Architects & Badass Clients: The perennial moral question?

There has always been a debate in architecture about patronage and politics. The central question of this debate, which I am sure many architects are familiar with, is should architects work for those with no morals? This becomes a dilemma and does it really matter who architects work for as long as they make good, or even great, architecture?

The bad and sometimes evil clients.

All architects have had clients we don’t like, or we don’t particularly want to work for, or we are worried that they will rip us off by not paying. We refused a client once because he looked like Catweazle. But what happens when the client is a demagogue or a war criminal?

Usually, when this debate gets going, the old hero icons of modern architecture get trotted out: Gropius and Mies and the Nazi and the Reichsbank competition. Le Corbusier and Vichy, and the break up with his Marxist cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Phillip Johnson, that most subversive of architects and the actual Nazis. For a brief moment, in the late 20s the constructivist worker architects and artists had the same problem, should they work for Stalin? However, by 1932 it was too late for them and most were killed in the Terror or went to the Gulag’s.

Tessenow and Speer and Krier 

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Inevitably this argument cycles around to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, the gargantuan and ham fisted classicist and pioneer of modern managerialism. Speer was no Plecnik or Lutyens. As an architecture student Speer was reputedly thrown out of Poelzig’s studio and then ended up in Heinrich Tessenow’s studio. What would have happened to Speer if he had stayed with the early expressionistic Poelzig who later embraced New Objectivity rather than the classically orientated Tessenow.  As most know, Speer was later to be admired so much by Leon Krier, who published the monograph on Speer, once Krier himself escaped the clutches of James Stirling. In the 1980s as students we once interviewed Tadao Ando through a Japanese translator and asked him what he thought of Krier, the response in Japanese, was opaque, long winded and incomprehensible and surprisingly animated. However, in this perplexing outburst there was one word that we could discern through the rush of Japanese: Fascist. Yes, Ando thought Leon Krier was a fascist. As Paul Davies has noted Giorgio Grassi would rehabilitate Tessenow; and Leon Krier, Speer.

 Patrik Comes to Town

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Hot on the heels of Rem Koolhaas, all of this history, came back to me when we had a new star architect visitor these weeks past. Yes, in my small city on the architectural periphery, it was none other than Patrik Schumacher. Suddenly, my Archienemy Instagram social media feeds were full of people I know doing selfies with Patrik. Rather than going all out I chose to get a photo of his ear. He even spoke at Rem and David G’s MPavilion, which I am yet to visit, with the Victorian State Government Architect.

Perhaps I was a little jealous, I asked myself, I was not invited to the Pavilion, nor was I invited to the jury sessions where Patrik appeared. Had I through some character flaw and self-sabotage avoided the great man and celebrity. Had they read all the bad stuff I had written in the obscure conference papers about Parametricism. I had already avoided the Remmy Koolhaas festival when he came. Should I have lurched into Patrik’s field of vision to get a selfie? I did at least manage to get a picture of his ear.

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Patrik and the Mayfair Development

Regular readers of the blog will recall Patrik’s statements about Aravena winning the big Pritzker prize in an earlier blog.

“I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his ‘half a good house’ developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation.”

ZHA architecture, in  which Patrik is a partner leads, has also designed a “vase” shaped tower in my city intended to be housed by the Mandarin Oriental hotel. In Brisbane ZHA has also designed a  “champagne flute” tower development. Nothing like a metaphor to motivate the sales team.

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Chin-chin in Brisvegas.

The Mayfair 

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More interestingly, there is also the Mayfair sited on a prominent corner on St Kilda Road, for those not familiar with Melbourne this is the boulevard leading into the cities central grid. The developers UEM Sunrise are employing the ZHA brand to sell the apartments off. This one has the soft flowing curvy butterfly metaphor attached to it. Apparently, the design is based on the “Lorenz attractor – a mathematical set of equations that, when plotted, resemble a figure eight or butterfly.”

There is also great Zaha Hadid exhibition associated with the sale of units in the development and the website is pretty slick. All the apartments look great on the inside and are full of well designed and exquisitely fabricated ZHA designed wall finishes, furniture and fittings.

Bris-Vegas?

Amongst all the signature suite excitement of the interior there is the exterior. In contrast to the interior, the exterior does seem a bit, how shall I say it, Bris Vegas with its predominant horizontal blades and glazed balconies. Perhaps, the Mayfair, and other luxury apartment types in general, are more about the exquisite luxury interiors and less  to do with the exterior. I am not sure how the facade might contribute to a high density urban civilisation?

Perhaps this is the danger the architectural fascination with CNC fabrication and digitally enabled supply chains. Perhaps, all we will get to do as architects in the future, are the luxury interiors: the product marketing types and planners will design the exteriors.

Maybe we are already at the point where we are no longer architects but in fact strategic product designers and marketers. Architecture is a key element in the marketing material for Mayfair:

“Mayfair is unmistakably Zaha Hadid. A mastery of scientific precision and artistic integrity, its soft, organic form pays tribute to St Kilda Road’s leafy streetscape, and the context within which it exists.”

I don’t really know what to say about the “soft organic form” line.

The local connections

With such international collaborations there is always a local architectural connection.  With the apartments on St Kilda road, branded as the Mayfair, it is that notable firm of high rise apartment architects Elenberg Fraser.With the ZHA Mandarin Oriental tower it is Plus Architecture. On face value across the liveable city of Melbourne these two firms, Plus and Elenberg Fraser, seem to have cornered the market for apartments design. Interestingly Plus’s 4248 scheme looks a bit like the ZHA Mayfair. These are architects who seem happy to surf the real estate free market. No doubt  in doing so they are ensuring their fee for service regimes are commensurate with the excellent plan-façade combos they are producing.

Follow the money

Of course, in the modern age all architects immersed in the free market no longer need worry about the Nazis or Stalinists to work for or fight against. Arguably, it is the kleptocrats and big sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and Panama Paper style investors who provide the juice for the luxury housing fragmenting our cities.

The Mayfair development is being developed by UEM Sunrise. UEM Sunrise is wholly-owned by Khazanah, an investment holding arm of the Malaysian Government. A few years back the sovereign wealth find of the Malaysian government was the subject of a financial investigation. You can follow this here and even search for Khazanah and UEM Sunrise at the Panama Papers. You can also read about some the advanced urban civilisation stuff Malaysia has done for Palm Oil and Penan people.

It would be monstrous to suggest that the architects, or anyone else associated with these current projects, are in any way implicated in illicit financial flows of capital. But the point is that we are all connected in this new digital age via 6 virtual degrees of separation. The landscape in this new global system no longer resembles the past.  The old empires and their classical icons have gone and it is the oscillations of distributed capital propelled through conduits of digital finance that now shape the monumental vistas.

Subversion 

Spare a thought for the other architects, more distant from luxury housing and the celebrity system of architetcure. The local architects who ponder the vicissitudes of the NDIS roll out, informal settlements and the possibilties of producing new housing types driving by financial structures that enable a range of demographics, typologies and ownership.

Perhaps it will always be a perennial question for architects: Does it matter who we work for and who our patrons are? Does it matter where the money comes from? But, maybe the even greater sin for architects is not so much where the money comes from, or the issues around patronage, but whether or not the project is simply trash for cash.

Lets hope that there is a subversive sentiment somewhere in that approach.



Categories: architectural design, Australian Architecture, Branding, ZHA Architects

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