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Ian Ritchie on Patrik Schumacher, 2016

Schumacher’s vision is one in which the rich use the rest of the world as their playground

Patrik Schumacher’s WAF speech revealed him as an apologist for the politics of disposability, with no respect for the registers of care, compassion, and democratic vision, says Ian Ritchie

Published 30 November 2016, Architects’ Journal

An inability to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness is not a mark of intellectual audacity. There is nothing wrong with self-interest. If Patrik Schumacher, in his keynote speech at the World Architecture Festival, had said that under his aegis ZHA architects would focus only on the wealthy clients who allow them to exercise their creativity to the fullest, free of much regulation, one could understand, though the practice and executors of Zaha Hadid’s will have since issued a statement asserting the contrary. The moral fault lies in trying to disguise selfishness and by trying to persuade oneself and then others that it can be turned it into a laudable and sustainable philosophy.

Regardless of one’s position on the political spectrum, it is unfortunate that Schumacher revealed himself as a thinly disguised apologist for the politics of disposability and neo-liberal ideology. He is prepared to assault the social contract with the pernicious logic of exceptionalism. The people dismissed so casually in this faux-argument are not faceless units in the capitalist machine, but human beings, with hopes, aspirations and interests – just as he has – though with many, many more fears. These key workers, without whom our cities do not function, also have children who aspire to good things.

‘Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day,’ Walt Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871), ‘there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.’

Schumacher’s solution: give the free market complete control of housing and public spaces and everyone will benefit

This logic leads to the destruction of social bonds and modes of collective reasoning, the destruction of public spheres and cultural apparatuses crucial to a sustainable society.

It would be unjust to describe Schumacher’s WAF speech simply as an offensive entrepreneurial capitalist manifesto, although much of what he said was clearly unacceptable to those people in the audience, including myself, possessing a social conscience.

Schumacher’s point that planning regulations and density standards need a rethink is legitimate, as is his reference to Oliver Wainwright’s criticism of the leeway given to planners to interpret design and planning rules, which creates excessive cost and uncertainty to housing developers. It is also true that the vast majority of English housing development is undertaken by private enterprise. However, like his other theses for ‘solving’ the housing crisis – some extreme, some less so – it essentially promotes the same solution: give the free market complete control of housing and public spaces and everyone will benefit. The evidence is that an unrestrained free market does not and will not work.

With the zeal of a recent convert to capitalism, Schumacher comes across as a spokesman for a hyper-competitive free-market ideology in which the responsibilities of citizenship are reduced to the demands of a consumer culture. Here, civic virtue is measured by the individual’s degree of financial success and disproportionate consumption of resource, eg empty houses, and the concept of progress is defined by the yardstick of data, empiricism and efficiency. The registers of care, compassion, and democratic vision are all lost, as are the discourses of community, justice, equality, and the common good. This is invidious. It implies knowledge of the cost of everything and respect for nothing but entrepreneurial values, which has profound consequences that, whether we like it or not, need reiterating.

Unrestrained free market capitalism is a simple algorithm. It optimises, harshly and blindly, whatever the market values at any given moment. Evolution uses a similar algorithm, for which the currency is genes rather than capital. It is not an intelligent algorithm, and arguing that it should be used to design the built world is weak and feeble thinking.

Noam Chomsky observed that this neoliberal mode of austerity and precarity is part of a business model ‘designed to reduce labour costs and to increase labour servility’ while at the same time making clear that ‘what matters is the bottom line’.