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Ethics is the fourth dimension

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Why are we OK with Atkins building in Saudi Arabia, RMJM building in Hong Kong, Populous building in Russia, but not Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan?

Is the former Soviet republic really any ‘worse’ – in terms of equality, democracy and the rule of law – than these other territories that seem not to share the same values we hold dear in the good old United Kingdom? Was this the question Design Museum director Dean Sudjic was asking when he awarded his institution’s biggest prize to the Zaha Hadid-designed  Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku?

When the prize was announced, Sudjic said the Design Museum, wanted to be part of ‘the conversation around the realities of contemporary architecture’. But Sudjic and his museum were heavily criticised for rewarding a building named after a famous KGB supremo whose son today presides over a dictatorship.

Nevertheless, it is a subject Sudjic knows a lot about – his book The Edifice Complex explores the power relationships between architects and dictators. Perhaps he really was trying to provoke a debate that the profession itself repeatedly shies away from. 

Given the fallout over the RIBA’s demand for a UIA suspension of Israeli architects over building on occupied Palestinian land, and its subsequent retraction, it is unlikely the institute will be offering ethical guidance for working overseas anytime soon.

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