"Ongoing patronage makes the best art. " Roman Mars , 99% Invisible
In this post I hope to underline the importance of the client or 'patron' in architecture. The greatest buildings in human history required funding and support from benefactors or 'patrons.' It is little coincidence then that the greatest buildings were funded by the most successful, most powerful players in any given era of history. This wealth was typically sovereign, religious or aristocratic.
Sir Christopher Wren delivered some of the most symbolic buildings in England, but my argument is that the volume and quality of his work was largely down to timing. He worked in the generation before the industrial revolution, when the empire and the nation's wealth was growing fast. In 1666, the Great Fire Of London happened, near enough destroying the city. This afforded the city an architectural rebirth, and Wren was at the very heart of this. Today his buildings stand as symbols of strength, prosperity and cultural sophistication. The Wren Library in Cambridge (pictured above), the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and of course St Paul's Cathedral in London all borrow heavily from the Roman classical orders, demonstrating the perceived similarities between Rome, what was considered to be the greatest empire in history and the British Empire which would continue to grow for a further two hundred years.
The same is true of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. A project of lavish detail and skill, it required considerable money and resources to be realised. This support came from the Catholic Church, whose totalitarian reign of Europe through the Dark Ages saw them as the great patrons of the era. The church was able to control creative output, by being the one of the few groups equipped to support the arts.
The Medici's also assumed this role of patron. This was intensified by their ability to homogenise the roles of sovereign and religious leadership (they produced many Popes and Princes throughout their existence) with the role of influential aristocratic family, making them potent examples of the roles that power and wealth play on the creative industries.
The Modern Patron
In architecture, this notion of patronage is still heavily engrained. A client's brief has been the limiting factor in terms of the work that gets done in any era of human history. The imbalance of global capital wealth has shifted away from western religions, monarchies and the upper classes of Europe. I'm not saying these groups are broke, but you don't see projects like St Paul's and Blenheim Palace happening so much in modern Britain! The most recent era has been defined by patrons from somewhat more dispersed and diverse backgrounds.
Zaha Hadid had unprecedented success working for foreign nations, earning her and her practice the reputation of 'star'chitect. While a British architect, the bulk of her commissions were won abroad. And to me they show a lack of compromise that is incredibly rare in contemporary architecture.
All architects know the struggle of completing projects which require compromises in design quality, be it for cost reasons or otherwise. Which makes you wonder, how many of the classical masterpieces of architecture were completed by a willing and engaged architect? Zaha split opinions within the architectural profession, some seeing the work as progressive and exciting, while others denigrated it as self-indulgent and defined by style over substance.
Whatever your own view of her work, it is the clear lack of compromise and creative freedom that should be admired. Not so much in the resulting buildings, but that it happened in the first place. Maybe compatriot architects hated Sir Christopher Wren and his work, compounded by his ability to win commissions for over 50 churches in London. Sour grapes perhaps?
The point I am trying to make is that failing to heed your clients opinions, requirements or agenda is normally the biggest mistake that can be made by anyone in a creative industry. While some may feel that Zaha's buildings did not always meet their programmatic needs, she certainly knew her market, and how to keep the punters happy, so to speak...
Zaha Hadid's success is a statistical outlier in modern architecture, an exceptional example of sheer bloody-mindedness. She continued to push her own design agenda in the absence of major commissions, fully believing in her approach to parametric design as well as its potential to affect change.
I admit that my knowledge of her office has been built up by odd magazine article, hearsay, gossip and a trip to the London 2012 Aquatic Centre (after the temporary grandstands were removed). But the style and agenda that was developed with Patrik Schumacher, found them the patronage they required to realise their works. All the while staying true to a bold and at times unpopular mission. But importantly, it was unpopular with the right people, and the media attention only fed the architecture's success over the years. There is no such thing as bad press.
Timing Is Of The Essence
We look back on St Paul's as one of the great symbols of our nation. It transcends religion in the famous image of London engulfed in flames during the Blitz, with St Paul's standing tall. This building, no matter how it was funded or who commissioned it, came to define us as a nation. Zaha's focus abroad exploited a global desire for symbolic structures to equal those of London. The last few decades have seen headline grabbing projects in the Middle East, and colossal cultural centres in Asia.
This work was possible following Zaha's pro-active response to a shifting market. Architects used to serve the patrons of the once prosperous West, now they have been forced to ply their trade to new markets, in response to the spreading of wealth and an energetic clamour for status and identity amongst other nations. Emerging markets are what arguably made Zaha Hadid's agenda and ambitions possible. Like Sir Christopher Wren, she was born at the right time for her agenda and ambitions to succeed. It all needs to be taken into account.
Zaha's buildings kept selling because there was a market for what she sold. One reason it took so long for her to build anything, is that the market simply wasn't ready. Sometimes the market just isn't ready. The reason I find her inspiring, is that she stuck with it throughout. There must have been uncertainty, but she knew that her time would come. Then, when the global economy started its rebalance, nation's were battling for notoriety and power in a noisy world, and Zaha provided them with the tools to do so. Her passion and skill were undeniable, and the fervour with which she pursued opportunity is what I admire most.
I want to leave you with a parting thought: If the Great Fire of London never happened, would we be able to credit Sir Christopher Wren with the design and St Paul's Cathedral? Triumph and disaster await all of us, so make hay while the sun shines.
99% Invisible, Roman Mars http://99percentinvisible.org/