you describe this creative culture here?
PS: Well, a lot of the architects joining us have a passion for architecture. They are great talents that have designed our term because design in this fashion is not easy; it’s non-trivial. A lot of them come to this facility through on our teaching studios. I mean, I’ve taught in Vienna for 15 years, a lot of talent coming through that; AA and UAL for over 20 years, a lot of the staff here and ex-students also from Yale, Columbia and from Harvard. So that’s the way they’ve been trained up and already come to us with a certain passion and coherence of outlook values. So that’s why we can let people create and we’ve never done it. It was never Zaha’s thing or my thing that insisting the best idea, the best sketch or the best version. We are in the selection committee like we sometimes do our own things. I still designed as well but a large complex building you can’t design by yourself. A lot of furniture designed fully for the last few years, but with the buildings, it’s always a collective process.
NY: Also, your role as a theorist and thinker and at the same time you are leading representative of Zaha Hadid Architects. How is it affecting your practice? How do you mediate between pure research and leadership?
PS: I let a lot of things move. I’m around to inspire, and that takes some time, of course, we are also interested in building the organization, but I don’t have enough time because I’m travelling a lot. That’s where I do my reading, my research. I’m lecturing a lot that’s why I do my reflection, building up the lectures, collecting up the work, ordering it and to arguing forward. I’ve been invited to a lot of articles. So I’m quick at these, but it’s where your thinking keeps being really directed through topics that I want to address so that it feeds back into the work after a lecture or after a piece of writing. It’s very important that these things interact. So I think I would be a worse designer if I hadn’t the theory and teaching and I wouldn’t be a great teacher and thinker if I didn’t know what it means to design in the real world. So I think most of the great theorists of discipline were themselves were practising architecture like Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas.
NY: So where this passion comes from?
PS: I mean, even in the philosophy of science, you have a lot of actual working scientists who also often impact on the theory of science or the philosophy of science. So I think that that’s the way it works best.
NY: In your recent interview with Marcus Fairs, you specifically mentioned that ZHA is a creative firm and needs to become a “creative brand”. Do you personally see this transition? Where do you feel like you are in this process today?
PS: Brand is for the general market, and people need to be oriented. We don’t want to be easily recognizable, for instance. So if you say this is Zaha Hadid project, that’s not great. Is this a kind of 21st century parametrically informed project? Yes, that should always be recognizable and will be recognizable. So we don’t want to have an easily recognizable brand. We need the winning name for which stands for in creativity and innovation and an umbrella under which creators can push forward, and we also like to do collaborations with younger architects. So also their name can be put forward as well. To me, the whole project is a collective movement. Parametricism is the discipline to move it forward to bringing it into the 21st century. That’s for me the most important picture then the particulars of this firm is doing. I’m also supporting and promoting a lot of other firms to work in that direction, and I’m not afraid of the competition.
NY: So what’s research currently informing your practice?
PS: We have lots of master planning urban design projects. So we had this research agenda while ago, permit requirements and it still comes in. We now want more diversity more richness, we can also imagine multi-author urban fields, and that connects me with the demanding and asking for greater degrees of freedom for those developers, clients, architects, designers, urban designers to shape this new city fabric. That’s one area of research. The other area of research is the research group of created between the University of Vienna and the office, looking at what I call “agent-based life process modelling” related to the semiology project. We had one of the ideas as well, it’s in the middle, and it’s moving quite well. How can we have very complex buildings with hundreds and thousands of people interacting in different departments? Maybe Google campus is something, that’s how can we arrange the various departments, meetings zones, social zones, entrances in a way that maximizes interaction and potentials between departments, across levels, status levels with internals and externals. So that’s non-trivial. So we need simulation media to get a handle on this. I mean the contemporary world, particularly the work environment, people don’t have fixed desks, and it becomes even more complex and dynamic and how to settle these zones. It’s not like people need places to sit for 10 hours and then go home and do their thing that will be easier then it’s just about making arrangements. So that’s what I’m doing here. I’m developing the methodology and hope that this will demonstrate. It’s already starting to demonstrate on the first results that parametricism that way of searching space without just grits and boxes, but with diagonals with open sections with curved trajectories blob-like intersecting domains that we get more intensity of communication going, and then you get in the end some scientific validation of the intuitions. We have the parametricism that is the most high-performance style, let’s say the kind of network society spaces we need.
We like curves. We discovered other forms of complexity with sharp angles, lines, layered and superpositions deconstructivism. But if you try to build up complexity in this way, you very quickly reach a limit where you can’t even orient yourself in your own drawing anymore, but you lost in your own drawing. You can’t find them to places and where you’ve been drawing. So that means people will get lost. Nobody will be able to orient and grasp this so that the use of curvature to have a smooth trajectory which nevertheless as free and agile and having spaces which you can grasp because they have boundaries, you can follow rather than kind of zigzagging kaleidoscope. That’s the way we arrived at these repertoires, and they are and also the winning than of competitions through these methods also show that people the clients and other architects looking at a project it is and then they can find themselves understanding the complex composition. The constructivism was very limited in this way. But minimalism is limited even further because then you have to kind of strip everything down to a few zones which aren’t representing these institutions properly…
NY: Absolutely. And parametricism is evolving through human factors like productivity, social interaction, culture and well-being. How are these issues integrating with the future?
PS: Well, I think the well-being aspect is not something we particularly work on. These are relatively trivial matters, and you have a bit of sunlight, nice air change. These are engineering aspects, and I don’t believe there’s another how I’m pretty little green or something like this. So I think that’s going to be trivial. No, but I think what well-being ultimately comes down to on as indirectly through if you feel productive. If you feel connected, if you come to a place and you feel you can understand what’s going on, who was where and that offerings transparent to you and you feel empowered rather than continuously missing your meetings and not noticing that something is going on another floor and another room that is frustrating. So well-being and productivity are close because we have an instinctual need to be productive. That’s why you also know that you want to live in the centre because you want to be part of something. You don’t want to be left behind and you feel that in your body you don’t have to be so that makes you unhappy if you sit in the suburbs and if you feel disconnected and you waste time commuting was also believed in densification. So well-being, I think, is very directly connected to productivity and productivity of course prosperity and in the end. You know that you will also then have been productive for the day for a week. And then you have a lot of freedom to rest, explore re-energized. But again, you also know it after two-three days will not shut the re-energizing there you read a book makes me smarter more productive for next week. So that’s the way we live today a very self-directed very self-responsible. We can’t be guaranteed that somebody else has nice things for us to do which are worth for a while into the future. So that’s why we need environments which empower to be to find our path through this network of collaboration. Let’s say which brings us to the city.
NY: Especially Richard Florida’s books, like creative class like creative cities. They all coming together…
PS: Well, that’s a way what works. I mean, like it’s called networked society. Everybody is not creative must be creative because we have to programme these fabrication systems daily, weekly whatever. You can work on a new service, package of the app and you can upload it. So literally in there could be no limit to how many new apps you could upload or how many new 3D printed products, innovations you can deliver. That’s very different from before. In the ’50s, there is no point in being creative because these assembly lines have to run without change. So there is no creativity required, and therefore, there are no creative industries. There were very few people and now it’s literally everybody. You’re creating something, what you put online and the next day you can do something new.
NY: So speaking of this, how do you perceive the role of the global architect in the current world of the shared information? Does this role bring any new responsibilities for us?
PS: Well, yes for sure, it brings new tasks, and we need to upgrade the discipline. I’m thinking of myself as a leader of the field not only I’m doing x-number of jobs or get involved with but how should we. I mean the methodologies we discover here. I wish that many more architects would try to improve on them, discuss them, help with that research and develop a project rather than doing things which let’s say some retro style, something fancy or without argument, without push back. And so that leadership role is important, that’s the responsibility part. You are also responsible for each client on a larger scale. I feel responsible for the field for discipline because I think it is fragmented and unsure of its role, its rationale.
NY: Bringing it back to your research side, what is special about Design Research Lab (DLR) at the Architectural Association(AA)? What is the core values nowadays?
PS: This was the beginning of computational architecture. You know, we founded in 95, Columbia Paperless Studio. I was teaching at Columbia and Harvard, that’s why I saw the beginnings. And once we started AA, we were full-on digital, and we were full-on the kind of discourse of folding in architecture; continues nurbs, surfaces, blobs, lots of absorption of Deleuze and Guattari. So we absorbed a lot of that and explored these repertoires and their values of complexity that we think of a network of dependency. Everything interacts and communicates with each other. These values are still there 20 years later, but we’ve worked them, we understood them, we have taken on issues like structure, envelope and apertures.
Now we’re taking on issues like environmental logics and new engineering logics, fabrication, robotic fabrication all of that, but most importantly, recently I mean, more and more you’re also taking up into the computational domain, social functionality social performance into action scenarios. That was so far. Always the layout and organization had remained an intuitive design process where we had all the algorithms. To execute and dramatically what we had intuited now I think the next stage is to use algorithms also to help us develop the social organizations in the level of sophistication so this paradigm has been stable in its basic values and principles for not 25 years. And so that’s why I called the “epochal style” whether the world at large has woken up or not. I do care, but it doesn’t change the fact. This is the paradigm for the 21st century; the way of doing architecture within a digital era. An era of computational intelligence, big data, AI and all of that new engineering capacities. Absorbing things like space syntax.
It’s the margin of land in this one at large, but no doubt is nothing else of lasting value be the all other architects. Basically yes, they can do their projects; but the way they work is not any different from they could have worked 58 years ago or so and these are all retro approaches.
So that’s why I’m very confident that in the end, even though the hurdle to get into this level is a bit harder in terms of grasping these projects and grasping and handling methodologies. It will succeed and becomes a more sophisticated discipline, and that like all other laws become more sophisticated. Medicine has become sophisticated, you have gene therapy, and many of you know you have. Algorithms are helping them as well and they money fold of potential therapies and so on. We have to upgrade all these disciplines. Finance is very much upgraded more sophisticated algorithmically driven etc. If you are asked to design a one-family house which hasn’t changed its diagram for the last 80 years, you can do that in your sleep. That can always be done. There will always be some scope for that. But to do Google Campus or do a new urban industry hub in Shenzhen is different, like now, we doing Shenzhen campus competition 2 million square meters. It’s just a pretence to think that you can sit down and have an idea and make a grid or something that you are doing something useful, it’s just preposterous.
NY: So we are accelerating like deeper and deeper into this new digital age. Does this excite you?
PS: It is exciting, and it is challenging. So that’s why I would hope that more people help to this research group perhaps in our people, but it’s slow. I mean, I hope they know more, and they’re not all computer scientists they learning some of the code. Then there is a social science aspect. There are so many tasks, and the team is too small. So I’m trying to see if I can get funding. I mean investors to make us bigger. We have the other research team for code developing geometries and relate to fabrication logics. They’re getting into new ideas of residences and marketing of residences. We develop this idea of forms of co-living, it is more complex and a bunch of apartments because you have to think about all the different. Shared zones and spaces that would be of utilization that makes it becomes more exciting and also then you have to kind of measure with the client we’re doing that as well. What is happening? What’s the utilization to change that? How big should be apartments? You know not taking a rule book an apartment has to be X that’s rubbish. I mean, that’s really absurd that means we waste a lot of resources by making all apartments with too big.
So what is the discovery process and how do you could actually residential community working on this in to become kind of a dating website where you actually can sign up to protect it and maybe see who else wants to live here. And who do you want to live next to me? The random agglomeration of residence is never community. I mean, I’ve never talked a single of my neighbours living in London for 30 years because we’re not good matches. Maybe we have ever given a very complex society where matching up is non-trivial and the random selection will never do. I mean, yeah kids in the same block. They can like each other. But in a co-living, you’ve curated that it’s just something like startup homes. There’s a kind of subgroup which is relevant to each other. And also if you would younger than, you-you’re more open and flexible and you can. You more or less set and there could be more stimulation through co-living, but it needs to be curated. So how do we curate that and use data and social media systems to make it happen? These are the kind of research we’re doing, and you can see that the very much oriented with respect to social progress.
NY: Right, so speaking of the digital age; We have seen your responses in the blogs, and you are using Facebook in a public way to share your ideas. How do you see these platforms for architectural communications?
PS: Well, it’s good. I mean, Facebook. Someone will feel that Facebook at the swamp. But I mean, we have not too many friends or what flies through the air is kind of morph used more random than it used to. And what I’m still putting out stuff happens. Like I get a sufficient number of feedback, it lost a little bit of that for me. It became more may be too much diluted by stuff. Maybe that’s just me.
NY: You are like a kind of person that talks about political issues and housing debates. And how did you take criticism?
PS: Maybe well, the criticism is necessary, of course, and we should have an open critical debate. What is problematic is the kind of recent tendency to go hostile to somebody with a different opinion to find it to moralize too much and not accept that. For instance, my positions, they actually every contribution to public debate. I think inherently has while I’m opening itself up to talk publicly is because I’m interested in the common wheel freedom prosperity for all how to do what’s best for everybody, what’s best for the society for the city for our lives and that includes everybody’s life. And so that’s misunderstood. So if I’m coming in making certain propositions, it is denied. It’s kind of sad that I’m representing you know, the rich, minority that they hate the poor or something. That’s all false. And that I’m a fascist and that I deserve to be you know… Actually, I had been recently booted from a conference platform because some other speakers didn’t want me there and because I was talking about privatizing public spaces. And supposedly that the kind of taboo or no go. Well, a lot of beautiful public spaces are private, and I have good reason arguments for the benefit of a flourishing society for all why I think a lot of public spaces should be privatized should be much more scope for private initiative the domain of urban spaces. But there are some people who think that this is kind of impermissible opinion, I need to be pushed off the platform and shouldn’t be allowed to make such arguments. So that’s what I don’t like, and I get a lot of hostility a lot of ad hominem. You should never attack a person. And if I am criticizing a number of ideas and positions, I’m not there by meant to criticize and attack a person, that’s my attitude. I want to help myself to get pushed back. But also maybe help such a person to overcome that they’re kind of obsessed by maybe disempowering ideas. So I think even that includes criticism of various cultures and patterns; we’re living in a multicultural society, we are living in a society where people from all over the world congregate with different perceptions of the good life. They can also be debated, how they well they fit with each other, what would fit the contemporary world, what is private forms of life which facilitate overall progress of society? So these things are becoming highly sensitized, and we need to get thick-skinned about them. Otherwise, we can’t get anywhere. We just exchanging politeness and maybe you talk behind closed doors, and that’s not helpful. So that’s my criticism. I know this is going on and I’m taking the hits rather than shutting up. But I’m always making this meta-argument, please even if I’m getting very very bad negative and it’s invective. I give a chance on Facebook as well. Come back friendly, asking for a reasonable asking for an argument, giving a person a chance because this is the culture they might have and often that works often. You overcome that initial kind of hostility that some of these also few famous lots of people kind of hate you all ready for that. And so I think that honestly just you know pompous and arrogant and look down on people, I’m none of this. So if they feel that I’m actually responding to giving him the time of an argument, that’s the respect that often. That’s why I do it, and I want to also learn from this.
NY: It’s a kind of process.
PS: It’s over positive to have social media debates, I think its a learning process. This invective is not productive, that’s what I don’t like.
NY: And finally our last question; regarding future, what are you optimistic about?
PS: I’m optimistic about Brexit. I’m optimistic about that Europe eventually maybe through the UK, maybe through independent Scotland, it’s on a political front; will find to risk more degrees of freedom for entrepreneurs, more self responsibly for everybody to get out of this stagnation. So what I find frustrating that Europe is stagnating, even Germany you kind of had a little bit of a growth trajectory this now back to half a per cent growth per annum which is virtually zero per person, you can last 10 years no productivity gains virtually. 0.1 % over is scandalous. I mean, we’re living in an era of technological take off where we have I have powered everything, and yet we have the per person standard of living in the average GDP per person or and productivity particular which is behind that is absolutely stagnating, I think it’s all about.
I mean all work much more freely again with less control and all of us could be so much richer and also I like the adventure of the human project in terms of what technology could be invested in but if we don’t invest in this because we just don’t we no longer productive. I mean, these are political barriers. It’s like the city can’t grow anymore because there are all these planning restrictions. But also so many other restrictions in terms of entrepreneurship and creative businesses creating finding new ways of working together because the normal employment contract is not. So that’s why I feel we want to, I want to break through politically, but it also relates to you know, architecture and it’s flourishing. So that’s why I became a Libertarian, I just want more degrees of freedom, and I’m not scared that this will be abused by everybody. I will trust in the self-regulating mechanism of the market and also in the positive spirit of entrepreneurs. I don’t think this is the kind of scary scenario that everybody has more freedom.
And you know I’m not scared of Google, Facebook and Amazon. I adore these firms, and I think they’re great. They are giving us so many beautiful things and most of them for free. I’m using Amazon all the time, that’s why I have a fantastic Kindle library on my phone and, and I’m publishing as well, and I like the fact that my stuff will go along. So why should I have against Amazon or Facebook, which I’m using continuously Google whichever using and loving to use I mean we’re not doing any harm. So they need to be unleashed and not tied down. They unleashed then others can also be unleashed. It’s great young entrepreneurs have these. You do your thing, and then you hope to be absorbed with them and then your ideas can flourish within that or somebody else. They need to be much more freedom. I think we have much more stimulating lives. So that’s my hope, I mean, that’s why I’m talking about. Maybe I’m convincing you about this. then we one more…
NY: Thank you so much.
PS: My pleasure. It’s really a good conversation.