​Patrik Schumacher: “We try to dissuade the client from making the national aspect too prominent”

, People

On the day of the official opening of first Zaha Hadid public commission in Moscow, creative director of Strelka Institute Vassily Zorkiy met up with Patrik Schumacher — director of Zaha Hadid Architects — to discuss national spirit in architecture, finding the alternative to modernism and the narrow-mindedness of contemporary schools of architecture.

— There is a widespread notion that works of Zaha Hadid Architects are more akin to sculpture than to architecture. I myself find this point of view deeply wrong, but could you explain the difference?

— There’s a certain degree of overlapping between sculpture and design in general — both in architecture and in industrial design. A lot of people come to this point of view because they see that in our projects we often use unusual shapes, materials, details, dynamic curvature. And of course this is something more often found in sculpture.

But for us unconventional form is instrumental in describing the living processes within walls. Our focus is on the ability of buildings to invite us to participate in certain social situations. These structures are created not just to be photographed and admired from a distance, not to be appreciated simply as shapes. They are meant to communicate and facilitate an internal meaning — the contemporary spirit, in this particular case the contemporary work culture of the post-Fordist network society.

— How should I feel once inside the Dominion Tower?

— I think you will sense the spirit of openness, the spirit of contemporary progress. You should expect companies based here to be very ambitious. The building is not occupied yet, so you can actually peep into the lobbies, conference rooms, look out into the garden.

— Parametricism as a movement is based on research and analysis of human behaviour. As a result you are able to create a life matrix for particular segment of the society and the shape of the building is defined by many various parameters. But how important is the final shape that the building takes? What is more crucial — the aesthetics of form or capturing internal processes?

— I think that the inside is ultimately more important than the outside. But in an urban environment the outside is also situated inside — inside the congregation of urban spaces. This project in Moscow, compared to our other buildings, is situated in a lesser urbanized context. But the exterior appearance allows people to understand the semiotics, tells them something about the inner workings of the building. So sending signals to the world outside is also a part of its function.

— In Russia we love to talk about the so-called national idea — some even claim that we occupy a unique historical path and that architecture should reflect that in terms of style and spirit. Do you think this is still relevant in the globalised world of 2015? How important is this preservation of national character?

— Well the answer is no. First thing that one needs to realize is that today all architecture is global architecture. Legitimate national architectures — they do not exist anymore. It used to be different 50 years ago, but today we live in a globalised society with globalised culture. Science, literature, cinema, design — we share it all.

So, if you are a young Russian architect, it makes little sense to think only of Russian audiences, it’s far too limiting. You need to always think of a global audience and therefore all disciplines are now global disciplines. However one of the crucial elements of parametricism is local adaptation: to national idiosyncrasies, local flavour of the city, the climate and other factors. But this doesn’t have to result in a ‘national’ style. It just means that the project will not be a generic copy and will be in line with universal principles.“Look for resonance with the existing context, look for adaptation, for dialogue, for affiliation” — this is one of the main principles of parametricism.

— But should we be thinking about national identity, about culture at all?

— I don’t think so.

— I agree with you. I think it’s a consequence of our fear and unwillingness to become a part of the bigger world.

— In exceptional cases, if you have certain clients rooted in the national institutions, one question inevitably arises: how to express national features and still keep it contemporary? We get this a lot in China. Chinese clients have this obsession with having pronounced national identity in the projects.This dialogue is very similar to the one you have in Russia. And so the first thing we do is we try to dissuade the client from making this national aspect too prominent. But if this becomes an important requirement for cultural acceptance — then we are ready to compromise and look for national elements that could be used. Climatic conditions, for example. In the Middle East we make sure to design very enclosed spaces, so that to shield the building from all the excessive heat and light. This directly corresponds to the cultural traditions, and at the same time it’s still very contemporary. So that way we can maintain the spirit of parametricism.

— When I was studying architecture at university, we used to spend a lot of time refining oursketching, drawing, painting skills. Since that time architecture has moved on significantly. Today an architect is expected to maintain a more multidisciplinary set of skills. What do you make of this change?

— Of course, the contemporary architect has to have an awareness of where the society is going, of important trends, of history and of the importance of historical moment. But it’s something that all professions share, it’s not specific to architecture. Entrepreneurs have to be even more aware, because they are the ones making critical decisions that contribute to this process. So we as architects can partly rely on the clients to have that knowledge and appraisal of history, of economics. Because we have our own expertise — understanding of new design possibilities, new economics, microclimate — we actually work at the very frontier of innovation. And this is not something you can learn in school, it’s something you have to imagine and create.

In schools we’ve already given up on the idea that you need to possess a lot of technical skills that have to do with the construction process, with structural and mechanical engineering, facade detailing. In my opinion it’s a waste of time — you will learn that quickly in the profession anyway. Learning the design tools — modeling, scripting, working with algorithms — is much more important. One has to invest in a certain level of technical skill needed for expressing the spatial imagination, and not in drawing, but with algorithms. And that needs to be emphasized more because in many schools they have somehow neglected this aspect focusing instead on the discussion of economics and politics. This is important as well, but without those vital technical skills students would not be able to create solutions for those economic issues.

— I guess many have asked you about your experience of working in Russia. There are numerous examples of architects — Mario Botta, Dominique Perrault, Corbusier to name a few — who found working in Russia problematic and rather unpleasant. Why do you think this is the case?

— I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to generalize. As far as I know the architects you mentioned had issues mainly concerning the quality of work execution.

— You always work in collaboration with local partners, is that right?

— Yes, that is correct. Except for the UK, Germany and Italy — in these countries we do 100% of work. I can say that compared to the 1990s quality of construction work in Russia has definitely improved. Back then, during the first wave of investment, everything had to be built fast and there wasn’t enough mature judgement to differentiate quality. But that’s only natural. The same thing happened in China. Today Russia has definitely reached a level of certain maturity. So I think there should be more opportunities for international architects and top-quality world-class buildings. Just look at South Korea that has been developing since 1970s: an array of major works, including the impressive central building in Seoul. These things take time. I don’t think there’s an inherent problem with Russian pride or that Russian nationalism is getting in the way of progress.

— I think that on many levels Russia is still scared of becoming a part of the global world. All this talk of the loss of national identity, of our role in global politics is actually a symptom for our fear of having to compete with other countries on the global market. So instead we claim to have a path of our own while making sure to keep our hand closer to the nuclear button. Competition is rough in the modern world.

— The Soviet Union was a huge multicultural and multinational state, and Russia still has a very large population with many different regions and traditions. I’ve come to believe that in the XXI century we will be all living in a globalized society with many regional identities and the idea of nation will reduce its degree importance. The identity of a separate city has much more relevance to me. Comparing Berlin to Moscow makes much more sense than comparing Germany to Russia.

These city regions have an identity because of the role they play in the global division of labor. A city can be a banking center or an industrial center, a creative arts center, sometimes all those things combined in one as is the case in London. I quite enjoy observing smaller countries that emerged as a result of bigger formations such as Yugoslavia breaking up. I like smaller countries because they are friendlier, there’s much more immediacy of relationship — both with citizens and with political leaders. In Slovenia you meet the president, the minister, you can easily discuss everything at the dinner table. Same with Czech republic, Slovakia, Croatia — they are much more benign and friendly. So I wouldn’t mind if Catalonia breaks up with Spain or Bavaria with Germany.

— I think that breaking up is actually the only way for these bigger countries to survive.

— I would like that to happen! I don’t enjoy overarching distant bureaucracies and I’m not so sure I like the way the European Union is structured. I like the texture of smaller countries that experiment with different types of governance rather than trying to centralize.

— All your work is based on the study of socioeconomic processes. Are you following the existing processes trying to improve them or modeling new ones?

— Architecture is a very important profession, because initially it implies understanding of the ongoing processes and knowing that one’s own contribution is limited by time. We need to be aware of historical forces. Our main goal is to select progressive tendencies. It’s important to align oneself with certain social and economic trends that are spreading, because that way your own influence would also increase. Architecture is an element of evolution. We must intuitively decide which tendencies are more likely to proliferate and what sort of architectural response this situation requires. That way the whole world would be able to develop in unison.

Unfortunately the years after 2008 have been very difficult and stagnant. In order to understand this situation I had to return to my study of society and economics. But research only reaffirmed what intuition had been telling me: parametricism remains the answer. The economic crisis of 2008 was a backlash triggered by the old, government-oriented attempts to regulate the economy that were restricting the self-regulatory mechanisms of the free market. This led to certain distortions. What I feared was a retreat to the architecture of previous generations — posterity, minimalism, rationalism, but we managed to avoid that. I’m 100% convinced that it would have been historically wrong. But in order to come to this conclusion I had to reach an understanding of the current state of things and also of possible solutions for resolving the stagnation. In my opinion the only way out is to ensure more entrepreneurial freedom. That’s why I like Uber, Google ‒ these are the companies that our architecture aligns with.

Photo: Ivan Anisimov

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