There were so many apologies for Zaha Hadid's and her proposed stand in Patrick Schumacher's absence from The Barbican Debate in London last night that Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas didn't even get a name check, even though he too pulled out at the last minute. So what was it that these high profile architects were so scared of in a debate about ethics in architecture? Rather unfortunately it was left to 'fall guy' Fabian Hecker to find out. He was the poor man who landed the job of representing Zaha Hadid Architects in what turned out a pretty hostile environment. It all started off so well until the never knowingly reserved Cameron Sinclair lit the fuse...Good taste or Good Design?
The evening started pleasantly enough with Sean Griffiths of Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT) questioning the difference between 'good taste' and 'good design'. Anyone who has seen FAT's humourous project 'Kill the Modernist Within' will understand the post-modern direction Griffiths is coming from.
Corb's Cosmic Architecture
The charming Charles Jencks followed Sean Griffiths by referencing the Corbusian legacy, asserting that Corb was the "Barack Obama of architecture" - the self appointed saviour in a time of crisis. While criticising Corb's idea of having to "save the city by destroying it" Jencks celebrated the 'cosmic architecture' that Corb created at the end of his career in the form of the Ronchamp chapel.
Pig Farms Are Political
The panel's subject matter became more eclectic as Winy Maas of MVRDV discussed the importance of political architecture, referring to his studio's controversial pig farming towers proposal that created such a stir in the Netherlands. Maas complained that it has become almost forbidden to talk about "visionary architecture", even relating the assassination of Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn to MVRDV's work.
Zaha Hadid's Urban Planning
Poor Fabian Hecker was up next and to try and involve Zaha Hadid Architects in the ethical debate he chose to present a series of urban planning projects by the office. All were uniformly style over content, neither relating to the theme of Le Corbusier nor to the theme of ethics in architecture. In all the beautiful computer generated models he showed I can't say I saw a single person, all the schemes looked like beautiful geometric exercises, but were completely devoid of humanity.
Cameron Sinclair Drops Verbal Bomb
Hecker had knowingly or unknowingly set himself up for a fall and laid the stage wide open for Cameron Sinclair to inspire the audience with Architecture For Humanity's work. However things started to get nasty when Sinclair dropped his almost absurdly provocative verbal bomb, saying when he found out that Zaha Hadid had been invited to talk about ethics in architecture he equated that with asking "Robert Mugabe to talk on Human Rights". Unsurprisingly this statement drew audible gasps from the usually composed Barbican audience.
Hadid's absence left her defenceless
Suddenly all Zaha's apologies for her absence couldn't help her as it was open season on the 'starchitect'. Hecker couldn't or wouldn't come up with a robust defense to Sinclair's provocation, only saying the office was "used to being blasted from all sides". Sean Griffiths said Hadid's work wasn't "bad taste it was just bad architecture". Charles Jencks tried to ride to the rescue as self appointed Hadid defender, saying that he felt iconic architecture had it's place, but even as he tried to defend he found himself criticising the banal urban planning schemes. "I don't want to give with one hand and take away with the other", Jencks politely said, but that's exactly what he did.
Plastic Surgery v. The Emergency Room
As Sean Griffiths pointed out it's almost too easy in this architectural context for Cameron Sinclair to take the moral high road as his work deals with grass roots building and benefits individuals in a very direct way. Sinclair had alluded to this point at the beginning of the evening saying, "there is an analogy between medics and architects: some of us work as plastic surgeons and some of us work in the emergency room."
Where was The Bilbao Effect?
The overriding message of the evening was that there are so many different types of architecture which all in their own way have their 'ethical stance': from FAT's refusal to conform to 'good taste', to MVRDV's visionary political statements, to AFH's humane approach to shelter. Why Fabian Hecker couldn't have defended his office with the 'Bilbao effect' argument and the role that iconic architecture has to play in city regeneration I don't know. But I do know that the evening would have been even more entertaining if Zaha Hadid had turned up to defend her work in person.
To read more about Cameron Sinclair's thoughts on the subject of the debate you can read his article published on The Huffington Post yesterday.
Fashion Architecture Taste
Zaha Hadid Architects
Architecture For Humanity
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