Zaha Hadid Architects and the Neoliberal Avant-Garde

By Owen Hatherley, 26 October 2010
Image: Zaha Hadid, Vitra Fire Station, 1994

Is it possible to be both builders of the prestigious spaces of capital and self-declared avant-gardists? Owen Hatherley takes a look at the fluid architecture and financial times of Zaha Hadid Architects

The New Avant-Garde Acknowledges its Precursors

This summer, there was an exhibition at the Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich entitled Zaha Hadid and Suprematism. It was a ‘dialogue' between the Anglo-Iraqi architect - winner of the 2010 Stirling Prize - and her apparent forbears, the 1920s Soviet avant-garde, as her flowing, bristling forms whipped through rooms containing works by Kasimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, Nikolai Suetin and El Lissitzky. Accompanying the exhibition was ‘A Glimpse Back into the Future', a text by Hadid‘s ‘right-hand man', the theorist and architect Patrik Schumacher.i While some would disassociate Constructivism and Communism, or argue that Bolshevik ‘totalitarianism' was the enemy of art, Schumacher has no such qualms, and his text is impressively unambiguous in placing the political revolution as the very foundation of artistic innovation. ‘Ninety years ago' he writes, ‘the October Revolution ignited the most exuberant surge of creative energy that has ever erupted on planet earth. This amazing firework of creative exuberance took off under the most severe material circumstances - fuelled by the idealistic enthusiasm for the project of a new society.' We're very far from opulent Swiss galleries, although Schumacher does not make the unflattering comparison.

In fact, he argues, the next century of art and architecture was so indebted to this convulsive decade that literally nothing that developed later hadn't already been anticipated by the Soviet avant-garde, ‘the pace, quantity and quality of the creative work in art, science and design was truly astounding, anticipating in one intense flash what then took another 50 years to unfold elsewhere in the world.' He gives particular attention to the way in which abstraction, carried to an extreme in the completely non-referential, Non-Objective World of Kasimir Malevich and the Suprematist painters and architects that followed him, created a space where earthly rules do not apply.

He does, however, mildly chastise the Soviet painter:

Malevich has been a pioneer of abstraction and a pioneer in directly linking abstract art with architecture via his seminal ‘tectonics'. It is interesting, however, to observe that these tectonic sculptures, which were conceived as a kind of proto-architecture, were geometrically far more constrained than his compositions on canvas, too ‘cubic' and orthogonal to make the leap into unrestricted freedom.


There is a successor here, who will not be bound to the right-angle in the same manner. ‘It is a well established fact that the work of Zaha Hadid took its first inspiration from the early Russian avant-garde, in particular she directly engaged with the work of Kasimir Malevich', that is in her first major project, the 1980s work Malevich's Tektonik, a proposal for a Suprematist replacement for London's Hungerford Bridge. So Hadid will go where the Russian avant-garde could not - into a completely non-objective world, freed from the last vestiges of spatial reality which Malevich still insisted upon. Yet in a very different context. ‘These projects', writes Schumacher, ‘in all their experimental radicality - had a real social meaning and political substance. But their originality and artistic ingenuity transcends the context of the grand Russian social experiment.' So it would be worthwhile to investigate the connection between Malevich's successor and the social and political world she inhabits. Schumacher has been explicit that there is a new avant-garde, represented most prominently in the work of Zaha Hadid Architects, and has mainly faced ridicule for his claims. Here, we'll attempt to take him at least partly seriously and evaluate exactly what this avant-garde consists of - what it retains and what it loses, from previous notions of the avant-garde. Schumacher imagines an avant-garde without politics, and this does curious and under-investigated things to the concept itself.

Patrik Schumacher Declares Style War

Unlike Schumacher, Hadid is no theorist, nor has she ever pretended to be. Among the generation of ‘deconstructivists' who emerged out of architecture schools in the 1980s - Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, Steven Holl, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Daniel Libeskind - she was always conspicuous in her lack of interest in quoting Derrida or Benjamin to justify her forms, although she has always cited the similarly Marxian Soviet avant-garde. So it's curious that in recent years Schumacher, Hadid's architectural partner for the last 16 years, has become her abstract ventriloquist, writing intensely theoretical texts to go alongside every museum and opera house.

Schumacher is a little more ambitious than the average Deleuze-citing architect, however. The postmodernist fear of the grand gesture, categorisation and periodisation, or the Hegelian historical sweep is not for him. Most of all, there is no hint of the discomfort on the question of whether an avant-garde can still exist. In a series of articles and one book over the last two years, he has proselytised for a new avant-garde he calls ‘Parametricism', a term derived from the computer scripting software that most large architectural firms use in designing buildings. Architects, especially in the UK, are an inconsistent bunch when it comes to theorising what they do. Most of them opt for one of a series of competing pragmatisms - the utilitarianism of high-tech, the dour ‘social' concerns of vernacular, and mostly a less conscious disdain for the idea of thinking too much about what you're doing; while a minority in the more elite architecture schools immerse themselves in continental theory - to be glib, it's Heidegger if you like natural materials and ‘nature', Deleuze if you like aggressive modernity. Schumacher is closer to the latter trend, but his unabashed confidence in his own assertions marks him out.

In the 2008 paper, ‘Parametricism as Style - a Parametric Manifesto', Schumacher defines this new entity in terms fairly familiar from Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia.ii On his list of don't's, or his ‘negative heuristics', are a mish-mash of ideas from 20th century modernism and late 20th century traditionalism - ‘avoid familiar typologies, avoid platonic/hermetic objects, avoid clear-cut zones/territories, avoid repetition, avoid straight lines, avoid right angles, avoid corners'. Partly this is a list of bad things the earlier, ‘cubic' avant-garde does - all the things that make it boring to the architecture student, its unfriendly linearity, its formal rigours. As for the ‘positive heuristics', we're stuck in the Thousand Plateaus - we must ‘interarticulate, hyberdize (sic), morph, deterritorialize, deform, iterate, use splines, nurbs, generative components, script rather than model...' The extreme syntactical inelegance is evidently part of the point, the tumbling onrush of pseudoscientific terms and the staccato sentence structure makes the prose sound like an operative thing rather than mere description.

Initial responses in the architectural press have largely stayed at the level of ridicule, but Schumacher set out to challenge this with an extraordinary article in the Architects' Journal, easily the most aggressive, theoretical and indigestible piece of prose ever published in this trade magazine. The piece, ‘Let the Style Wars Begin', was a condensation and intensification of his various, more rarefied rhetorical interventions for public consumption, though with no concession given to the readership.iii It begins with a valedictory tone:

In my Parametricist Manifesto of 2008, I first communicated that a new, profound style has been maturing within the avant-garde segment of architecture during the last 10 years. The term ‘parametricism' has since been gathering momentum within architectural discourse and its critical questioning has strengthened it. So far, knowledge of the new style has remained largely confined within architecture


but, he confidently asserts:

I suspect news will spread quickly once it is picked up by the mass media. Outside architectural circles, ‘style' is virtually the only category through which architecture is observed and recognised. A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture.


The insistence on style is interesting. The modernists of the 1920s attempted wherever possible to avoid the term, preferring the neutral and technocratic New Building or Constructivism. When it was later dubbed The International Style by critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock and fascist activist Philip Johnson, it was as a deliberate attempt to celebrate the finer things, to hold up villas and ‘an architecture still' against the ‘fanatical functionalists' who wanted to build for ‘some proletarian superman of the future' - those who claimed they'd abolished architecture by realising it. The high-tech generation who are essentially today's architectural elders, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers et al, always disdained the notion of style, claiming ever less convincingly to be above such fripperies, their work emerging from solely technological imperatives. Schumacher, though, claims he will use style as a means of communicating with the public, unsurprisingly, as he was never likely to do so with his prose. The grand claims go alongside this hope for public recognition, ‘Parametricism finally offers a credible, sustainable answer to the drawn-out crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.' The aim of achieving hegemony is again something that the technocrats, liberals and neoclassicists would never admit to. Schumacher clearly wants to destroy his woolly opponents, and in that there's no doubt he's an avant-gardist of some sort.

So Schumacher isn't just suggesting that Parametricism is the successor to the mini-movements of postmodernism or deconstructivism, but rather it's something more fundamental - he's making a claim to ‘the great new style after modernism', the final and long-awaited creation of something that owes nothing to the Soviet avant-garde. His contempt for all that came between is total. ‘Post-modernism and deconstructivism were mere transitional episodes, similar to art nouveau and expressionism as transitions from historicism to modernism.' He goes on to frame this in almost political terms as a repudiation of Fukuyama and his ilk, to insist that now something new can be created. ‘Did history come to an end? Or did it fragment into criss-crossing and contradictory trajectories? Are we to celebrate this fragmentation of efforts under the slogan of pluralism?' No, is his answer. ‘Parametricism aims for hegemony and combats all other styles.' This ‘combat' is not for any moral, ethical or political purpose, but for formal reasons intrinsic to Parametricism itself, the way the designs apparently aggressively flood a space: ‘Parametricism's crucial ability to set up continuities and correspondences across diverse and distant elements relies on its principles holding uninterrupted sway.' Yet he also claims the design is more powerful because of the way it can join together or interestingly differentiate anything else in its path:

Parametricism can take up vernacular, classical, modernist, post-modernist, deconstructivist and minimalist urban conditions, and forge a new network of affiliations and continuities between and beyond any number of urban fragments and conditions.


To see what Parametricism actually looks like in practice, try Zaha Hadid Architects' Port Authority project in Antwerp, where a gigantic phallic insect mounts and seemingly rapes a neoclassical building on the city's harbour. There's a certain thrill in the sheer rudeness of this approach.

More contentiously, Schumacher, insists that Parametricism is not merely a style for the elite:

It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.


From Tatlin or Malevich's three-dimensional hymns to the Communist International, the enticing prospect of a ‘high-performance contemporary life process' is a reminder of exactly what has changed between the old avant-garde and the new. Nowhere in Schumacher's now voluminous proclamations on the new style can you find much of an acknowledgement of politics, but you can find various little hints of the world outside the ZHA studio. ‘Parametricism aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centres of post-Fordist network society.' So this starts with acknowledging that there is a network society, and it's a ‘post-Fordist' one (although anyone who works in a call centre would be able to attest that networks and strict Taylorist disciplining of labour are in no way mutually exclusive). Schumacher has no particular interest in doing anything other than displaying this society, embodying it. In his manner, he fully acknowledges this. ‘The avoidance of parametricist taboos and adherence to the dogmas delivers complex order for complex social institutions.' It mirrors the processes that go on within it. It is a mute avant-garde, an avant-garde without criticism. In a sense, this is a relief - none of the embarrassing attempts by the likes of Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture to claim that designing offices for Rothschilds or Chinese state TV is in some way ‘critical'.

It is easy to just dismiss Schumacher, to shrink from his torrent of tortuous verbiage, to write it all off as forbidding and Teutonic - to take the various positions adopted by the AJ's readership - ‘what is it about Germans always trying to start the war?' or ‘take a chill pill mate.' But to really see what makes Parametricism symptomatic of our unpleasant cultural and political circumstances, it needs to be taken seriously, and we need to suppress our aesthetic and syntactic revulsion. So, if we suspend disbelief for a little while, we can see that after all those morbid symptoms in the '80s, '90s and '00s - the cowardice of pomo, the glorification of powerlessness and fragmentation indulged in by deconstructivism - the new is finally emerging. Who is it that actually practices Parametricism? Schumacher acknowledges only one precursor, the engineer Frei Otto, and only a handful of contemporaries - digital architect Greg Lynn, and two architectural schools - Sci-Arc in Southern California and the London Architectural Association under Brett Steele. Yet, perhaps appropriately given Schumacher's stated intent on total hegemony, the style has reached its greatest extent at the hands of its apparent enemies.iv

The Architect as CEO - Parametricism as the Architectural Logic of Late Neoliberalismv

But what does Hadid herself think about all this? Her work has only recently started to fit the parameters of Parametricism. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the firm's work built on the most disruptive and dissonant elements of modernist architecture - principally the Soviet Suprematism and Constructivism of the '20s, and the architectural Brutalism that flourished in Britain and Japan in the middle of the century - and did so without any particular theoretical baggage. The Deleuzian organic metaphors that Schumacher indulges in would seem to be a particular anathema to her projects. Her most famous early work, 1983's unbuilt The Peak restaurant in Hong Kong, was a collision of rectilinear, repetitive forms that any Deleuzian would baulk at; a ferocious and sharp formalism. Perhaps the main link between this and what would come after, aside from the luxury clientèle, is a certain geological bent to her structures, the sense that they explode or erupt (as opposed to organically emerging or growing) out of the landscape. As soon as this was translated into actual building, the results were more prosaic. A block of flats in West Berlin as part of the International Bau-Ausstellung in 1988 was a slightly wonkier than usual postmodernist tower, with only a slight lean to indicate her input, and is usually left out of retrospectives. In the UK, where the Baghdad born architect has been working since the early 1970s, she is best known for the rejection of her 1994 Cardiff Bay Opera House, by both Tories (Virginia Bottomley didn't like it) and old Labour (nor did Rhodri Morgan). Until her work suddenly started to get built en masse in the middle of the '00s, it seemed she would be best remembered for the paintings that preceded and accompanied each failed competition entry. These divide opinion greatly. For some they're prog-rock kitsch, for some - including the present writer - they're astonishing, genuinely worthy of comparison with El Lissitzky, a ‘station between painting and architecture' of shuddering, overwhelming dynamism and power. Yet the comparison between them and the structures that resulted was often tragicomic, as in the IBA block in Berlin, or when her harsh concrete structures for furniture designers Vitra in Wheil-am-Rhein began to look as leaky and tired as any other ageing Brutalist structure (and whether that is a bad thing or not is likewise a matter of opinion).

When her work finally began to get built, it was at the hands of two principal groups of clients - EU countries and Middle Eastern oligarchies. She has done very little work in the United States or China (one completed building each) and, notoriously, a tiny amount in the country where she has been based for over 30 years. Her only built works in the UK are a small Cancer Care centre in Fife, an unfinished but, from the renders, deeply forgettable Transport Museum in Glasgow, and two structures in London - the similarly unremarkable Aquatics Centre for the Stratford Olympics and, more interestingly, the just-completed Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, which we will return to.

As it is, ZHA's work has been limited mostly to the most exclusive clients and programmes. Museums, Alpine ski-jumps, corporate showcase buildings (like her BMW Central Building in Leipzig, or the various structures for Vitra). She has expressed her dissatisfaction with this on occasion, and her discomfort with being hired to design wilfully spectacular ‘signature' buildings to be seen in isolation. ‘What I would really love to build', she once told Jonathan Glancey, ‘are schools, hospitals, social housing. Of course I believe imaginative architecture can make a difference to people's lives, but I wish it was possible to divert some of the effort we put into ambitious museums and galleries into the basic architectural building blocks of society.'vi (Note also the clarity of this statement when compared with the average Schumacher pronouncement). She has regularly praised the grand building projects of the 1960s, from Alexanderplatz to London's South Bank, and their architects, from James Stirling to Rodney Gordon, with an admirable lack of retrospective hand-wringing. In a statement like the above, you get the sense that she may even be slightly nostalgic for this era, when architects had a brief moment of national prominence, until the wave of popular anti-modernism in the 1970s-80s.

She has had some minor recent input in these ‘basic architectural building blocks', inoffensively in Fife, more complicatedly in Brixton as we shall see. Yet the point remains, that these ‘ambitious museums and galleries', like the Stirling Prize-winning MAXXI in Rome, are precisely what architects, particularly of the wilfully spectacular, dissonant variety - the avant-garde, if you will - are called upon to provide in the current climate. Icons, gigantic three-dimensional advertisements, usually designed to ‘anchor' a post-industrial area with a regular clientèle of tourists, while the functional buildings that follow will be designed by corporate journeymen. It's unclear where all this fits in the conceptual paradigm erected by her partner. In a 2008 interview, Jonathan Meades attempted to take her to task on the firm's use of this language, which he called ‘the cant of pseudo-science - self-referential, inelegant, obfuscatingly exclusive: it attempts to elevate architecture yet makes a mockery of it.' Her defence is interesting:

she claims to be not much of a reader of anything other than magazines, so the coarseness of the prose doesn't offend her. The point she makes is that this is the lingua franca of intercontinental architecture. A sort of Esperantist pidgin propagated by the world's architectural schools - the majority of which happen to be notionally anglophone, yet whose pupils and teachers come from a host of countries - and the world's major architectural practices which are international and polyglot [...] the gulf between (her) clumsy, approximate jargon and precise, virtuoso design is chasmic.vii


So, in essence, this syntax is a true em-bodiment of the very post-Fordist globalisation whose ornamenteur Schumacher asks to be. Meades goes on to argue that the obfuscation might be the point. ‘I suspect that Zaha has an ancient fear: that to discover how her processes work would be to jeopardise them' (but) ‘when Zaha talks about anything other than architecture, she employs an urbane vocabulary, a flourishing grammar and even the definite and indefinite articles'.

Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome 2010


Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome 2010


This doesn't quite go far enough in explaining why both ZHA's forms and Schumacher's verbiage have such appeal for the businessmen, oligarchs and Sheiks who commission them. In a talk to the Architecture Foundation in London, one of the many sites in the capital that were supposed to host eventually unbuilt Hadid projects, the architect Patrick Lynch suggested another possible explanation. CEOs like Zaha because they think she's like them, and that the vaulting ambition of her buildings is a perfect fit. The swaggering ‘fuck you' attitude, the rhetoric of transformation and aspiration, the sense of something ruthlessly and relentlessly crushing all competitors. The architect Sam Jacob went a step further in an article published in the midst of the 2008 crash - making a precise link between financialisation and Parametricism.

Jacob notes that ‘the ideology of the global market has been the context for architecture', which is a less romantic way of describing Schumacher's ‘Post-Fordist network society'. ‘These projects attempted to turn the flush of cash and credit delivered by fluctuations of abstract systems into something real: a thing or a place.' Hence, what we have is the only concrete monument to the demented extravagance of the derivatives-led boom of 1997-2008. ‘It's created an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes. This unreality has infused architectural production, often finding resolution in hysterical, liquid, fluid form at audacious scale - the kind of thing recently dubbed ‘Parametricism' by Patrik Schumacher.' The ideas of ‘differentiation', the opposition to the ‘fixed', has its own economic correspondent.

Displays of beyond-human formal complexity drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference - a difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism. Appropriately, these projects seemed to use the very same kind of tools that have maximised, magnified and deepened the current financial crisis. If the modern movement had the abstraction of industry as its reference, millennial architecture had the systematised abstraction of late capitalism.

Jacob, writing in the moment where it seemed as if financialisation had collapsed, wrote of how ‘this union of ideology and form has decoupled in dramatic fashion. The swift disjunction leaves a generation of architecture rendered instantly out of time - as un-possible as Gothic architecture in the Renaissance.' The piece ends on an ironic neo-romantic note:

Tomorrow's visitors to today's (or yesterday's) buildings will feel the swoosh of volumes, the cranked-out impossibility of structure, the lightheadedness of refraction and translucencies. They will marvel at buildings that hardly touch the ground, which swoop into the air as though drawn up by the jet stream. They will feel stretched by elongated angles that suck into vanishing points and confound perspective, and be seduced by curves of such overblown sensuality. And in this litany of effects, they will find the most permanent record of the heady, liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics. We might re-christen these freakish sites as museums of late capitalist experience, monuments to our quaint faith in the global markets.viii


It is appropriate, then, that ZHA's first completed building in London owes its existence to a hedge fund manager.

The Avant-Garde Builds Schools for the Future

The building in question is the Evelyn Grace Academy which is, of course, a City Academy. The managerial language of leadership and motivation that resides in this cadre of PPP financed, inner city boot camps has certain correspondences with Patrik Schumacher's Parametric rhetoric. In both cases, it's a matter of dynamism and fluidity, rife with pseudo-scientific phrases and a certain abstract indefinability, combined with the sense that the work is ‘doing' something, whether aspiring or deterritorialising. At the same time, the architect and the hedge fund manager's elective affinity becomes something more concrete here. Evelyn Grace Academy was given its small proportion of private funding and hence is overwhelmingly controlled by a charitable organisation called ARK. This was set up by some of those who deal in the same flowing, uncontrollable, weightless, non-referential and non-objective derivatives that Sam Jacob compares with Parametricism. ARK's founders are three hedge fund managers - Paul Marshall and Ian Wace of the firm Marshall Wace, and most prominently, Arpad ‘Arki' Busson, head of EIM group, a ‘fund of funds company'. ARK's connection with Busson has been given the most prominence, given the similarity between the charity's name and Busson's nickname, and the fact that he is the ex-boyfriend of Farrah Fawcett, Elle Macpherson and Uma Thurman, not to mention Tatler's ‘7th most wanted person at a party'. There is an insistence that the experience of trading in derivatives can be applied to education (much as it can no doubt be applied to architecture), which should raise many more eyebrows than it has since 2008. ‘If we can apply the entrepreneurial principles we have brought to business to charity', he said to the Guardian, ‘we have a shot at having a really strong impact, to be able to transform the lives of children.'ix He calls this ‘venture philanthropy', and the fact that the initials stand for ‘Absolute Return for Kids' underlines the enthusiastic embrace of business ontology. Unsurprisingly, given that ARK are particularly keen on applying their derivatives-derived wealth in impoverished inner cities, the grossness of the condescension has often been noted. In Islington, a local campaign ‘forced ARK, a charity run by a group of bankers and hedge fund speculators, to pull out of a scheme to create an independent but state-funded academy on the sites of Islington Green and Moreland schools.'x But in Brixton, in an area which has lacked a secondary school for some time, it got through.

It is worth reminding ourselves of what the Academies are and were, given that they have been defended by some after their funding was the first major victim of cuts from the Tory-Whig government. A programme called ‘Building Schools for the Future' was the main conduit for the academies - responsible both for the destruction of the older schools and the construction of the new - and, near the end of the Labour government's third term, was one of the main instruments for its brief burst of ‘Keynesianism', with its funding guaranteed despite the recession. Michael Gove destroyed the programme almost immediately, but his counter-proposal for Free Schools was essentially the City Academies without the architecture. According to Gove, the only rationale for the programme was to keep architects in business anyway (the far more lucrative roles for the contractors and lawyers, of course, went unmentioned). Businesses and charities, and perhaps the ‘Big Society', would run the Free Schools at an even further remove from local authority control, but they could be housed in sheds for all Gove and his supporters cared. Journalist and Free Schools enthusiast Toby Young has carved out a lucrative sideline in the architectural press, telling architects how useless their jobs are. It's in this context that the Evelyn Grace Academy limps to completion - the ideology has survived into the coalition's own version of moralist neoliberalism, but the dramatically deterritorialising architectural shell now seems like a relic of New Labour.

Zaha Hadid, Evelyn Grace Academy, 2010


Zaha Hadid, Evelyn Grace Academy, 2010


The Evelyn Grace website implies that the school may be relatively inoffensive as City Academies go. Pupils are reminded in assemblies that they are part of ‘a special family, the ARK family', but mercifully, there are no trading floors, as there are in Bexley Business Academy, or classes in creationism, as in Emmanuel College, Gateshead. The only major innovation appears to be the extension of school hours into a regular working day (8.30-5), and perhaps less obnoxiously the splitting up of the school into four smaller schools occupying different entrances to the building, which is again fairly common practice. The rhetoric is certainly neoliberal, but in a similar vein to any comprehensive school today. Blairite buzzwords pervade the prospectus - we find unsurprisingly that ‘developing an aspirational ethos and mindset is at the heart of our work', and that ‘there will be a zero tolerance approach to behaviour that disrupts learning'. Meanwhile all students follow an intensive induction programme which teaches them to understand, follow and buy into all aspects of Evelyn Grace Academy's ‘behaviour for learning policy', while pupils ‘will become the leaders of tomorrow in every walk of life' (my italics). This aspirational rhetoric is just as bureaucratic as Patrik Schumacher's Parametric syntax, though rather less spectacular. Likewise, the theory opposes rectitude, reticence, and no doubt also the rectilinear. In a talk on ‘SEAL' (that's the Social and Economic Aspects of Learning), headteacher Peter Walker laments this as,

a kind of British reticence - it's tied up with liberalism, it's tied up with non-conformism, it's tied up with the history of the twentieth century, it's tied up with a natural reservation about the way the Americans treat the flag and so on; this whole area which is about dealing with how young people behave in an organisation. And I don't mean just bad behaviour and good behaviour, I mean learning behaviour; in order to learn effectively. We have a national resistance to that. We have a real hegemony still of subject learning in secondary schools.xi


So how does all this verbiage - this exclusivity, aspiration, leadership and zero tolerance - fit into the local area? The description of the school itself, fairly clearly written by Schumacher, talks of:

an open, transparent and welcoming addition to the community's local urban regeneration process. The Academy offers a learning environment that is spatially reassuring and able to engage the students actively, creating an atmosphere for progressive teaching. To maintain the educational principle of ‘schools-within-schools' the design generates natural patterns of division within highly functional spaces which give each of the four smaller schools a distinct identity, both internally and externally. These spaces present generous environments with maximum levels of natural light, ventilation and understated but durable textures. The communal spaces - shared by all the schools - are planned to encourage social communication with aggregation nodes that weave together the extensive accommodation schedule. (my italics)'xii


And so forth. The jargon of flow and pseudo-science remains, but note the change in velocity and intensity from the earlier manifestos and declarations of style war - it's one half mock-Deleuze, one half planning application.

The building was not quite finished by the time the pupils arrived in September 2010, with the entrance from Shakespeare Road still a mess of portaloos and waste; but the architecture is impressive. The school is on the same scale as the terraces, estates and villas around it, but without the slightest aesthetic concession to the London stock brick all around, or to the garish jollity of most Academies. It's a series of aggressive interlocking volumes, with a certain flow, but without the monstrous organic formalism of the firm's more recent work. These volumes, defined by tiled zigzags, each contain an individual ‘school', while the curves at each side enclose small sports grounds. Yet what is most intriguing about the form is that the apparently ‘Parametric' exterior has no real correspondence with what goes on inside. The big, flowing spaces that a Parametric form usually encloses are completely absent here, as they are in any school. In fact, we have a series of cubic and rectilinear rooms with occasional curves and spatial distortions to the corridors. Schumacher's claim that Parametricism isn't necessarily limited to the barely-functional spaces of galleries, museums and suchlike is comprehensively debunked by Evelyn Grace, where there is an ever present and clearly spectacularly unintentional tension between the function and the form.

Yet in context, the building has some admirable qualities. City Academies have tended towards a deeply conservative architectural form, even when they're of the ‘signature' variety - plenty of slatted wood, atria, ‘friendliness', a brightly-coloured condescension. Evelyn Grace Academy has none of these things - in its small way it's a deeply uncompromising and nonconformist structure, as much as it is politically wholly conformist. This usually highly publicity conscious firm have been a little quiet about this building, and it doesn't feature in the comprehensive 2009 book The Complete Zaha Hadid, which otherwise compiles the firm's every cancelled, unbuilt and speculative project, even though it was begun in 2006 and already under construction when the book went to print. Despite it not being a PFI scheme, the scheme went through a change of contractor and a spot of ‘value engineering' before completion. The project managers for the school were a division of Private Eye's ‘world's worst outsourcing company' Capita, and to a minor extent it shows - the combination of precast concrete and grey cladding is admirable in its lack of ingratiating jollity, but the detailing is cheap, with some tiles already looking forlorn. The most spectacular part of the building, however, the bit that will be in all the photographs, is a bright red racetrack running under the school, while it hauls itself up on glass walkways and concrete steps go off in the other direction. It's a moment worthy of the GLC architects Hadid cites.

Evelyn Grace might not be the embodiment of a new avant-garde, and Schumacher's new vocabulary is not all that apparent here. Yet it does have some palpable connection with a historical avant-garde that aimed to revolutionise everyday life, that intended to take these sorts of standard Victorian streets by storm, to suggest that new ways of experiencing space need not be limited to an elite - that ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people', as Anglo-Soviet Constructivist Berthold Lubetkin put it. Yet it does this in order to inculcate in these people an utterly toxic ideology of patronising philanthropy and vacuous ‘enterprise', which holds up the vain promise that they can enrich themselves through an individual ‘excellence' elevating them above their peers; in short, that they can make it, but damn everyone else. As with Schumacher's style war, it has the appearance of being in some kind of continuity with the avant-gardes that accompanied various 20th century socialisms, but for a very different purpose; the ‘processes' of a radically inegalitarian capitalism are embodied, displayed, ennobled; we're aiming to create good little neoliberals. Most of all, Evelyn Grace is exactly the sort of building New Labour always said it was going to create, which gives it a definite bathos, given that it was completed under the millionaires' austerity government. As an architecturally ambitious building for everyday use, it has hints, just hints, of the sort of structures we might want to build after neoliberalism. But in all other respects, it's impossible not to be reminded of what is left of the avant-garde when it evacuates all hint of critical or resistant politics - the rhetoric of insurgency, dynamism and ambition, placed in the hands of the managers and the hedge funds. The avant-garde has moved from structures dedicated to the proletarian revolution to structures decreed by the super-rich, practically yelling at the proles below. ‘Aspire! Aim high, damn you!'

Owen Hatherley <owenhaterely AT> is the author of Militant Modernism (Zero, 2009) and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010)


i Reproduced at

ii See

iii Patrik Schumacher, ‘Let the Style Wars Begin', Architects' Journal, 6 May 2010.

iv I owe this point, and much else here, to critic Douglas Murphy's several trenchant analyses of Zaha Hadid Architects' work. See for instance on their Glasgow Transport Museum, on the aforementioned Antwerp ‘cock and balls', and on the decomposition of their buildings for Vitra in Weil-Am-Rhein.


vi Quoted from

vii Jonathan Meades, ‘Z' in Intelligent Life, Vol 1, Issue 4, Summer 2008.

viii Sam Jacob, ‘Architecture's Abstract Hubris Lies in Ruins', Architects' Journal, 27 November 2008.


x Ken Muller, ‘How we beat back the Islington academy plan' at

xi Peter Walker, ‘Why SEAL?' at

xii Peter Walker, ‘Why SEAL?' at