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Left-field publicity

Will Wiles

Are architects really left wing or just marketing wise?

Is architecture in the grip of left-liberal groupthink? When Patrik Schumacher let rip with a series of pungent views on the magic of unregulated capitalism back in November, this was the claim made by some of his defenders: that the profession is mired in unexamined leftist ideas and immured from criticism. 

It’s not true, at least not to the unanimous and authoritarian degree that these defenders claim – their very prominence suggests otherwise. While there’s undeniably a vocal and prolific left wing within architecture, the lords and knights that constitute its topmost tier are only left-ish at best. Lord Foster’s thoughts on the London housing crisis a year ago were pretty laissez-faire, even if they lacked the ideological ruthlessness of Schumacher’s call to clear central London of social housing and build on the treasured open spaces of Hyde Park. 

But when the claim was made, the massed shout of ‘NO IT ISN’T’ wasn’t entirely convincing. I don’t want to get bogged down in the rights and wrongs of the Schumachifesto, which will have been much discussed by the time this column appears. (With the conclusion that he’s wrong.) Nor do I want to get too deeply into the exact political complexion of the profession as a whole. If British architecture was a person, how would it vote? The question is as bottomless as it is pointless.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to deny that architecture’s image leans to the left – that, alongside red trousers and a polo-neck, the generic architect of the imagination has a copy of the Guardian tucked under his arm. Or the Independent on the iPhone, at least. But I wonder why that might be. Assuming there to be a grain of truth to the stereotype, the architect could be either a beacon of social concern and empathy, or the bourgeois output of an insulated liberal education system.

If British architecture was a person, how would it vote? The question is as bottomless as it is pointless

But I think neither of these explanations is quite right – or entirely right, anyway. One of the criticisms levelled at Schumacher after his bout of polemic was that he was just trying to flatter plutocratic clients. But if fat-walleted oligarchs could be buttered up this way, why aren’t Schumacher’s libertarian views noisily shared by more architects? If this was a ploy to drum up trade – I don’t believe it was – it might prove a misguided one. 

Compared with the rest of the population, architecture’s individual clients are mostly wealthy and influential, even if only a few of them are actual oligarchs or autocrats. This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘right wing’ of course, although statistically they’ll lean that way. The question is whether they want their architects to be politically sympatico, as they might want from their newspapers and their elected representatives, and I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Underlying this is the question of whether a client hires a designer or an individual. Of course the architect’s work matters a good deal. But the architect-client relationship can also involve a degree of patronage, which is more culturally and psychologically complicated than simply retaining a service provider. Commissioning architecture is a fairly potent act of civilisation and humanity, even on a small scale. A statement is being made, one that the client naturally tunes to flatter themselves – and so, without necessarily thinking about it, a particular kind of architect is preferred, like a status-symbol, gesturing towards conscience and wider concern. 

Could it be that architecture’s left-leaning image is really part of its professional marketing strategy? Far from being out of step with super-rich clients, is it in fact what they want? Even the autocrats – especially the autocrats. Faceless engineers for the prisons, thoughtful British liberals for the cultural centre. Which would make Schumacher’s evict-the-poor, party-with-the-rich pronouncement a disastrous misstep – it might pick up some jobs in Tennessee, less so in Chelsea. 

Will Wiles is a journalist and author

Liberal leaning

There are the exceptions, of course – the Philip Johnsons and Leon Kriers. However, I wonder how happy they would be in their heresy if it wasn’t for architecture’s general liberal backdrop. Without that milieu to differentiate from, all the fun and marketing value goes from ‘rebellion’. Arguably that kind of figure depends more on a left-liberal consensus than anyone else.