The month in architecture

From #Zahagate to High Rise to the Real Review, the AF presents a critical digest of the issues, ideas and arguments which have recently occupied architecture's collective consciousness

In J. G. Ballard’s High Rise - soon to grace the big screen - the architect of the eponymous tower, Anthony Royal, resides in his creation’s penthouse, a vantage point from which he can watch his new concept for living unfold beneath him. However distorted and unethical Royal’s ambitions for social experimentation, he wilfully takes part in - and is eventually destroyed - by it: Royal’s tower stands in an ethical void, but he proudly goes down as the captain of his brutalist ship. 

Currently, the prevalent idea regarding architectural ethics seems to be that architects throw their ethical hats out of the window when designing, only to have them picked up, dusted off and forcefully replaced by the critic and the journalist - by now we have all read endlessly about the latest example: Radio 4’s ‘Zahagate’. The line of questioning in Sarah Montague’s Radio 4 interview was understandable, but perseverance based on poor research only led to a reinforcement of Hadid’s unfortunate public image when she put an abrupt end to the questioning.

For Reinier de Graaf, writing this month in Dezeen, it is the architect’s charisma that permits deft movement between ideological claims and unpleasant economic, social and ethical realities: Hadid herself seems to be increasingly lumbered with the latter while Schumacher revels in the former. In a further muddying of the waters surrounding ZHA’s ethical stance, just days after Hadid’s interview Schumacher took to the Royal Academy’s Architecture and Freedom pulpit to extol the virtues of an apolitical architecture. ‘What is the alternative?’ conceded Schumacher, presenting contentious projects in Azerbaijan and Gadaffi’s Libya, alongside a faintly ridiculous hit-list of ‘politicising and moralising critics of ZHA’, to which I suppose Montague should be added for good measure.


De Graaf concludes on charisma as a ‘last resort’, yet Dezeen have framed the piece as a call for the architect’s ‘need’ for charisma, as though deceiving developers is an ethical tool in the architect’s arsenal. Defiant charisma keeps the wheels of the Starchitecture machine turning but a more ethical practice surely lies in the direction of modesty and - dare I say it - some concession of authority.

It has more often than not fallen to others to question the architect’s ethical responsibilities. Straight, currently on display at the Royal Academy’s Ai Wei Wei retrospective, presents 90 tonnes of steel rods recovered from the rubble of the Sichuan earthquake, which took the lives of some 5,000 schoolchildren who were essentially at the mercy of their school building’s construction. Assemble, too, are garnering publicity for their community-led Liverpool project in the context of contemporary art - and frankly showing up of the rest of the entries in this year’s Turner Prize shortlist.

Zaha Hadid walks out of the BBC's today show


Above: Ai Weiwei's ‘Wenchuan Steel Rebar’ (2008–12) is made from 90 tonnes of rebars salvaged from rubble after the Sichuan earthquake

De Graaf frames the charisma of his own influential professors as ‘living proof that defiance eventually paid off and could conquer all the odds architecture was up against’. Defiance, however, will bring no solutions to these ethical dilemmas: as Jack Self has stated in the Architectural Review, Parametricism’s defiant avoidance of a political position has seen it become an architectural mercenary - a political chameleon that can adapt to authoritarian regimes and glitzy developments without blinking.

Particularly in London, where every day we become increasingly aware of architecture as the spatialisation of capital in one form or another, the media’s attempts to portray the iconic designer seem increasingly out of touch - especially when that designer is building Y:Cube one day and renting a multi-million Neo Bankside flat the next.

New London Architecture’s attempt to solve the housing crisis with an ideas competition - skewered by Rowan Moore - demonstrates this all too well: quirky interventions that eek what good they can out of large-scale developments but lack the political will required to effect real change. The same charisma that de Graaf describes is refracted through the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron to fuel London’s inequality, hidden behind equally charismatic hoardings.

Antidotes are on the way, however. The Funambulist’s first printed issue of primarily free and open access content negotiating space as a political body landed in September, and Self and Shumi Bose’s independent magazine The Real Review has passed its Kickstarter target with four weeks still to go. There is clearly an appetite for a more transparent, rigorous and accessible investigation of how space is shaping society.

Real Review Editors Jack Self and Shumi Bose flanked by designers Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath