Head to Head: local architects vs starchitects 27.03.20

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Designing on the global frontier of progress. ZHA's Leeza Soho tower in Beijing, 2019. Photo: Hufton+Crow.Designing on the global frontier of progress. ZHA's Leeza Soho tower in Beijing, 2019. Photo: Hufton+Crow.

Should local architects be given precedence over large international practices? Zaha Hadid Architects' Patrik Schumacher and Katherine Clarke and Liza Fior of Muf Architecture/Art fight it out.

Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid Architects

Absolutely not, never, and certainly not as a public policy. It sometimes feels as if this is an unspoken policy in Scandinavian countries. As an explicit, official policy such a rule would engender the architectural equivalent of a trade war. The benefits of trade and expanded markets for all apply here too. An expanded market allows for a deepened division of labour and thus delivers productivity gains for all stakeholders. Furthermore, the diversification of market dependencies of producers implies more economic stability for all. 

Like all protectionism, a restriction to select only from local firms would harm local consumers. It would also harm local clients and end users by depriving them of potentially very valuable design contributions from the world’s best and most innovative architects. Moreover, this isolation from global best practice also ends up harming local producers in the long run. The absence of healthy competitive pressure blunts the incentives to invest sufficiently in innovation and leads to local architects falling behind relative to the global frontier of progress. 

ZHA has delivered a number of very popular public buildings abroad, perhaps most notably MAXXI in Rome, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, and more recently the Meixihu International Culture and Art Centre in Changsha, China. These very unique public spaces could not have been conceived locally. In particular, the design of the the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is now hugely popular. It has become the second most visited cultural venue in the world, after the Louvre in Paris. However, the design renderings were initially received with outspoken hostility by the local architecture community, and branded as alien. 

So whether motivated by self-serving protectionism, or based on a genuine parochialism, giving local architects precedence results in creative opportunities being closed down. Competition drives excellence, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out, but it is also an indispensable discovery procedure that allows us to find what we might desire. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto celebrated the ‘cosmopolitan character’ of the capitalist world market:‘In place of the old local and national seclusion, we have intercourse in every direction. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible.’ 

Ruskin Square, Croydon, designed by Muf, 2018. Photo: Lewis Ronald.Ruskin Square, Croydon, designed by Muf, 2018. Photo: Lewis Ronald.

Katherine Clarke and Liza Fior, Muf Architecture/Art

We can work at times so locally, from housing estates to markets, museums and parks, that we pay our business rates to our client, Hackney council. 

To work locally is not synonymous with working carefully or with precision. After all, greed or crassness can be enacted next door, as demonstrated by the schemes built on sites across London, whether back extensions, infrastructure or large-scale developments 

Muf has had successful projects at a distance – the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, an ongoing collaboration with We Are Here Venice and, most recently, our contributions to last year's São Paulo Biennial and Singapore Art Biennale. 

But at that distance, there was always someone accountable who had done the prep; surveyed the ground (according to all metrics), made the relationships and saw things through when we left. 

Working locally allows us to be that someone, expanding a brief with a priori and incidental knowledge, expanding a client to include the users, observing a site over time and in use, visiting a fabricator between drawing and delivery. Site visits where decisions are made in situ and post occupancy surveys are just part of your day. Buildings cannot exist in isolation and often bring with them unforeseen consequences – having a greater understanding of the complexities of a commission can allow the greater possibility of predicting these. 

Working at a distance holds relationships at a distance. It is a form of practice which encourages gesture; whether a thick marker pen or designing an object building; a cut and run. Even Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, later rolled back from the myth of purity of the ‘zipless fuck’. 

There is no tabula rasa – good work requires a response to context – including on the part of the client. 

Critic Lucy Lippard described a participative art practice as serial monogamy, forming deep relationships and moving on. Working locally over time is messier, relationships conclude and are picked up again, and when all goes well, you, your clients, sites and users grow old together and knowledge is aggregated with lessons learnt. 

Lastly, although this format – like a Today programme interview – positions us against each other, at the Science Museum in London we are proud that only the depth of a floor slab separates Zaha Hadid Architects’ Mathematics Gallery from Muf’s Wonderlab 

This article appears in Icon 199, which explores the contemporary countryside.

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