With the 2016 Venice Biennale opening this week, it seems oddly appropriate that a dispute originating in the 2014 Biennale is finally hitting the courts. On Tuesday evening, a New Jersey court document was anonymously leaked to ArchDaily and a variety of other architecture publications. It showed that Alejandro Zaera-Polo, founder of AZPML and former Dean of Princeton University’s School of Architecture, was suing his employer over the events surrounding his own abrupt resignation as Dean last year.
The resignation itself was demanded* by Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber after Zaera-Polo was accused of plagiarizing parts of a text he produced for the “Elements of Architecture” exhibition curated by Rem Koolhaas at the 2014 Venice Biennale. From the start, Zaera-Polo has denied that his texts violate Princeton’s academic code of conduct, but nevertheless agreed to Eisgruber’s demand. In the documents leaked Tuesday, Zaera-Polo criticizes the actions taken by Princeton both before and since his resignation, arguing that they have damaged his reputation. He is thus suing them on four charges: “breach of contract,” “breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” “tortious interference with contract and prospective economic advantage,” and finally “trade libel.”
The story will undoubtedly receive a lot of attention, given that it involves a controversial dispute between an internationally renowned architect and a university with an international stature. But the real story behind the dispute is not about Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s academic conduct or Princeton’s handling of its staff contracts; instead, it has everything to do with our expected standards for architectural research.
The lawsuit—and in particular the last charge of trade libel—rests heavily on the the rumors of plagiarism that have been spread on internet forums by up to 20 unknown “John or Jane Does” that are listed among the defendants, in comments which the documents argue “could only have been made by a person associated with Princeton.” It also criticizes Princeton’s refusal to release information that might prevent the further spread of these rumors.
Central to the dispute is the text provided by Zaera-Polo for a book connected to the Venice Biennale, in which Zaera-Polo curated the “Facade” section of Rem Koolhaas’ central “Elements of Architecture” exhibition. Zaera-Polo was accused, allegedly by a group of Princeton students, of plagiarism related to the text. In response, he admitted to removing citations, but argued that the text was “polemic” rather than academic (as was clearly stated in the text’s introduction), and that therefore Princeton’s usual standards of academic conduct should not apply to the piece.**
What’s notable is that both parties essentially agree on what happened regarding the text; the disagreement is over what extent Princeton’s usual academic code of conduct should apply to a text that was intended to be non-academic. Critically, the decision to make the text non-academic was made to enable it to reach a broader audience. As Koolhaas stated in an email to defend Zaera Polo, “the point from the beginning was to make a publication accessible to any reader”—with another version of the text released later by a different publisher “in which we will have the opportunity to establish the traditional level of academic standard for all contributions,” according to Koolhaas.
While some might question whether omitting citations is really necessary in order to appeal to a wider audience, it’s worth remembering that this argument is being backed by Rem Koolhaas—a man that has made a career out of toeing the line between weighty theory and populist spectacle. If Rem Koolhaas says that omitting citations was necessary to reach a wider audience, then it’s a fair bet that that’s the truth.
This lawsuit, then, raises the question: what is the best way to construct a robust discourse around architectural research?
When it comes to academic research, the rigor applied to even the best architectural research pales in comparison to that applied in some other fields. Take for example the sciences: in order to publish research, authors must usually be accepted by a publication (in which the publisher’s reputation matters enormously), then go through multiple rounds of peer review and editing before publication. Once published, research might be subjected to a replication study to test the results of the original, and even then it may be regarded with skepticism until its conclusions can be understood in tandem with the other accumulated knowledge of the field in question. In principle, more academic rigor sounds like a fantastic idea, and is no doubt central to Princeton University’s code of academic conduct.
But despite all of the rigor applied to scientific studies, the sciences have a huge problem in communicating their research to a wider audience. Very, very few people other than scientists ever read actual scientific studies, and the media is littered with poor reporting that misunderstands or sensationalizes the findings of science. Believing everything in the media about scientific research into coffee, for example, could lead to an impression that, in the words of John Oliver, “coffee today is like God in the Old Testament: it will either save you or kill you depending on how much you believe in its magic powers.”
This lack of effective communication between the sciences and the public is a serious problem for the field, and has been blamed for things such as the public skepticism over global warming or the number of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. At its worst, it engenders a complete distrust of science itself.
But while science can to an extent continue regardless of the public’s understanding of it, it could be argued that architecture is even more reliant on communicating its research to the public. Architecture is after all a cultural process, and it evolves in tandem with the cultures—in other words, the people—who will become its users and clients. If these people are ignorant of the wealth of research that supports architecture’s past and future evolution, then what hope is there that new architecture will reach its potential?
So, on one hand, more rigor in architectural research sounds like a fantastic idea; on the other, an attempt to make architectural research more accessible to non-architects is also a valiant goal. This lawsuit by Alejandro Zaera-Polo is an important opportunity for architects to establish where they set their priorities.
* Note: The claim that Zaera Polo’s resignation was “demanded” by Eisgruber is made in the court documents. Previous public statements instead claimed that his resignation was “requested.”
** In a statement, Princeton also retaliated that their actions were motivated not only by the alleged plagiarism but also “in large measure because of statements he made in writing that indicated he was unfamiliar with the University’s policies on plagiarism.” Zaera-Polo again responded, in a comment on an ArchDaily article, that while he had acknowledged unfamiliarity with the rules Princeton had referred to he also “questioned the applicability of these rules to the accused work.” These statements are included here for a complete summary of the two parties’ exchange, but have been excluded from the main text of this article in order to focus on what is (as implied by Princeton’s statement) at least a “small measure” of the motivation for Princeton’s actions: the alleged plagiarism itself.