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.”
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.