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The Architect’s Dilemma: When to Say No

United Kingdom Architecture News - Jun 5, 2014 - 12:05   3296 views

What are the factors—political, social, or environmental—that architects should consider when deciding if they should turn down or resign from a job?


By Michael Sorkin

Rendering: courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects
The al-Wakrah stadium by Zaha Hadid will be one of the featured venues at the 2022 World Cup complex in Qatar. Since January 2012, almost 900 workers have died during construction on the complex, according to The Guardian.


The three American hikers captured in 2009 by the Iranians and held in jail for two years (for allegedly straying over the border from Iraq) have written a book about the experience. Now making the rounds of talk shows, they describe solitary confinement as one of its horrors and cite a UN report on torture declaring such treatment—if lasting more than 15 days—cruel and unusual and liable to cause severe mental distress, sometimes irreversible. In fact, while there’s no question about the cruelty, it’s hardly unusual. In the U.S. there are at least 80,000 prisoners being held in isolation, and many of them have been there for years.

Following an earlier effort to persuade designers to refuse prison work altogether, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility is now conducting a campaign to have the AIA revise its code of ethics to enjoin architects from designing spaces for the worst aspects of our penal system: execution chambers and solitary-confinement cells. The San Francisco, Portland, and Boston chapters have voted in support of this, but New York just said no and proposes instead a subcommittee be appointed to develop “Best Practice Guidelines: Design for Humane, Effective, Segregation,” which sounds like a classic bureaucratic way of evading the issue, at least for the time being. But prisons are just one egregious instance of architecture’s moral dilemma. The act of building—which is directly engaged in setting and supporting virtually everything we do—is implicated on every side by choices about our own participation and complicity with evil.

The web recently has gone viral with a statement by Zaha Hadid in which she dismisses any collateral responsibility for the huge number of worker deaths—nearly 900, according to The Guardian—on World Cup construction sites in Qatar, where she is building a stadium. She claims, “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it . . . I have nothing to do with the workers.” Her partner, Patrik Schumacher, has taken this stance even further, arguing for a narrowed notion of architecture’s conceptual and operational autonomy that simply excludes such social and political concerns. Schumacher has been advocating what he calls “free market urbanism” as an ethical touchstone and writes, “architects are in charge of the form for the built environment, not its content.” Setting aside the weaselly notion of what it means to be “in charge,” does anyone actually believe this evasion? Certainly not the many artists who have been boycotting the new Abu Dhabi Guggenheim over the issue of worker exploitation and who launched a series of protests at a recent opening at the New York museum. Certainly not the authors of the professional codes of ethics that charge architects with upholding standards of health and safety in their buildings. Certainly not the families of the dead laborers....Continue Reading

> via Architectural Record