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Political Correctness and Architecture

I haven’t revisited Patrik Schumacher’s Facebook – for not since Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Informers” have I felt so unclean after reading anything. But, if nobody else is going to, I’ll have to pick him up on his misuse of the term politically correct. Here’s a man, PhD and whatever, lecturing at Princeton, 1,200-plus pages published by Wiley la-di-da. and he don’t understand how English works.

The language is notoriously fluid. Anyone who lived through the eighties saw certain words and terms replaced with what came to be known as politically correct terminology. Some were ridiculously clumsy. Most drew attention to themselves and, as these things go, their users. But some of those terms are now accepted parts of our language. Others, such as spastic, gay and black were appropriated and reborn as statements of fact or pride and society and our language is richer as a result. Now, when people decide to make a whateverist prat of themselves, it’s easier to tell. What political correctness attempts to do is rid language of racism, sexism, ageism, elitism and other embedded prejudices. It was and continues to be a good thing. 

Nevertheless.

We all know that Schumacher was simply venting his frustration at buildings designed for poor peoples, populations or countries getting some recognition, rather than all the recognition going to buildings designed for oligarchs, despots, dictators and Macau casino operators. In short, it was a display of petulance. The closest modernspeak equivalent of petulance is “throwing one’s toys out of the pram”.

However. 

Designing ways or means to make life less miserable for those less fortunate is not scary POLIITICAL CORRECTNESS – it’s just a humanly good thing to do. You might want to call this moral correctness, or even virtue in whatever your particular system of belief is. In some parallel universe, you might even simply want to call it ethical architecture.

Such hair-splitting only becomes political when people wish to be seen to be doing the right thing. Who knows what motives were behind Foster+Partners’ 2009 design for a School in Sierra Leone? Or why it got so much press at the time?

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The design is being jointly funded by Foster + Partners, Article 25 (is a construction charity working in International Development) and Buro Happold and construction will be financed by the Foster family.

Footnote: A 2 February 2011 on the Article 25 website stated “Construction to commence upon release of capital funds.” Does that mean what I think it means? If you cast your mind back, 2009 was the year before the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, better known as that big tent in Khazakstan, was completed to much Khazak and media fanfare. [You know? I only just made the yurt connection – gotta hand it to The Foster, he’s a crafty old dog.]

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2009 was also three years after the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation for the same client-state. [See also ARKYTEKTYSTAN.]

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Donating one’s own money to design and hopefully build a school in a place that probably needs one suddenly seems a bit like spin, a pre-emptive penance. Surely a business model in which full-fee work is accepted from only clients possessing a basic understanding of human rights would be less morally schizophrenic? But that’s not how it works. Right now, I imagine some advisor advisedly advising the Zaha Hadid Architects’ directors to toss a few crumbs of client diversity presswards soonish.

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
                  [early 20C, origin disputed]

In 1890, social unrest made it necessary for the industrialist and patron of the arts, Eusebi Güell, to move his textile mill to Santa Coloma de Cervelló. The new project involved the creation of an industrial village with amenities which would improve the workers’ quality of life: terraced houses, an athenaeum, theatre, school, shops, gardens and church.

Social unrest eh? Sounds like a story.

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I couldn’t find any information on the terraced houses, athenaeum, theatre, school, shops, gardens terraced housing so we can safely assume they were devoid of architectural media value, if not worth. But we know about the church and THANK GOD for Güell pulling the plug on it! It was to have been a remarkably hideous building forming the centrepiece of a rather bland worker housing estate, like having marzipan grotesquely forced down your throat when all you wanted was bread.   

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It reminded me of this recent masterplan for Nanjing by CK Designworks. Ordinary housing given an architectural centrepiece as something for the community to focus on. Something for people to wander around with a sense of awe and wonder perhaps, before going back to their miserable homes and jobs.

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Architecture as palliative, bread and circuses. Like Gaudí and the Nanjing masterplanners, Schumacher believes architects contribute to society by providing the shapes that symbolise its oppression. I see the same symptoms in London. People appalled at the poor quality and high cost of new-build homes will still recommend you visit The Shard because “you like architecture don’t you?” And be irritated when you reply “not that kind”.

A recurring theme of this blog is that “architecture” is distancing itself from humanitarian concerns and that we, as consumers of starchitect imagery, are actually facilitating this process. Let’s be clear. By “humanitarian concerns” I don’t mean schools in Sierra Leone or stuff like what Architecture for Humanity does. I just mean a concern for the quality of the environments in which people live wherever they are. Around the corner is just as important as a few time zones or a tropic or two away.

A disturbing trend is for concerns in exotic locations to be presented as if they of more value than imperfections and inadequacies on one’s own doorstep. This month’s Architecture Review tells me Michal Sorkin is just back from Ecuador, where he and his students have been “shadowing the just-begun construction of a new town called Yachay on a spectacular site on the Andean highlands, about 100km north of Quito.”

I’m still undecided about Shigeru Ban. To me, he’s a bit too quick to rush to an epicentre with an armful of paper tubes from his uncle’s factory. Apparently, Shigeru Ban has two businesses – one’s a conventional one for fee-paying projects and the other is an NGO for cherrypicked humanitarian projects done free of charge. The Christchurch church was one of the latter and Ban reportedly accepted the job because the space can be used for secular activities as well and because some Japanese died in the earthquake. Both are curious reasons for a building that people are misled into thinking is a genuine humanitarian gesture by an architect. But it matters little.

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It’s not like we’re talking about refugee housing where the UN does all the grunt work in readying and providing those compact, lightweight, easily transportable and quickly deployable shelters known as tents.

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To a recipient, it doesn’t matter if one is housed in a UN tent or an inventive paper tube structure by a Pritzker prizewinner. Although, in passing, an architecturally branded paper tube is just a paper tube admirable only to an architectural congnoscenti, whereas a UN logo might just make people think twice about shelling you. I know which I’d prefer.

W/e. The criteria for selecting Pritzker prize awardees include “consistent and significant contributions to humanity” but the first ever recipient was Philip Johnson so go figure. Like Johnson, Ban is free to use his own fortune however he likes although it’s to his credit that he’s putting humanitarian concerns into an architectural agenda as well as his Pritzker acceptance comments.

Most Pritzker reportage has mentioned the “two sides” to the outputs of Ban’s two offices’ and has used the Centre Pompidou Metz 

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to illustrate the commercial side. Paper tubes are being used to add value to an exhibition space. It’s basically the same decorative-structure-as-brand-recognition that RSH+P so overplayed in Barcelona. Presumably, the cachet of that solution and the association with the brand responsible for it is what the client paid good money for. Paper tubes too have two sides to them.

And so, for that matter, do shipping containers. We saw them used as the walls for the Christchurch church and also as walls for the “Nomadic Museum©”. The name Nomadic Museum has been copyrighted by Gregory Colbert, the artist whose works it forms the permanent home for, so I’m assuming someone paid Ban good money for the design of that building and for the association with his brand. 

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Ban might be keeping his fee-taking and his non fee-taking business interests separate, but there’s a large amount of branding crossover. So much that it’s beginning to become unclear which side is funding which. Not unlike Philip Johnson, now I think of it. Perhaps Ban’s genius lies in the synergetic separation of the branding side of architecture and its moneymaking side. Again, not unlike Philip Johnson’s. At least for the time being, Ban’s work has a boson of moral virtue that is isolable and identifiable. It is an ever-so-momentary-and-faintly-detectable flash in the dark that just might indicate a way forward.

Or a way back. PREVIOUSLY, IN THESE PAGES … Dr. Glen Hill explained how Vitruvius’s famed venustas was suddenly translated as visual “delight” in the 19th century whereas until then beauty had always had meant morally virtuous. This moral virtue could be what we’re trying to work our way back to, but we just can’t find the word for it yet.

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So all in all a big thanks to Patrik Schumacher for making it clear: moral virtue is no different from what his idea of what political correctness is and which so offends him. Imagine him hysterically screaming

“We must stop all this moral virtuousness in architecture!” 

and see just how hollow and petty it sounds. Worse, imagine the kind of world it portends. At the end of the day, if Schumacher can’t identify and separate moral virtue from the term “politically correct” and its several shades of grey, then who’s to say he’s not misunderstanding the word “architecture” as well?

But that’s for another day and another post. That’s it from the language police for now.

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