Ban vs. Schumacher: Should Architects Assume Social Responsibility?

Originally published on ArchDaily, 28 March 2014

Last week, Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid’s right-hand man, attempted to mandate the boundaries of Architecture in a social media post worthy of a Millennial. The tone was prescriptive and characterized by a liberal application of caps lock. In an ideal world, it might have been collectively ignored, but the discussion sprawled across multiple Facebook threads and inspired a broad media response (not to mention this one). I offer you a very reductive abstract: Architecture’s contribution to society is form, not political correctness and not art, which lacks a function beyond itself. A fair bit of the ensuing banter on Schumacher’s Facebook wall draws, then erases, then rehashes the distinction between art and architecture. With more than a hint of indignation, he specifically denounces the winners of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. He was not on the roster. Injured dignities aside, the commentary allowed a pervasive and omnipresent question within our discipline to resurface in the digital forum: What do architects offer that no one else can?

While I don’t agree with Schumacher’s dismissal of ‘politically correct’ architecture (we’ll get to that), I did find several nuggets of shining gold in my pan after sifting through his Facebook rant. And there was quite a bit of sifting. As is typical with architectural writing, one must crack a few layers of lofty, intellectual jargon to reach the juicy center.

Schumacher’s original statement, at first glance, might be understood as a reduction of architecture to form alone; an object, a shell. However, in ensuing comments he goes on to distinguish the field as form making with a “performative function.” That function, he says, is a social one: “to order, frame, and facilitate social cooperation.” Architecture’s goal is to shift social forces beyond itself, and the manipulation of form is the means to that end.

He equates the mechanics of form to those of language, where the meaning is left to the receiver’s interpretation. The elements of form are the structure and syntax, our communication toolkit, and our arrangement of these elements allows us to stir up symbolic meaning and associations. Place a column just so and signify an entry. Fold a stadium roof just so and signify labia.

Schumacher points to grand stylistic shifts as the largest moments in our discipline. They signify (and arguably induce) cultural change. They are the notches on the yardstick against which architecture’s growth is measured. Some suggest that architecture has been languishing since Modernism. Schumacher offers parametricism as the nascent Messiah. “[It] is saving the discipline’s reason to exist,” he declares.

Now, I am no devotee of parametricism- I readily admit to being under-educated on the subject- yet I am seduced by this possibility. Its gentle curves suggest an alluring potential to harness and streamline cultural and political forces, digest them, and offer a novel interpretation. Mass customization and digital dependence are burgeoning in our society. There is no doubt a crowd of people would clamor to have their own desires made concrete in the form of a unique, numbered cladding panel at their favorite museum. Just think of the selfie possibilities. This is not necessarily what Schumacher is proposing, of course. It is simply one possible result of harnessing global culture to “order, frame, and facilitate social cooperation.”

I am a firm believer that the built environment and culture are in a relationship of reciprocal influence. Sometimes it’s aggressive and volatile. Other times they don’t call each other back. Parametricism, as a style and tool, could be read as the formal analog of our tendency to digitally reach out and link. It could be seen as the future of the discipline, but it’s not the only way.

The architect’s tool belt contains more than the ability to construct complex formal relationships. Sure, we can alter the paradigms of society using this system, sculpting culture in an arc as smooth and indifferent as one of Schumacher’s gleaming roofs. We can also use a hammer. As architects, we can utilize our extensive training in problem solving to create solutions from limited resources. We can devise built systems to affect the lives of individuals directly, rather than whispering to the masses through our manipulation of form. Schumacher denounces this method as ‘politically correct.’ I’ll call it ‘humanitarian.’ The winners of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, the thorn in the parametricist’s side, include Toyo Ito’s Japanese pavilion, which featured alternative housing proposals for tsunami victims. It received formal validation from the architectural canon in the shape of a glitzy Golden Lion. Schumacher sees this validation as a dead-end for the discipline, calling it “moralizing political correctness that is trying to paralyze us with bad conscience and arrest our explorations if we cannot instantly demonstrate a manifest tangible benefit for the poor…”

I am immediately struck by two presumptions in this declaration that are masquerading as fact. Firstly, I wonder how much of humanitarian architecture has proven an ‘instant benefit for the poor.’ There is undoubtedly a large portion that is the result of misguided, entitled ideas about what poor people need and want. These projects serve the desires of the architect rather than the intended users. Where the purpose is self-serving, I entirely agree that we must be aware and critical of this type of architecture. For instance, Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” housing for Hurricane Katrina victims has received generous donations of criticism in this regard. This is not to say that all of humanitarian architecture is soiled by its own good intentions, however. I point to Shigeru Ban Architects, ELEMENTAL, MASS Design Group, NLÉ, and the Rural Studio as examples of organizations actively engaging the intended users and producing visible results.

My second issue with Schumacher’s declaration is that it desires to ‘paralyze us.’ This has a slight ring of victimization to it. It implies that there can be only one meaningful trajectory in the discipline, pitting projects that differ in intended use or design method against each other. Let us consider for a moment that the goal of the humanitarian model is not ‘political correctness’ (What an imposition!), but a genuine desire to disseminate the architect’s toolkit to the billions (billions, I say) of people who would not otherwise have access. Generally, this is the same sector of culture that does not have the ability to purchase a customized cladding panel, to say nothing of interest. It is a large piece of the population pie chart. I would argue that humanist architecture is not a Pac-Man style attempt to quell formal innovation and swallow parametricism’s potential, but simply a parallel branch of the discipline devised for a different type of user.

The architect may choose to take up either trajectory and find he has access to the necessary tools. Like parametricism, humanitarian architecture is concerned with the creation of deployable systems and even mass customization. It also aims to advance society. The glaring distinction between the two is that they operate with very different resources. One is powered by rocket fuel, the other by hand crank. The method is similar: identify relevant cultural and geographical factors, establish parameters, allow for divergence. In parametricism, the form is fixed by the architect and the divergence occurs in user interpretation. In the humanitarian model, a given set of parameters is established by the architect, allowing a second set of input to be manipulated by the user. These may be as simple as the length of pegs and the width of wall panels to allow for custom configurations, or exist in the form of ideas and participation.

Architects may choose to shift culture by instilling meaning in the language of the built environment; by contributing idealized form. We might also seek to alter it more directly, through the dissemination of idealized systems that are often enacted for and by the other portion of the pie chart. The architecture we choose to validate as a society represents a set of values within our global culture, as measured by stylistic shifts. I ask whether we might not limit ourselves to a single trajectory. Just this week, Shigeru Ban was recognized as the 2014 Pritzker Laureate, suggesting his humanitarian work is considered valid within the discipline. His face will now sit off-center in a small rectangle beside the likes of Toyo Ito and Zaha Hadid, proving that even the architectural canon refuses to reduce architecture to a single pursuit. Parametric and humanitarian architecture are devised for separate users, but they share the same basic goal of advancing society and they are constructed with the same set of tools.