Architects need to grow up!

A controversy in the current issue of the UK Architectural Review poses interesting questions about the perceived duty of the architect in the 21st century in what might be called an exercise in 'architectural' exceptionalism, used in the same sense as the  term is used in relation to the United States' view of itself.

It all stemmed from a review by Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books that was critical of Zaha Hadid, architect for a new World Cup stadium in Qatar.  He wrote that she had:
'unashamedly disavowed any responsibility let alone concern for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing the project so far.'

'I have nothing to do with it,'Hadid had stated, 'It's not my duty as an architect to look at it.' 

Asked in the original piece if she was concerned, she replied,

'Yes, but I'm concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that?  I'm not taking it lightly but I think it's for the government to look at and take care of.'

Martin Filler was forced to apologise when it was found that the original report was erroneous, that her particular project hadn't yet commenced construction, although the reports of unsafe working conditions in Qatar generally were only too true. 

But this hasn't stopped others from accusing Hadid of failing to take a moral stand and not using her celebrity status to publicise and address the ethical problem of unsafe working conditions in the Gulf States.

There is an assumption by some that architects are 'exceptionalist' and therefore not only have a greater responsibility to speak out but also that more importance than everyone else is attached to whatever they say on the ills of the urban world.  Would that it were so.

 The AR article concludes by asking,

'So what then is 'the duty of the architect?  Fundamentally what are architects 'for' in the 21st century?'

The self serving way this question is asked shows some naivety, when the answer is clear; architects are here to design buildings, that's what they are for!  And hopefully the buildings they design will be beautiful and intelligent ones that raise the spirits and create the conditions for sustainable community growth and democratic action; but first things first, architects should simply concentrate on designing better buildings.

Indeed little else can be expected of architects in a world where their professional role as designers is constantly being eroded and marginalised.   Architects may have this 'exceptional and heroic' view of themselves but stripped of the rhetoric, in reality they are basically 'servant' consultants whose role is, on the whole, diminishing.  Within many consultant teams their role is often reduced to those of form making and facade decoration. 

It seems naive in the extreme to think that Zaha Hadid, a female architect speaking out about working conditions on building sites in an autocratic Muslim Emirate like Qatar, would have the slightest impact at all. The only people who would be pleased are those self serving critics who have an unrealistic view that the architectural role is 'exceptionalist' and that this gives them the right, indeed the duty, to make moral judgements from on high. 

Sometimes speaking out can be the only available course of action of course even if it's ineffectual, but as Hadid asked, why stop at Qatar, what about the Iraq war?  There's no reason why architects shouldn't speak out about everything, but all this does today is to emphasise their complete professional lack of any political power; no one out there is listening!

Indeed it's not only Qatar that's a worry.  The Guardian reported earlier this year that 448 British soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.  In the same period, 700 construction workers had died on British building sites, causing the AR to ask rhetorically whether it was more dangerous to be a soldier or a construction worker? 

I haven't seen any outraged headlines so far by Norman Foster or Richard Rogers about that situation!  The possibility that there is an element of gender bias in this big poppy criticism of Hadid sounds ever more plausible.

These 'exceptionalist' attitudes on the part of some architects are probably the last fading vestiges of the architectural polemic of the modern movement in the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties where a good deal of social idealism was mixed with self serving promotion of the new architectural style and themselves. It was when European countries had social democratic governments in the aftermath of the Great War, and the need for public housing led to the growth of great municipal estates like the Siemenstadt Seidlung in Berlin.  Architects were indeed often seen then as leaders in the creation of a brave new world. 

But that was before the Gulag and the Holocaust!  We know better now than to trust the rhetoric.  And over 80 years later, while those housing estates still remain as exemplars for current redevelopments like Fishermans Bend in Melbourne, late 20th century capitalism is in full flight in comfortable, consumer-led Australia and it's being left to the market to decide.

Hadid is in the difficult situation of any person in a profession or job who discovers they are working in a situation that is corrupt in some way even if it may be well outside their immediate sphere of responsibility.  The ultimate course of action if you don't like (even indirectly) condoning things of which you don't approve, is to resign.  This will make you feel good but it's often an empty and ineffectual gesture that mainly impacts on those you employ!

I hope instead that Hadid completes her professional tasks, sets an example by acting ethically on all aspects of the work over which she has control, makes her attitudes clear about grey areas, and at the same time enhances the architectural role by setting new standards of stadia design.

One might well ask why not get FIFA and the footballers to complain instead, their potential veto power would be far greater than that of any architect.  The difference of course is that foot-ballers are under no illusion about their role; they know that the only reason they are there is to play football!  

It's only architects who often delude themselves that there is a higher moral purpose inherent in everything they do. 

Architects must concentrate on designing much better, more sustainable and socially aware buildings, and stop thinking they have a God given duty to make pronouncements about external issues.  We shouldn't let a false sense of moral superiority confuse these peripheral actions with our primary role as architects.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
November 2014.