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Libya unrest: UK projects in jeopardy

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British schemes in Libya face an uncertain future as political unrest continues and the death toll mounts, reported Richard Waite in February

The future of schemes designed by British architects in Libya is increasingly uncertain as violent protests and political unrest continues to unsettle the area.

Scores of projects in Libya have already been put on indefinite hold and practices such as Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) vowed not to return to the country ‘until a change of regime’. Non-Libyans are continuing to flee the country which, despite the widespread unrest, continues to be ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. 

Peter Clegg, senior partner at FCBS, whose practice had stopped working on a masterplan for a 60-hectare site in the centre of Libyan capital Tripoli because of unpaid fees, said: ‘We were hoping to receive payment and recommence shortly. [However] the turmoil that is now taking place makes it impossible for us to consider further work in the country until the situation is resolved, which we believe can only be brought about by regime change and a move towards greater democracy.’

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 300 people have died in protests against the Libyan authorities – protests which came just days after the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak in neighbouring Egypt.

One anonymous Libya-based architect said: ‘The Libyan staff is safe. All non-Libyan staff have left the country. Communications are very difficult. The business future, very uncertain.’

Mark Camillin, director of Camillin Denny, who was working on an Intercontinental Hotel next to Green Square, one of the hotspots for protests in Tripoli, said: ‘We are surprised how quickly events have taken place in Libya. We’ve been working there for six years, we’ve made lots of friends, including architects, out there and we’re very worried about them.’

Earlier this week, Camillin was told by project managers PH Warr that the hotel project was suspended.

He added: ‘Libya has been a great source of work for many UK practices including Zaha Hadid Architects, Foster + Partners and LCE Architects – especially when there was not a lot happening in the UK.

‘The situation will definitely have an impact on the UK.’

Other practices with projects in Libya include AECOM, Edward Cullinan Architects, BFLS, AU Studio, RMJM, BDP, Dexter Moren and the Metropolitan Workshop.

Ron Sidell, partner at Sidell Gibson Architects, which is working on the 40-storey Medina tower in Tripoli, believes UK-based architects should not give up on the country. He said: ‘You just can’t turn your back on a country, even in these terrible times.

You just can’t turn your back on a country, even in these terrible times

‘There are countries I would feel uncomfortable about working in, such as Saudi Arabia, but Libya isn’t one of them.’

‘The government has looked after the people, built a huge amount of public housing and invested in schools. They have an infrastructure of people doing good work and it would be a tragedy if that was dismantled.’

Joe Morris, director of Duggan Morris Architects, is among a number of architects whose Libyan projects never got off the ground. He said: ‘The project in Tripoli has been in stasis for some time. My analysis and research indicated that the leadership in Libya had, over time, eased its perceived oppressive rule, opening up possibilities for access by local and foreign businesses as part of Gaddafi’s massive investment in the country in acknowledgement of his 40 years of rule.

‘Whether or not this was actually true now seems debatable.’    

According to sources, payment had become increasingly difficult to obtain from some Libyan clients in recent months, with Foster + Partners allegedly owed for its abandoned Green Mountain regeneration zone masterplan (AJ 10.09.07).

Another architect formerly based in the country described Libya ‘as totally corrupt from bottom to top and nothing can be done without bribes and backhanders’.

Neil Deely, director of the Metropolitan Workshop worries that some firms could be hit hard. He said: ‘Many of the building projects, including Zaha Hadid Architects’ People’s Congress project and our own Heritage Museum project, pointed to apparent progress in the country and an appetite for change. [But] our involvement in the country ceased 18 months ago.

‘We have not taken up any other work in Libya and we do worry for some smaller UK practices who are almost exclusively working on Libyan projects.’

Other comments:

Marko Neskovic of AU Studio said: ‘At this stage our main concern is for the people in Libya, including good friends and colleagues we have met and worked with over the last couple of years. We were working on the Media City project although the pace had slowed down as we were in the middle of a comments and sign off process. That is now indefinitely on hold and at this stage I don’t think anybody can predict what will happen next.
Like many other practices who have been working in North Africa we will be effected, but we have also been fortunate enough to have secured projects in the UK. At this moment we just sincerely hope that the violence will subside and locals will be able to return to normality as soon as possible.’

Roddy Langmuir of Edward Cullinan Architects said: ‘We’ve been working on a masterplan for a new town for the extraordinary people in eastern Libya’s Green Mountain. They live in relative poverty in the rural farming communities around the city of Al Beyda and we have come to know many of them well. They are proud and courageous people, and it has been both uplifting to see their struggle and depressing to see their protests crushed and their lives valued so little by their government. We have not been able to talk to our friends and Libyan colleagues in Bengazi since last Wednesday, and we can only hope that they are coming through unscathed.’ 

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