Parametricism, architecture of hollow unreality?



Zaha Hadid Architects and the Neoliberal Avant-Garde

“….an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes. This unreality has infused architectural production, often finding resolution in hysterical, liquid, fluid form at audacious scale – the kind of thing recently dubbed ‘Parametricism’ by Patrik Schumacher.’ The ideas of ‘differentiation’, the opposition to the ‘fixed’, has its own economic correspondent..” says Sam Jacob

By Owen Hatherley

Is it possible to be both builders of the prestige spaces of capital and self-declared avant-gardists? Owen Hatherley takes a look at the fluid architecture and financial times of Zaha Hadid Architects The New Avant-Garde Acknowledges its Precursors This summer, there was an exhibition at the Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich entitled Zaha Hadid and Suprematism. It was a ‘dialogue’ between the Anglo-Iraqi architect, winner of the 2010 Stirling Prize – and her apparent forbears, the 1920s Soviet avant-garde, as her flowing, bristling forms whipped through rooms containing works by Kasimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, Nikolai Suetin and El Lissitzky.

Accompanying the exhibition was ‘A Glimpse Back into the Future’, a text by Hadid’s ‘right-hand man’, the theorist and architect Patrik Schumacher.1 While some would disassociate Constructivism and Communism, or argue that Bolshevik ‘totalitarianism’ was the enemy of art, Schumacher had no such qualms, and his text is impressively unambiguous in placing the political revolution as the very foundation of artistic innovation. ‘90 years ago the October Revolution ignited the most exuberant surge of creative energy that has ever erupted on planet earth. This amazing firework of creative exuberance took off under the most severe material circumstances – fuelled by the idealistic enthusiasm for the project of a new society.’ We’re very far from opulent Swiss galleries, although Schumacher does not make the unflattering comparison. In fact, he argues, the next century of art and architecture was so indebted to this convulsive decade that literally nothing was developed later that wasn’t already anticipated by the Soviet avant-garde. 

The pace, quantity and quality of the creative work in art, science and design was truly astounding, anticipating in one intense flash what then took another 50 years to unfold elsewhere in the world.

He gives particular attention to the way in which abstraction, carried to an extreme in the completely non-referential ‘Non-Objective World’ of Kasimir Malevich and the Suprematist painters and architects that followed him, created a space where earthly rules did not apply. He does, however, mildly chastise the Soviet painter,

Malevich has been a pioneer of abstraction and a pioneer in directly linking abstract art with architecture via his seminal ‘tectonics’. It is interesting, however, to observe that these tectonic sculptures, which were conceived as a kind of proto-architecture, were geometrically far more constrained than his compositions on canvas, too ‘cubic’ and orthogonal to make the leap into unrestricted freedom.

There is a successor here, who will not be bound to the right-angle in the same manner. ‘It is a well established fact that the work of Zaha Hadid took its first inspiration from the early Russian avant-garde, in particular she directly engaged with the work of Kasimir Malevich’, that is in her first major project, the 1980s work Malevich’s Tektonik, a proposal for a Suprematist replacement for London’s Hungerford Bridge. So Hadid will go where the Russian avant-garde could not – into a completely non-objective world, freed from the last vestiges of spatial reality which Malevich still insisted upon. Yet in a very different context. ‘These projects’, writes Schumacher, ‘in all their experimental radicality – had a real social meaning and political substance. But their originality and artistic ingenuity transcends the context of the grand Russian social experiment.’ So it would be worthwhile to investigate the connection between Malevich’s successor and the social and political world she inhabits. Schumacher has been explicit that there is a new avant-garde, represented most prominently in the work of Zaha Hadid Architects, and has mainly faced ridicule for his claims. Here, we’ll attempt to take him at least partly seriously, and evaluate exactly what this avant-garde consists of – what it retains, and what it loses, from previous notions of the avant-garde. Schumacher imagines an avant-garde without politics, and this does curious and under-investigated things to the concept itself.

Patrik Schumacher Declares Style War

Unlike Schumacher, Hadid is no theorist, nor has she ever pretended to be. Among the generation of ‘deconstructivists’ who emerged out of architecture schools in the 1980s – Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Steven Holl, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Daniel Libeskind – she was always conspicuous in her lack of interest in quoting Derrida or Benjamin to justify her forms, although she has always cited the similarly Marxian Soviet avant-garde. So it’s curious that in recent years Schumacher, her architectural partner for the last 16 years, has become her abstract ventriloquist, writing intensely theoretical texts to go alongside every museum and opera house. Schumacher is a little more ambitious than the average Deleuze-citing architect, however. The postmodernist fear of the grand gesture, categorisation and periodisation, or the Hegelian historical sweep is not for him. Most of all, there is no hint of the discomfort on the question of whether an avant-garde can still exist. In a series of articles and one book over the last two years, he has proselytised for a new avant-garde he calls ‘Parametricism’, a term derived from the computer scripting software that most large architectural firms use in designing buildings. Architects, especially in the UK, are an inconsistent bunch when it comes to theorising what they do. Most of them opt for one of a series of competing pragmatisms – the utilitarianism of high-tech, the dour ‘social’ concerns of vernacular, and mostly a less conscious disdain for the idea of thinking too much about what you’re doing; while a minority in the more elite architecture schools immerse themselves in continental theory – to be glib, it’s Heidegger if you like natural materials and ‘nature’, Deleuze if you like aggressive modernity. Schumacher is nearer to the latter trend, but his unabashed confidence in his own assertions marks him out. 

 In the 2008 paper ‘Parametricism as Style – a Parametric Manifesto’, Schumacher defines this new entity in terms fairly familiar from Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia.2 On his list of ‘don’t’s, or his ‘negative heuristics’, are a mish-mash of ideas from 20th century modernism and late 20th century traditionalism – ‘avoid familiar typologies, avoid platonic/hermetic objects, avoid clear-cut zones/territories, avoid repetition, avoid straight lines, avoid right angles, avoid corners’. Partly this is a list of bad things the earlier, ‘cubic’ avant-garde does – all the things that make it boring to the architecture student, its unfriendly linearity, its formal rigours. As for the ‘positive heuristics’, we’re stuck in the Thousand Plateaus – we must ‘interarticulate, hyberdize (sic), morph, deterritorialize, deform, iterate, use splines, nurbs, generative components, script rather than model…’ The extreme syntactical inelegance is evidently part of the point, the tumbling onrush of psuedoscientific terms and the staccato sentence structure makes the prose sound like an operative thing rather than mere description. Initial responses in the architectural press have largely stayed at the level of ridicule, but Schumacher set out to challenge this with an extraordinary article in the Architects Journal, easily the most aggressive, theoretical and indigestible piece of prose ever published in this trade magazine. The piece, ‘Let the Style Wars Begin’, was a condensation and intensification of his various, more rarefied rhetorical interventions for public consumption, though with no concession given to the readership.3 It begins with a valedictory tone: 

In my Parametricist Manifesto of 2008, I first communicated that a new, profound style has been maturing within the avant-garde segment of architecture during the last 10 years. The term ‘parametricism’ has since been gathering momentum within architectural discourse and its critical questioning has strengthened it. So far, knowledge of the new style has remained largely confined within architecture

but, he confidently asserts,

 I suspect news will spread quickly once it is picked up by the mass media. Outside architectural circles, ‘style’ is virtually the only category through which architecture is observed and recognised. A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture.

The insistence on style is interesting. The modernists of the 1920s attempted wherever possible to avoid the term, preferring the neutral and technocratic New Building or Constructivism; when it was later dubbed The International Style by critic Henry-Russell Hithcock and Fascist activist Philip Johnson, it was as a deliberate attempt to celebrate the finer things, to hold up villas and ‘an architecture still’ against the ‘fanatical functionalists’ who wanted to build for ‘some proletarian superman of the future’, those who claimed they’d abolished architecture by realising it. The high-tech generation who are essentially today’s architectural elders, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers et al, always disdained the notion of style, claiming ever less convincingly to be above such fripperies, their work emerging from solely technological imperatives. Schumacher, though, claims he will use style as a means of communicating with the public, unsurprisingly, as he was never likely to do so with his prose. The grand claims go alongside this hope for public recognition: ‘Parametricism finally offers a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.’ The aim of achieving hegemony is again something that the technocrats, liberals and neoclassicists would never admit to. Schumacher clearly wants to destroy his woolly opponents, and in that there’s no doubt he’s an avant-gardist of some sort.

Read entire article at: http://www.metamute.org/en/articles/zaha_hadid_architects