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Ethics and architecture: Where do you draw the line?


While Zaha Hadid’s treatment by BBC Radio 4’s Today programe brought sympathy from fellow architects, the interview has prompted a discussion of architects’ moral responsibility, reports Richard Waite

The profession’s response to Zaha Hadid’s grilling – and subsequent walkout – on Radio 4’s Today programme was almost universally sympathetic.

The architect, who was being interviewed by broadcaster Sarah Montague about winning the Royal Gold Medal, was questioned about the deaths of 1,200 workers on her Qatar 2022 centrepiece stadium.

An annoyed Hadid prickled and gave a robust defence. The basis of the counterattack, if not the snappiness, was understandable – nobody has died on her practice’s Al-Wakrah project. Another dig at Hadid over the budget on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium and the pleasant breakfast chat was abruptly terminated.

Almost immediately the interview and Hadid’s reaction were picked up by social media, and the story spread rapidly. The incident was reported in The Independent, in numerous columns on The Guardian’s website, in both The Times and The Sunday Times and even in the Metro.

The BBC’s Nick Robinson, although confused about the stadium’s location, thought it interesting enough to tweet to his 497,000 followers: ‘Memorable interview walk-out by Dame Zaha Hadid on @BBCr4today as she insists no deaths of workers on her Dubai World Cup stadium site.’

While Montague’s unexpected cross-examination was clumsy and ill-researched, its intentions had been to prod at the ethical responsibility of architects working for governments and regimes around the globe. 

In that sense it worked. The interview kick-started a media-wide debate about the morals of architecture and the idea that buildings are designed in an ‘ethical void’.

On these more general principles Times columnist Janice Turner was unwilling to let Hadid – and fellow architectural stars such as Norman Foster – off the hook.

She writes: ‘Architects have a higher moral duty than other artists, since they have the greatest power to shape society.’  

There’s an ethical void

Architect Alan Berman of Berman Guedes Stretton welcomed the renewed spotlight on the issues.

‘Whether architects should take an ethical stance is an important issue to come out of the BBC’s erroneous Zaha interview,’ he said.

‘False accusations should not be bandied about, and need correcting, but it raises the issue of architects’ relation to society and to whom they owe moral allegiance.  

‘All too often, architects consider themselves free to design whatever their personal artistic urge leads them to – the wilder and wackier the better, with the design media egging them on.

‘There’s an ethical void with architects banging their chests producing … individualistic buildings for an increasingly atomised, divided society. 

Architects can enjoy the glitz and applause of the new world order

‘Architects can enjoy the glitz and applause of the new world order. It’s a game played by the financial and corporate elite of clients, the name of which is: grab the most for me and the hell with anyone else.’

Julia Burden of St Albans-based Ver Architecture believes that, while the acceleration of change and globalisation has made it hard to separate ethical finances and project funding from bad, the likes of Hadid needed to be seen to be doing the right thing on the international stage.

‘Famous international architects wield a lot of influence and should not fall into the role of enablers of oppression and ecological damage,’ she said.

‘They have the potential to promote the vision of undemocratic leaders by creating monuments to their power and to endorse a veneer of respectability to their projects, so this potential should be considered wisely.’ 

However, Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio was less critical of the profession.

Hadid is not a whipping post for the ills of the construction industry

‘For possibly the first time, I found myself having enormous sympathies with Hadid during her interview,’ he said. ‘Like it or not, Hadid is not a whipping post for the ills of the construction industry and the built environment. 

‘Architects continue to be blamed, however, yet are involved in as little as 10 per cent of all new buildings.’  

Even so, Taylor thinks there needs to be more guidance for architecture practices to help them avoid the ethical pitfalls.

‘Undoubtedly, architecture bodies such as the RIBA need to assist architects with the tools to change clients’ behaviour, and need to do more to lobby politicians and create a change of culture in the delivery of new buildings,’ he said. 

‘Within this, though, architectural practice needs to question the status quo, rather than acting as a complicit vehicle for delivering clients’ capital.

‘Many practices structure their values towards the commercial market, rather than around a notion of ethical practice, but architecture isn’t merely a service industry concerned with the production of buildings – at best it is an instrument of change.

‘Architects need to become more critical in practice to help bring about this change by standing their ground, interrogating clients, processes and prevailing cultural conditions.’ 

Ben Derbyshire of HTA said the public assumed the profession was more pivotal to schemes than they actually were.

He was ‘alarmed by the tenor of the questions’ in the Today interview. ‘The presumption behind them of the architects’ responsibility for outcomes is actually well beyond their reach and influence,’ he said.

‘Remember how architects were routinely singled out for the legacy of the social housing built under successive post-war governments? The criticism usually failed to recognise the powerful forces behind the political/industrial complex that gave rise to the worst excesses.’

In the media: columnists consider Zaha Hadid’s ethical position and whether architects have a wider responsibility for their buildings

Zaha Hadid: A visionary whose ideas don’t always make sense

Rowan Moore, The Observer, 27.09.15

This [money-no-object status-symbol approach to architecture] exposes Hadid to another big criticism, that she is complicit in the abuses of those she works for, which was Sarah Montague’s line of attack, unfortunately undermined by the false suggestion that 1,200 workers had died building the Qatar stadium itself.

Again Hadid could point out that, when it comes to dealing with despots, other architects are at it too, not to mention the International Olympic Committee, multinational businesses, respected cultural institutions, the mayor of London and chancellor of the exchequer.

Again the excuse that they’re all at it only goes so far. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question. What if architects such as Hadid were more principled in their choice of clients? What if they got together and formed a common front? Might that not be a force for good? And, even if it is too much to ask architects to change society, the production of trophies also undermines the architectural values they are supposed to stand for.

Hadid’s deals with despots come at a price

Janice Turner, The Times, 26.09.15

Architects have a higher moral duty than other artists, since they have the greatest power to shape society. When J-Lo sings for a million dollars for the president of Turkmenistan or Beyoncé for the Gaddafis, they are gilding dictatorships, but their performances are fleeting.

Whereas architects define how we live and work, how we see ourselves, how the world sees us. Living in a Brutalist council block narrows your horizons and the belief that you deserve better. Beijing’s endless boulevards of shiny ‘prestige’ buildings have erased its ancient centre and left its citizens rootless, trapped in the eternal now.

Visiting Nuremberg this summer, looking out at a preserved section of Speer’s vast Nazi congress, I understood how Hitler sold the German people his epic vision.

‘Money, money: where is morality?’ said the Dalai Lama this week of George Osborne’s visit to China, hawking our infrastructure and ‘turning the page’ on uncomfortable truths about democracy and human rights. Power stations or shining stadiums should not be built in an ethical void.

Zaha Hadid: A demolition job tries to shake her foundations

The Sunday Times, 27.09.15

Despite the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, Hadid maintains the British establishment does not like her. She has never totally left the Arab world behind her and still hankers for the banks of great rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

‘In Iraq many of my female friends were architects and professionals with a lot of power during the 1980s while all the men were at war in Iran,’ she said.

 Maybe her futures lies in a past where such successful women received the respect that she feels she deserves.

Why is Zaha Hadid given a harder time than her starchitect rivals?

Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, 24.09.15

Hadid didn’t do herself any favours, letting forth a blustering barrage of indignation, but it was a sloppily researched interview, and yet another example of mainstream media focusing solely on her work for dubious regimes – something that most other architects of her international profile are also engaged in, but rarely questioned on.

Norman Foster has designed a gigantic pleasure dome and a Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan, a regime that rules with an iron fist, cracking down on freedom of assembly, speech and religion, regularly locking up and torturing critical journalists and forcibly evicting residents to make way for grand construction projects. Yet the international press fawns over Foster’s bold High-Tech forms.

Rem Koolhaas is engaged in projects across the Middle East, including a vast library and foundation headquarters currently nearing completion in Qatar, yet the condition of his construction workers is never the focus of the story.

Architecture would be better off without Zaha Hadid

Stephen Bayley, The Spectator, 08.08.15z

The localities Hadid often prefers are the back yards of dictators and tyrants. Her latest buildings always win approval from supine architecture and design media, so work very well as salvation-via-design for repressive regimes. She has projects in various stages of completion or disarray in Libya, Iraq, Russia, Qatar, China and Azerbaijan.

The Qatar case, already soiled by the sordid FIFA shenanigans, is interesting. From the air, Hadid’s 2022 World Cup stadium (pictured left) with its almond-shaped opening and labial folds looks bogglingly like giant pudenda. Someone mentioned this and she said, if you think anything with a hole in it is a vagina, that’s your problem.

Other comments:

Roger FitzGerald, chair of ADP:
The interview was poorly researched and anyway it would have been far more appropriate and interesting to focus on the considerable hurdles Zaha Hadid has had to overcome to achieve success.

We operate now in increasingly global market, and therefore come across different cultures and values.  It’s therefore essential to have international professional standards to provide clarity and consistency.

The RIBA should continue with its support for the International Ethics Standards Coalition.  It cannot act alone, but is well-placed to be a leading voice in helping to set shared international standards.

Rafi Segal:
If the architect is to be seen as contributing anything of social significance then the profession, with the aid of academia, must discuss an ethical code for architecture, needed today more than ever.

Simon Blore, Director, Lead 8 architects:
A lot of the misunderstanding arises from the diminishing role of the architect versus the public perception of the ‘master builder’ responsible for all. Of course, architects have a professional duty to design safely (through CDM in UK), and we will report on unsafe sites when we see them. We also seek to minimise wasted materials and excessive energy use…but our role during site stages has become increasingly fragmented in recent times.

The architect’s role during site stages has become increasingly fragmented

In today’s building procurement process of construction managers, contractors, project managers and sometimes professional client bodies, the design architect is rarely influencing the actual day to day method of construction seen on site. In many ways this is a good thing, because with site safety methodologies being undertaken by professional construction experts, this then leaves the designer to focus on producing great and long-lasting architecture.




Readers' comments (4)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    There is certainly a job of work to be done to prevent a repetition of this travesty and I can see two major strands for the professional institutes that represent our interests:

    Firstly, we should take up the recommendations of Paul Morell's Edge Commission report that the professional institutes should join forces on a code of ethical conduct.

    Secondly, the institutes should support their members who wrestle to deliver the best possible outcomes in less than satisfactory circumstances by clarifying what is, and what is not in their control.

    Peter Oborn, the RIBA's Vice President for international practice (currently on a mission in Iran) champions the cause at Portland Place and deserves our support in his efforts to create an appropriate and safe context for practice at home and abroad.

    Ben Derbyshire.
    Managing Partner HTA Design LLP
    Chair, the Housing Forum.

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  • Architects may be the figureheads but they do not create buildings on their own.
    Ben Derbyshire is right that The Edge Commission's recommendation, that the construction based institutes need to work together on a code of conduct, needs to be acted on - and quickly.
    Members of the various institutes need to press for this to happen otherwise, the silos will continue to the detriment of the world we live in.

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  • This is an extremely interesting and important debate. Whether or not to work in certain countries or for particular clients is an individual choice but, despite some comments above to the contrary, architects (particularly very prominent ones) do have the ability to influence things if they choose to do so. The construction safety issue is a good example, as architects can insist as a condition of their appointment that safety measures should be to a standard they are prepared to accept in the same way that major contractors insist on welfare facilities etc. By way of comparison, the figure of 1200 construction deaths in Qatar should be compared to 37 last year in UK, the lowest for some time despite a rising market. Architects have had a major role in this achievement, although it took legislation to bring this about. The ethical question is either to ask how architects, engineers and others can influence clients in those parts of the world with a poor record or, alternatively, to ask if they should work in these areas at all?

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  • Firstly, I concur with Piers Taylor's comments completely, and disagree with the statement about 'architects are free to design whatever their personal artistic urge leads them too'. What about planners, clients and budgets? Artists may have this kind of freedom but architects do no, and do not want it. Architecture has always been the art of compromise. Most architects want to please their client/s not themselves. Some of the best social housing was designed by public sector architects - spacious, well designed and enjoyed by their residents, because the architects took the trouble to understand what people wanted.

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