The Barbican Debate: Can Good Design Change the World? 15.04.09

Can Good Design Change the World

words William Wiles

Just before the Easter Weekend, we attended a debate at the Barbican on the hydra-headed subject "Can Good Design Change the World? Ethics in Architecture: The Corbusian Legacy". Rather than expiring under the combined weight of topics, the event proved scrappy and entertaining.

The line-up of speakers included Winy Maas of MVRDV, Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, architectural historian Charles Jencks and Sean Griffiths of FAT. Zaha Hadid had also been billed to appear, but a few days ahead of the event the Barbican announced that she had pulled out, and practice partner Patrik Schumacher would appear in her place. But as the curtain rose on the event, we were told that Schumacher too had pulled out, news that provoked an audible sigh of dismay from the audience. Fabian Hecker from Hadid's practice was left holding the baby. Massimiliano Fuksas had also been billed, and then sent apologies, but this was not mentioned.

Dropping out proved to be a public relations misstep on the part of Hadid, who got an almighty roasting at the hands of Sinclair and Griffiths. While the other participants delivered detailed presentations relating their work to the question of Corbusier and ethics in architecture, a plainly unprepared Hecker talked about three Hadid projects at best loosely related to the question. Sinclair, following Hecker, went for the jugular. Inviting Zaha Hadid to talk about ethics in architecture, he said, was like getting Robert Mugabe to discuss human rights. Her practice's architecture, he explained, was the worst sort of top-down, starchitect offering imposed by the powerful on the powerless.

Hecker parried manfully, saying that the practice was used to being attacked from all sides, and that Sinclair's brand of architecture would struggle in the contexts Hadid worked in, just as Hadid was not suited to Architecture for Humanity's humanitarian approach.

But the soft-spoken Sean Griffiths moved in for the kill. Arrogance, he said, was not necessarily a bad thing; the problem with the Hadid projects was their "banality", the fact that they were "bad work". The hapless Hecker sank grimly into his chair, no doubt mentally updating his CV, but the audience was loving it.

There was plenty of meat to the rest of the debate, aside from this outbreak of pugilism. Griffiths and Jencks both delivered a kicking to Corbusier's 1960s successors, with the former describing them as a moral generation who produced morally bankrupt architecture, and the latter saying that they represented the last concerted effort by architects to change the world, and ended up ruining lives. Griffiths added that great architecture was often created with dark moral purpose, citing the imperialist baroque. Jencks condemned the messianic Corbusier of the Plan Voisin and put in a plea for clemency for the emotional, cosmic Corbusier of the Unité and Ronchamp.

Maas, in contrast, bemoaned the fact that architects today are "condemned to build small and beautiful things", and that grander vision is frowned upon. Sinclair, basking in his status as the evening's crowd-pleaser, spoke movingly of the work his organisation has done with hurricane-displaced families in Biloxi, Mississippi. But after the fireworks and the appeals to idealism, the evening ended on a note of realism. Maas spoke up for doing the wrong thing, saying that it was boring to only talk in terms of what was good, and Jencks said that it was vain for architects to think that their profession could fix global warming and the financial crisis, and said that the only two principles that mattered in the real world were to get the job and to keep it.

top image From left to right, Sean Griffiths, Charles Jencks, Winy Maas, Fabian Hecker, Cameron Sinclair and debate chair Razia Iqbal.

picture Sheila Burnett


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