Jun 8th, 2007


Patrik Schumacher is a partner at Zaha Hadid Architects. A respected writer, teacher and theorist, Schumacher is also the key architect at the office beside Hadid herself. He sets the design direction for many of the projects and is often credited alongside Hadid as the co-architect.

Schumacher gave us an exclusive interview last week in which he talked about how new architectural ideas are generated, how the office has developed over the two decades he has worked there, and where he thinks Zaha Hadid Architects fit into the canon of architectural history.

How long have you been working with Zaha?

Eighteen years. Or nineteen, I don’t know.

Woody Yao said that when he joined thirteen years ago, there were only five people or so in the studio.

When I joined it was also five – it only increased from five to six in the first five years! Since 2000, it’s grown a lot.

So when, and how, did the office go from being a tiny studio to a major architectural practice?

It could have happened earlier – there was some bad luck with some large projects. Cardiff [Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales: Hadid won the design competition in 1994 but the project was subsequently cancelled] and Düsseldorf [Düsseldorf Art and Media Centre, 1992/93] before that. And then the nineties were very slow. We had these two moments of bad luck.

We went through a series of smaller projects and a series of competitions, where we pushed very far. So we had a series of losing competition entries that were quite extreme, but now five years later we are starting to win competitions with similar designs. One of the breakthrough moments was winning the Rome [the MAXXI Museum of Twenty-First Century Art] competition in 98 and winning Cincinnati [Contemporary Arts Center, below – photo Hélène Binet] around the same time, or in 99; and Wolfsburg [the Phaeno centre]. These three came within a space of 12 months.


But still these were just competitions, which were very stop and go. Then somehow the Mind Zone [at the Millennium Dome, which opened in 2000] – which was a very small project – was a kind of significant commission in terms of income. At the time we were maybe 30 or 40 people and then there was a steady increase.

How has the office developed both in the way you approach projects, and in architectural terms?

I think it’s been an evolution. There’s were lot of continuities deep into the eighties; the application of curvilinearity; dymanic form; the learning from natural systems and natural morphologies. It just has got upgraded and radicalised through the introduction of digital tools. It became more intricate, more complex, more continuous and also on an ever-larger scale.

And now we are looking at absolutely massive, intricate, three-dimensional field projects like the two Dubai projects: we won the two major competitions that were launched last year. One of them is in full swing with perhaps 30 people working on it – the Dancing Towers (below) plus all the retail on the ground – and the Dubai Opera House [which Hadid won last year; images have not yet been released] is on hold.


The Dancing Towers is 600,000 square metres: the extension onto the ground, the DFM next to it, the cultural centre; these kinds of projects are the apotheosis of what we have been developing. Or the Opera House: multiple parts, the whole island. And we’re doing the performing arts centre in Abu Dhabi (below).


What are your thoughts on what is happening in Abu Dhabi and Dubai?

They don’t have much yet. They are building city-scale populations and they need to be entertained. It’s really just last year that they woke up to the European avant garde; before that they were importing corporate America. And a retro-grade corporate America, so the projects that are now finishing are 15 years behind architectural developments. It’s tragic, but suddenly they’ve jumped into the contemporary.

Zaha is from the Middle East; but in a globalised world is the place you’re from of any relevance?

Not real relevance. More relevance of marketing and promotion. It is on perhaps on the communication level – Zaha speaks the language and is able to get on well. But not in terms of the work or deeper cultural currents. The opera house for instance is a contemporary opera house; that’s what they want. The same with the opera house we’re doing in China [at Guangzhou, below], which is on site and going quite well, but it’s an international opera house, with standards that are global.


What is your role in the office?

I’m initiating the projects; developing the ideas, meeting the clients, trying to generate viable intuitions. Which is not just about form – it’s about gauging how complex, ambitious, important and so on and what kind of idea could fly.

Talk me through a real project you’ve been involved in. How do you start?

For instance BMW [BMW Central Building, Leipzig]: actually, like most of our projects, it starts with a competition. An RFQ [request for qualification] competition where you enter a shortlist, so we need to put together our track record, team and so on. It’s the boring part but we are virtually getting on every shortlist, so it’s a great starting point. We have to then compete and in this case it was a very tough line-up and a very tough programme with two phases. What we did was we set up a whole room and a whole group – nearly half the group I was teaching at the AA [Architectural Association School], the DRL [Design Research Lab], we brought this whole team in… [below: BMW Central Building; photo Werner Huthmacher]


So you hired the whole class then?

The whole class, more or less! And we went quite far in making it tangible in the competition stage; it was three-dimensionally modelled scheme which bears significant similarities to the final built form. And it was compelling so we went through to the next stage. Then we went out to the site, which was amazing, because it’s a huge plain that was flattened out. [below: BMW Central Building; photo Werner Huthmacher]


So you designed it before you went to the site?

Yes, quite often you don’t have the time or resource. We’re quite used to doing that. I don’t remember, maybe we sent one of the project architects out. Obviously once we get the project and meet with the client… it was a really viable scheme, it went through unadultered. Very robust principles and intuitions. So we then build a team, usually with people from that country leading. I was every week during the early period flying to [BMW headquarters in] Munich to develop the project. But as soon as the handover I then concentrate on new incoming projects. [below: BMW Central Building; photo Werner Huthmacher]


So this was a few years ago and now we don’t get to that stage… with hands on. It’s more initiate the concept, send the team, initial meetings and then just monitoring and steering at moments of crisis.

What are the main drivers of the design for a project like BMW? Response to programme or site; formal ideas you might already have; a quest for new forms?

It depends. In this case it was a very serious production facility [below, photo by Werner Huthmacher]; a central building that really has to tick with the overall production machinery, although it was engineering, administration, communications and circulation. So it’s always a kind of fusion of understanding programme and interpreting it with a very strong, robust formalism that carries the programme.


There is of course a lot of internal repertoire; we have project families. Arrays of lines, bundles of lines, or projects that are more volume-based; carving volumes; there’s a very large internal repertoire. So when we approach a new site and a new programme we have in the back of our minds this catalogue of options.

But then there’s also new formal research going on: Zaha sketching away without a project in mind, just to find new stimulating patterns. It’s a search for strangeness really, a lot of the time; continuously to build the repertoire or the formal universe. So that is also on the table as a series of options to select from. Then it’s really finding – if the repertoire is very large, then you look at the programme with the alertness of which diagram or spatial system could carry that. And you find the match.

Then we home in relatively quickly. Sometimes we explore two or three with parallel teams; but it comes to a point of clarity relatively fast, sometimes within a week or two. Then the rest of if is bringing it to perfection; honing; there’s an enormous amount of energy invested in the beauty and elegance, and absorbing the programme without compromising that.

So you’re simultaneously searching for strangeness and beauty. Do you push the strangeness first and then bring it back to beauty after?

It could sometimes be something odd and strange and ugly; it’s curious. Of course the aesthetic values one operates with are also shifting to a certain extent. That’s part of what the avant garde does: it allows us to re-evaluate our values; to re-adapt them to conditions – social conditions, programmatic conditions, urban conditions. So there is this fluidity but there are also a strong underlying, nearly universal principles, which I would term a sense of order and coherence, which are what I call “articulated complexityâ€?. You’re not used to seeing buildings like this, but the building you are creating is nearly nature-like: people accept these compositions, these spaces as elegant and beautiful, even though they haven’t seen architecture like this before.

Where do the formal ideas come from? Is there a source, or are they purely abstract, from the mind? Does Zaha sit and sketch leaves, for example?

No she doesn’t. They’re from the mind; and also we teach in various places and there is systematic research set up where we look at source domains for analogical transference like landscape formations, mountain ranges, dune-scapes, river beds; all on multiple scales. And then to draw out, try to model these on the computer, graphicsall abstract them. That is important and interesting. You find new sensations, new textures, patterns and so on. When you have a group of 15, 20 students you get a lot of material.

We did one [research project] with biological systems, organisms, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. So we have these kinds of inputs; then it stays in the repertoire. There’s also mathematics – new mathematics – topological patterns and also what is having a impact is new modelling tools and more recently parametric modelling, parametric fields and scripted fields, you get a new sensibility with respect to orders of iteration. It fits quite well but it still feels quite continuous with the earliest works. Looking through these new tools theres’s a kind of intricacy of overall arrangement with a very high degree of coherence. There’s a lot of internal laws of correlation; everything relates to everything else. It’s a continuous change but it all fits together. It’s not like a garbage heap. It’s not random or arbitrary.

And these new tools bring this to a new level on a new scale, and they give a certain… the trajectories push in a certain direction. That’s why we were able to enter the domain of urbanism under the heading of “parametric urbanism�. We’re creating whole fields of buildings and territories. We created an urban geometry of street patterns and a kind of morphology, urban morphology that is highly differentiated.

And we are quite strategic, going from primitive block types to slab types to towers to smaller particles, the whole range, its continuously connected and related and we can absorb context into it, like the Singapore project [the Science Hub masterplan, 2001], which is an open field with many different city patterns stopping, and we let all of them come into the territory and build up a seamless texture with these tools.

But if you go back to the earlier paintings, techniques of perspective distortions, fissure perspectives, which give this kind of overall force field, and hold-and-grab, organising urban fragments into something continuous like a flock of birds or a school of fish that was already there but obviously less flexible. There was a painting that was worked on for three to six months by five to ten people, which created one version; and now with the computer we can make a set up and within a week create 25 versions.

But the fundamental idea was in this early work. Now we can speak about it, articulate it and describe it in a theoretical language that at the time wasn’t there.

Do you see yourself as working within any particular genre? People always talk about Zaha’s references, particularly the Constructivists and early Modernists; but are you Modernists? Are you Deconstructivists? Is there a label that describes what you do?

Well I don’t know. I wouldn’t say [any of] that. To a certain extent it is an extension, an expansion, of certain aspects of Modernism. It just depends whether you want to emphasise continuities or to emphasise contrasts. There’s a lot of contrasts between classical Modernism and what we’re doing now. Classical Modernism was quite happy to give as much repetition to the system – pure repetition, isotropic repetition. There’s a contrast with that [in our work].

But where I would say there’s a continuity is “radical openness�, which came through the infusion, the infiltration of abstract art: blank canvas, the pure invention of structure. That architecture is about space. Those very abstractions are an unbelievable liberation: it’s not about palaces and churches and hospitals; building types that are complete entities with programme, propriety, look, tectonics all the way to proportion. This was thrown out by early modernists; people like Malevich, the Constructivists, Lissitzky and so on; De Stijl. They opened up this kind of freedom of creation. They went quite far at the time, introducing curves, abstract Noam Gabo structures, the space lying in the hanging mobiles.

In [our] case it’s an extension of this dimension of Modernism; not the one that is interested in rationalising, standarising, pre-fabricating and so on. But I think there is still something new to the current work which is this kind of super-fluidity and intricacy. And this already went quite far; even if you compare a space of two or three years ago, you will see the line of progression. We truly follow our intuitions and visions to the extreme with the Abu Dhabi [Performing Arts Centre – below] project, because Tom Krens [director of Guggenheim Museums Worldwide and the advisor to the client] was pushing us to do something new, something radical. We feel we don’t have to tone down, we can go full on.


These projects outshine… it’s a bit like seeing a seris of car models from the seventies onwards. You can see that the latest generation follows similar tendencies and pushes them further: the way the headlights are; all the subtleties of convex, concave… it’s not the composition of Platonic elements next to each other; there’s always inflexion.

You can drive that quite far. The tools are ever more developed; our models are ever more virtuoso. So I think there is… in a sense it’s been an amazing trajectory where you see last year’s projects are definitely last year’s projects. In a way I would say that for the whole of Zaha’s work over 20 years there’s quite a continuity. In the early 90s, mid 90s there’s a slight break and re-gearing, where a lot of the sharp angles and intersections are given up for smoother transitions and things that are more intricate.

But since then, since the mid 90s, we know what we want, and it’s just taking that through all the details: the surfaces, the way things are tessellated, the structure, functions, materials. There are these research cycles, cycles of innovation. It’s really a new tradition.

You mentioned before about being part of the avant garde. Do you feel the need to always stay ahead? Do you monitor what other architects are doing, and adjust what you do when ideas you have pioneered enter the mainstream?

There’s a little bit of that. Of course we’re watching closely and there’s a lot of things going on, and sometimes it’s humbling because we’re not the only ones. There are powerful firms doing strong things. You can feel there’s a lot of influence from this office onto others; sometimes we are smiling because we see visualisations of things that are even more outrageous than what we are doing, but we also know that it cannot be done; if they attempt it it will be very crude and tacky. So we don’t have to worry too much.

But some things do get a little bit sated. For instance twisted towers. In particular because we haven’t found a really good reason why… the twist does certain works perhaps: mediating the interface of the shaft with the ground like we’re doing in Milan [a twisting office tower on the site of the old Fiera showground]. There was an argument for this. I think it makes sense; we have this whole discourse of interfacing towers with the ground plane, rather than severing them with a podium. And this links back to navigation to the tower, so we have a thesis and topic. And then if a certain means in this… is abused elsewhere, you don’t want to take it on. You shelve it from you own repertoire. Which is a shame, but it’s been overused.

So you have to watch out. What you do in the context of stylistic currents you have to be aware of this. But I’m always the one who wants to analyse why – why I don’t like that any more.

I would say there is still a big difference between what is going on in architecture and fashion. We have a kind of solid 15 years of a single research programme, which I tend to not call it parametricism in retrospect. The whole history of the DRL, the Design Research Lab that I’ve been teaching since 96; I recently reflected back how continuous and coherent this is. The latest projects are just a kind of fulfilment of the promise of the earlier work.

You can look back at the Modernist period of the 1920s – that’s also a decade, which established Modernism, from the first intuitions to a full blown… but our paradigm I think will go on. I mean, you never know, I feel now this could go on for the rest of our careers, staying within the research programme of parametric design.

You just compared what you are doing to the work of the early Modernists; what is Zaha Hadid Architects giving to architecture? If people look back in future, what would you hope architectural historians would say you have achieved?

It’s a good question. I sometimes look back at 5,000 years of architecture and try to see what… from found spaces like caves, to the first moments of architecture – the introduction of geometry, in Egypt, in Greece. And it crystallises. Then you go on to Rome. In Greece and Egypt they established a single geometric significant piece: a collonade, a certain crystal. And in Rome you have a typology that develops into multiple organs of a complex system, and they introduced one more technique, which is vaulting. And then there is not much else until the renaissance, until Baroque; curvilinearity.

Actually the baroque is interesting because it brings continuity between pieces. The renaissance was pushing platonic bodies into a proportioned ensemble, but each of them was an autonomous piece with its own symmetry. The baroque for the first time breaks the symmetry of the original piece and they become radicals, so you build up a kind of global complexity. So they become larger complexes that are drawn together and unified.

This is interesting but then there’s not much going on really until Modernism. Eclecticism and Historicism are just kind of trying to cope with the new complexities in an unconvincing, uncompelling way, an artificial way. To kind of… you suddenly have the Modernist period, which works on the notion of space. Composition comes into its own; before it was just about redesigning a given type – a palace, a villa. Even if you use it for other things, it’s a certain organism. You are not bringing things together; you are not trying out random arrangements.

So composition is something very late; and we still do that. Looking back on history shows you that the game of what it is to design changes radically. Before it was just reproducing a type; then suddenly you can compose, which is quite outside the previous thinking. And we have these kind of breaks in the 20th century. For instance It’s very important this idea that you’re not only composing elements in an arrangement to make a composition.

There are two things: one is the interpenetration of the elements; you compose a site, then you compose it again in this layered way. You build up intricacies. This is radical, this is unheard of. It’s a major thing. Zaha was involved at the beginning. This is something that you could say is a strong and new paradigm in the late 20th century.

But also this idea of going from composition, which involves a number of parts, to a field, which is made up of particles, none of which has a name or a number or an identity. It’s only the field effects and qualities that matter; the particles are just fragments of a global mass. This is a totally different attitude, a different way of handling things; it’s not about composition, because we don’t care about any of [the individual elements]. It’s just a drift; the distribution, the directionality, the intensities you have; there’s a looseness. And so that’s something we’ve been involved in pushing.

Also the lawfulness of a composition, where you just make sure that the line, the hand, has a law and a trajectory, but it doesn’t give you a shape; it doesn’t have a front and back. It’s a new ontology of what you consider to be an environment. And then you realise it’s nature-like. These are major breakthroughs. This notion of field – like our Rome museum – it not something you have an image of. It’s not something you hold onto like an object but something you immerse yourself into and you follow certain laws of proliferation. You’re drawn through it.

These are major contributions that you can then bring to urbanism. So you can now give an order to an urban area that isn’t like the kind like the gods’ top view with a clear boundary and three parts, but a field logic.

This is a fundamentally new type of thinking I think which pertains to urbanism and large buildings. It has a lot to do with the late 20th century, where cities totally grow out of that comprehensible thing, where you can grasp and know whether you’re in front, in the middle or behind. So these new sensibilities have a lot to do with new social processes and the way life operates on the planet.

I was going to ask – does what you are doing relate to what is happening in society, to developments in other disciplines?

Absolutely. Well not so much other disciplines; although there is inspiration, these are coincidences perhaps. But there’s a profundity, a historical profundity about this, I would argue. There’s something about the way we handled the contemporary art museum in Rome, the way it sits in an urban fabric, the way it complements existing structures, the way it has no signature face but only a signature character; these are to do with an urban life process that has multiple intersecting audiences, which has social territories intersecting and bleeding into each other… I think there is a profound relationship to the social era and the way it operates.

Is that deliberate, or accidental?

It becomes deliberate once you’ve understood and reflected upon it. But initially it doesn’t have to be; for instance, people like Coop Himmelb[l]au; they are working from their guts, but they are faced with sensibilities. Historic centres are being reinhabited because people are drawn to them; why are they drawn to them? Because there is more need for communicating. Because there is a new era where everything is in flux. It’s no longer everybody in their place getting on with their life career. There’s no longer the repetition of Fordism.

So they come together, they have to inhabit now… you cannot solve that, you cannot live that if somebody wants to clean everything up. Then you go outside, you go back to the suburbs. But there you run out of resources. Because the real stage of civilisation is the inner cities. It becomes a collage, a violent juxtaposition. You take that on, you see beauty where vitality is. And then you change the sensibilities. And this is an intuitive process. You recognise that you want to be in a place like this, you like the freshness and the rawness. And with Himmelb[l]au you have these violent compositions, these infestations, these viral metaphors and so on. It seems perhaps initially wilful but there is some underlying truth or profundity. That’s the way I see it. That goes for a lot of what we are doing now.

And that’s my criticism of a minimalist sensibility; although it has a role in certain smaller domains, but this will to simplify and reduce the complexity of an institution to some kind of pristine simplicity is fallacy. It shows in the sense that there is a kind of misplaced sensibility that will hinder your participation in the dynamics of contemporary life. And in particular if this goes from a small environment where it is perfectly viable, to a kind of minimalist urbanism, then it becomes a kind of nightmare. You can see that the larger the project, the more maladapted the approach.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: