Last week Patrik Schumacher, director at Zaha Hadid Architects and the practice's frontman in the field of architectural theory, took once again to Facebook to disseminate his ideas - this time arguing that "the denunciation of architectural icons and stars is superficial and ignorant." In the post, Schumacher lamented the default position of the architectural media which he believes sees success and reputation as "a red cloth and occasion to knock down icons," going on to outline his beliefs on why stars and icons are useful and even inevitable mechanisms of architectural culture.
Schumacher has made headlines via Facebook before, with a post last year in which he argued for an end to the "moralizing political correctness" that has led to the popularity of socially-conscious design - a post which attracted almost universal outrage from architects, critics and social media users of all stripes. However this latest post had a very different feel; many people, myself included, seemed to find themselves at least partially agreeing with Schumacher. After all, at the most basic level he was asking for designs to each be judged on their individual merits - what's not to like?
Schumacher's headline thesis, that critics should not pre-judge a building just because of who designed it, is perhaps the easiest point to agree with. These days, it's not unusual to see critics posting reviews in which the author was clearly set on a negative conclusion, taking shots at the design from their preconceived position, rather than making reasoned judgments to subsequently arrive at a fair assessment (though for the record it was perhaps unfair of Schumacher's to single out Ellis Woodman, who told me on Twitter that he has "written 3 largely positive ZHA reviews and only 2 stinkers").
The causes of this overwhelming negativity among critics are not entirely clear but most, including Schumacher in his Facebook post, have suggested that it represents an ideological shift away from the pre-recession trends of iconic design, with the media now propping up the most eye-catching designs with one hand while it dismisses them as superficial icons of a bygone era with the other.
However, as Schumacher rightly points out, few architects ever entertain the goal of creating iconic designs (and apparently those that do are no more than "charlatan epigones"). At Zaha Hadid Architects, he writes:
"Our methodology involves the use of distortions, curvature and gradients, respectively in order to adapt to irregular sites, maintain legibility in the face of complex interrelations, and to articulate connections and transitions. The result is often visually surprising and stimulating. But we never aim to create an icon. Our buildings become icons, temporarily, until our methodology and style becomes more widespread."
Schumacher is not the first to express these sentiments. In fact, many architects have outright rejected the labels given to them by the media, with Frank Gehry dismissing the title of "starchitect" and countless other famous names arguing that what the media calls their "iconic" designs are actually intended as complex and sensitive responses to program or context. The sheer frequency with which this occurs is more than enough to give Schumacher's above claim credibility.
So if iconicity and stardom have nothing to do with their work, where does this adulation (or, depending on your viewpoint, accusation) come from? Schumacher is clear in his argument that there is a direct relationship between "icons," media coverage, and a fascination with the avant-garde. In particular:
"The conspicuous, memorable visual appearance of an avant-garde design is an inevitable by-product or side-effect of the new approach taken by the avant-garde architect."
"The side-effect of innovative work, i.e. the stimulating strangeness and sometimes the figurative suggestiveness of avant-garde buildings, becomes a values in itself."
For Schumacher, the phenomena of icons and stars, though not true representations of the ideas of the avant-garde, arise from a necessary simplification of ideas as they make their way from the heady world of architectural inner-circles to the public at large. But while he repeatedly emphasizes that substituting challenging works and deserved reputations for icons and stars is valid, Schumacher leaves a single crack in the armor:
"Only a few names become visible and as a result these names get perhaps an undue share of the overall work opportunities. Their worthiness remains unexplained, becomes a dogma. Therefore they might stay in the game perhaps a little longer than is merited, while younger talent remains obscure for longer than they should. But these inevitable shortcomings do not invalidate the essential rationality of the star-system as explicated above."
If it is possible for some practices to be getting attention that they no longer deserve, how might we identify them? It is here that we come to an odd juncture: clearly, Schumacher considers himself an avant-garde architect and a worthy recipient of the extensive media coverage that his practice receives (even if for the past half-decade or so it has been less generous than he would like). And now, he has given us the tools and, effectively, an invitation to judge his own self assessment.
Fifteen years ago, it was really beyond question that Zaha Hadid Architects was a member of the avant-garde. Their structures pushed the boundaries of what was physically possible and their forms pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. Most importantly, despite considerable intrigue from the architecture world, they had struggled for decades to become more than just "paper architects," with their Vitra Fire Station the only major building to their name. They fit every aspect of the avant-garde definition, which according to Wikipedia involves "pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo."
Fast forward a decade and a half though, and they are among the world's most successful practices, with awards such as the Pritzker Prize and back-to-back Stirling Prize awards from the architectural establishment, and many of their clients quite literally coming from "The Establishment." In other words, if not yet a purveyor of the status quo, Zaha Hadid Architects is much less of a fringe-player than it once was.
To be clear, I'm not ready to dismiss Schumacher's claim to the avant-garde crown just yet, not least because there are no obvious contenders for a replacement. But it's worth noting that, while Schumacher considers the change of attitude after the 2008 financial crisis that "led many critics and architects to denounce iconicity as frivolous and wasteful" and dismisses their criticisms, he seems to forget the one thing that has changed the most: his own practice.