He has proposed eliminating social housing and privatising streets – so is Zaha Hadid’s successor the most hated man in urbanism?
When Patrik Schumacher, who took over as head of Zaha Hadid Architects after its legendary founder’s death in early 2016, gave a speech at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin later that year, he nearly caused a riot. In the speech, which was about how to reduce sky-high urban housing prices, he proposed eliminating social housing, privatising all public spaces – including streets – and selling off most of London’s Hyde Park for development.
The London Evening Standard slammed him on its front page, mayor Sadiq Kahn criticised him as “just plain wrong”, protesters showed up at his offices, and some fellow architects called for denying him any future platforms to speak or write.
Schumacher was no fringe figure. He’d been a partner at Hadid’s practice and has helped design acclaimed structures ranging from the Maxxi museum in Rome to the Leeza Soho in Beijing, which will feature the world’s tallest atrium. He has a PhD in philosophy and has written a two-volume, 1,200-page book called the Autopoiesis of Architecture. When he took over at Zaha Hadid Architects he inherited one of the highest-profile jobs in global architecture, with real clout to see his ideas put into practice.
So was he actually serious in that speech?
“Quite serious, especially about the privatisation agenda,” he says, in the Teutonic accent that, along with his stern demeanour and penchant for frame-hugging black outfits, may have added to his being stereotyped in the English-speaking world as a cartoon villain.
“If you look at public spaces today, it’s meant to be all-inclusive, but it’s strictly policed. It’s kind of generic, for some kind of mean voter-crafted space that is quite uninspired. I think there should be much more diversity. I think these public spaces are kind of wasted if they’re managed by the public, by local bureaucrats if you like. I would imagine streets gaining character if they had entrepreneurs imagining their potential – plazas, parks, gardens.”
He refuses to back down on his proposals, but he admits the backlash took him by surprise. “I was a bit shocked,” says Schumacher. “I mean, I have a thick skin, but it was unexpected and troubling. And it did for a while make me pull away a bit and calm down, to hide my polemics for a little bit and let that storm kind of fly over. I was really ducking under for a while.”
Schumacher is no stranger to controversy. He has immodestly claimed that “Parametricism”, his theoretical approach to architecture, should replace modernism and its successors to become the universal style of the 21st century. He doesn’t shy away from quarrelling with architecture critics on Facebook and has argued that government should no longer fund art and architecture schools.
But he rather surprisingly argues that he roots his contrarian, libertarian views in the motivations of the urbanist mainstream – namely, broad-based prosperity and access to urban economies. The Berlin talk, he points out, was about how to create “housing for everyone”. “My starting point was, beyond the housing crisis itself, general lack of innovation and over-bureacratisation of the development process, which I think is a factor in the affordability crisis.”
Schumacher’s earnestness is disarming; he speaks energetically and passionately about how access to cities, and their economically dynamic economies, is being hamstrung by high housing prices. One vociferous critic, Phineas Harper of the Architecture Foundation, who has urged the architecture world to stop giving Schumacher a platform, says he “seems to have his heart in the right place”.
Where they differ is on the underlying causes of the housing crisis – which Schumacher believes is government regulation.
“Planning rules need to loosen up in terms of land-use allocation,” Schumacher says. “Land use is fixed politically. The overall quantum to be developed is fixed exactly – the types of uses which then come into the building. When it comes to residential, the unit mix – how many four bedroom, three bedroom, two bedrooms are fixed, how many flats per core. And within each unit there are size prescriptions, facility prescriptions ... every room is kind of determined.”
He argues, without citing examples, that private business can provide freer public spaces for young people. “We have a thousand publics which don’t have to be equally catered to in every single space. We could have some spaces which are more edgy, for youth, where you could slacken the rules a little bit and you don’t have to have all this law and order, anti-laddism, rules and policing. In another space, you cater for a different section of the public.”
It is not just the rules he blames, but the regulators themselves. “The power of the planners gives a lot of uncertainty,” he says, and argues that Nimbyism doesn’t help. He would find a few supporters among the Yimby (“Yes In My Backyard”) movement, who have argued for more housing construction in cities, regardless of income band, as part of a wider effort to bring prices down for everyone. “London and other cities are too low density. Density is not something I abstractly promote. It’s something that’s desired.”
All of this goes against the grain of the more commonly accepted method for trying to make housing more affordable; namely, increased regulation, particularly affordable housing requirements. Schumacher believes this simply backfires. “It contributes to the very lack of affordability,” he says. “If you burden all new development with 50% highly subsidised housing, then that is something that goes into the calculation of prices, and has to be put on top of apartments that are left to be sold. They then by definition become more expensive.”
Schumacher fears that the current sky-high housing prices may be politically impossible to reduce. Because so many people bought homes at inflated prices, anything that restores affordability would destroy large swathes of household wealth.
“There’s a kind of strange hypocrisy where they keep crying out about rising prices – but in the end they certainly don’t want falling prices. Maybe they’re trying to aim for slowly growing prices? But this would mean that the imbalances that have been created on some of these land value prices would not go away.”
Like another high profile but frequently pilloried urbanist, Richard Florida, Schumacher believes cities have to continue to attract the best and brightest citizens, including immigrants, and create a “clustering” environment for creative-class industries to prosper. He uses Zaha Hadid Architects as an example.
“My staff here in the firm – young professionals – they know they have to be close. They can’t afford to live miles away,” he says. “They need to be in the pub afterwards debating issues. They need to slip over to the exhibition opening or that university lecture close by. They need to go to the networking breakfast before work or be available on the weekend maybe for seminars. People feel it in their bones. They have to be in the centre.”
Land prices are the biggest threat to this urban primacy. “People are moving out of LA, out of the Bay Area. They have to create other tech clusters because of land prices. Now that’s a tough choice for a young startup – to swallow these huge prices or to pull away. But pulling away means being less connected, being less productive potentially.
“These are decisions we shouldn’t have to pose to ourselves. It’s the same as here in London where people pull away and try to build a kind of tech cluster in Croydon. It’s sub-optimal. It’s not necessary. They should pile in to Shoreditch and to the tech cluster there rather than pulling away to Croydon. It makes no sense.”
Some of Schumacher’s critics admit he has a point on housing regulation. Writing in the Architect’s Journal, Paul Finch supported Schumacher’s call for higher densities and rethinking space standards, and Ian Ritchie called a rethink of planning regulations “legitimate”. But Schumacher loses them comprehensively with proposals such as eliminating social housing or building on Hyde Park, ideas that lack any real constituency. “Much of what he said was clearly unacceptable to those people in the audience, including myself, possessing a social conscience,” Ritchie wrote.
Schumacher argues he has been misunderstood. He says his proposals were intended to address what he sees as a negative feedback loop, as regulator mandates send prices spiralling upward and force people out. “That’s what I’ve been criticising,” he says. “It’s not about me attacking vulnerable groups in society and wanting to throw them on to the street. I’ve been depicted as this kind of villain, as this fascist. I’ve got this wave of defamation and my face with Hitler moustaches. The headline premise here is how can we actually create prosperity for all.”
That may be, but Schumacher was naive to believe that such radical views would not prompt a backlash. He protests that the public denunciations don’t always reflect people’s private beliefs. “I’ve been battered, but at a face-to-face level I get so much support … The opinions I am promoting are unusual, they cut against the grain, but I think they’re being picked up.”
Schumacher is probably engaging in wishful thinking if he believes his neoliberal privatisation scheme is becoming broadly popular. It is also true, however, that he is holding up an uncomfortable mirror to urbanists’ own beliefs and behaviours. Like them, he embraces the dense global city, transit, the creative-class economy, immigration and diversity, and the power of architecture and design to improve lives. Unlike them, he publicly endorses the neoliberalism that underpins it. His real sin may be openly championing London’s economy instead of ritually denouncing neoliberalism publicly while enjoying its benefits in private.
After all, the World Architecture Festival itself, where he gave the infamous speech, is an expression of global neoliberalism: London’s architecture industry depends on the global economy, as do its modern creative scenes, from fashion to furniture. This is the contradiction many urbanists struggle to resolve – why Sadiq Kahn might say he has a mandate to tackle the housing crisis but is unlikely to do anything truly radical about it.
Schumacher’s belief that any remaining barriers to the primacy of the market should be eliminated is simply the logic of contemporary London taken to its ultimate conclusion. This could be the real message his critics find unpalatable.