Patrik Schumacher on how he works on ever more 'tectonic' projects at Zaha Hadid Architects

24 Apr 2024  •  Interview  •  By Collin Anderson
Patrik Schumacher on how he works on ever more 'tectonic' projects at Zaha Hadid Architects
00:00 / 00:00
Welcome to the Archello Podcast, architecture’s most visual podcast series. Listen as Archello's Paris-based Editor in Chief, Collin Anderson, sits down with architects to discuss their careers and projects. Each audio episode is accompanied by a rich visual storyboard which listeners can use to follow the discussion.


Introducing Patrik Schumacher, Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects


In this episode we're in London with Patrik Schumacher, Principal of Zaha Hadid Architects. Born in Bonn, Germany, Patrik studied philosophy, math and architecture in Germany and the UK before earning his PhD. In 1996 he co-founded the Design Research Laboratory at the Architectural Association in London, where he continues to teach today.
Patrik first joined Zaha Hadid Architects in 1988 and collaborated closely with the late Zaha Hadid to define the design approach of the firm, which produces visionary projects that range from cultural institutions, to transportation hubs and office towers in cities around the globe. Patrik is an architect that combines theory with practice to create new types of space and forms. Despite their complexity, the projects are surprisingly clean and legible.
Listen and scroll as we talk about Patrik's design process, his experience with Zaha Hadid, how he works with materials, and how he is using new technologies such as artificial intelligence to advance projects.



A look inside Zaha Hadid Architects' London studio


The studio at 101 Goswell Road in London was recently renovated during COVID to add more meeting rooms and social spaces. It includes spaces such as a gallery at the ground floor and a robotics lab.
"We are looking for a site to do our new headquarters. Timeframe about six or seven years."



Patrik on his background in philosophy and early influences


Schumacher was interested in architecture before philosophy and credits the work of Mies van der Rohe as well as films on his curiosity for design.
"Philosophy has this claim of a deeper knowledge, a more comprehensive and reflective knowledge. I wanted to crack that nut and I did."
On complexity in design
Schumacher and Zaha Hadid architects works with site conditions that have complex and asymmetrical arrangements yet they pursue solutions that allow coherence and legibility through gradients, weaving, in-between spaces, layering and unique combinations of elements.  This is applicable at the scale of the building as well as at urban scales. 
In the past Schumacher and Zaha Hadid experimented with French curves and splines to find form. 


However as the office evolved, its folded, rippling and aggregated forms became more dependent on algorithms based on parameters that could not be hand drawn.



Three institutions - a museum, national library and concert hall - are combined into a single sinuous form.
"We had a methodology, a concept and techniques...We used these to make something where you see these three entities, but they meld."
"When you start a project you start with a certain repertoire of sets of values, a certain history of prior projects. Once has confidence about that repertoire being the right one."
Organic forms are clad in timber within the auditorium, while glass-reinforced concrete panels (GFRC) are used for the exterior envelope. Molds were hand-adjusted at control points to 'reprogram' molds to be re-used for multiple similar geometries to help control costs and precision.
"It is a trial and error process, a search process, where you pull around and shift the pieces."
3,150 panels of GFRC produced were produced by Arabian Profile and cover 10,000 square meters of surface and feature single, double and triple-curved forms. The panel joints run parallel and reinforce the building's curvature.
"This increased complexity in geometry I only condone if it is executed well enough....If you don't have precise geometry, the line doesn't flow, you'll pick that up and you don't trust the artifact. Something is wrong with it. We are quite sensitive to this. In nature there are coherent forms. Dolphins for instance don't have dents and bumps and jittery lines."

On 'Tectonism'
Schumacher in his recent book and research posits that we are witnessing the formation of a new style: Tectonism, a subsidiary of parametricism.
Tectonism is driven by environmental factors such as sun direction and shading as well as structural expression, to yield unique forms specific to the site and individual program needs. It is a style with clear aims but it is not always simple to achieve.
"Even within our firm, the kind of skill and ambition needed to execute Tectonism in every single project, we have not achieved that. You have to pick the project and pick the battles."
Zaha Hadid Architects started its experiments in optimization with a number of smaller pavilion-scale structures as well as exhibition installations. According to Schumacher, design using principles of Tectonism can exploit nearly limitless geometric complexity and fineness afforded by high-resolution 3D-printing technologies. 

On artificial intelligence
According to Schumacher, AI has potential in terms of automation as well as in terms of productivity, and Zaha Hadid Architects has fully embraced its potentials.
"We are jumping on it shamelessly."  
Zaha Hadid Architects is working with open AI systems such as DALL·E and MidJourney, as well as investing in its own programs and intelligence.

On fabrication and testing
Patrik is also involved in fashion design which informs some of his ideas and research. Zaha Hadid Architects has worked with fabrics, casting concrete using textile formwork in its KnitCandela pavilion in Mexico.

And in its Striatus project, Zaha Hadid Architects worked with Block Research Group to engineer and produce a bridge of 3D-printed concrete panels which find their texture from the direction of the print layers which follow structural load paths. 

On material research and form today
"There are always different ways of optimizing structure. There is no de-optimal structure. You have some choices and you optimize within those choices." 
Classical ornament is based on the ways you build. So when you have brick layering, you can shift it into an ornamental mode when you do arches or wedging patterns over openings that have a certain geometry and you heighten that into ornament. 
Schumacher seeks ways in which structure is ornamental and also semiological. 
"Materiality has to do with atmosphere and giving a space a certain atmospheric charge. And when you get close to it there is a certain sculptural sense."
On working with Zaha and future works

The only thing Patrik believes is dramatically different since the passing of Zaha Hadid is the use of AI. He is unsure whether Hadid would have engaged so quickly with the technology:
"She was always too keen on seeing great results and seeing things quickly. So it is quite a stance to say 'I'm now to use these systems to generate more of our oeuvre.'"
The office continues to use these new technologies in its forthcoming work, finding new ways to optimize, prompt and respond to site conditions, such as in the Jinghe New City Culture & Art Centre.
"AI makes for better decisions. Of course there things, quirky forms and combinations of forms you would not have to come up with. You then have to work with them, rationalize them, make sense of them...But it makes you faster, and that makes for better decisions in the end. "