As an architect, the bigger you build, the more you have to worry about the moral and ethical consequences of your work. It is one thing to make a house for a single person, or even a small office building, and perhaps tear down a nice old structure or destroy a garden to do so. It is another to use up vast amount of resources in making large buildings, both because of the effect of that expenditure on our environment and its future, and because the kinds of clients who can command such resources have power. Evil dictators and rapacious corporations make the best clients. But at a cost.
Not only that, but, as the process of constructing new monuments in the Arab Peninsula makes clear, the very act of building can kill. As recently reported by The Guardian, hundreds of migrants workers have died in Qatar the last two years as result of the construction boom surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup. At the center of the controversy is Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, who designed the Al-Wakrah stadium. Wouter Vanstiphout, a Dutch critic, tweeted: “Qatar Stadium, the Burma Railroad of Parametricism.” Likewise, horrible living and working conditions on the sites of the cultural projects designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and Jean Nouvel, FAIA, in Abu Dhabi, have made it clear that this is not an isolated case.
Hadid has defended herself by pointing out that she, as an architect, has no control over the construction site. That is very true—and in fact, this case might make architects think twice about their continual clamor for more power over how their designs are realized. I might have wished that Hadid had shown a little bit more compassion and concern than her short statement evidences, but we cannot blame her directly for the deaths.
What the issue does bring up is the bigger question of for whom architects should work. Hadid has designed schools for troubled youth, cancer centers, and urban projects that bring a human scale to vast developments—yet she has also found herself working for developers who have fewer concerns for site or humanity. Hadid has worked for dictators in Azerbaijan and Libya. Let's not single out Hadid, though; her firm is no different from every architecture office above a certain size. We only notice the issue, it seems, either when the designs catch our attention, or, as when Rem Koolhaas worked for China’s state-controlled television network, CCTV, the project is particularly overt in its ideological nature.
Even separate from the nature of the client or the site, however, every large project brings its own dangers. One question I would love to see answered is whether more experimental or structurally daring work increases the risks. I know of no evidence of this, and so, for now, we cannot and should not blame parametricism for the deaths in Qatar. In this case, however, there is a particular sub-category of the ethical dilemma architects face: Should they work on projects they know or suspect might not be constructed in a way that ensures the health, well-being, and safety of those building it as the highest priority?
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum issued a response to criticism of alleged human rights abuses and worker exploitation at its Abu Dhabi satellite, stating that the museum is working with the client to ameliorate those conditions. Is that enough? Or should architects wash their hands of such conditions and watch what might be vastly inferior structures go up? The logical answer would be to engage in what old social Democrats used to call “constructive engagement”—that is, trying to change the politics of the place by working through the existing structures.
I do think it is clear that architects should avoid working on some structures in which their very architectural skills will be used for oppression and violence. For that reason I support the petition created by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility calling on architects to refuse to design maximum-security prisons. Beyond that, the scene is murkier. One can only hope that architects such as Hadid will do the right thing even at the risk of the smooth execution of their visions.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.