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Investigation: the human cost of building the world’s biggest airport

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So many died during construction of the new $12bn Istanbul Airport that workers dubbed it ‘the cemetery’. A joint investigation by Construction News and the AJ explores the causes and the reaction of the scheme’s UK-based architects

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved  

Hurtling through the darkness in his dump truck, Osman* is asking God to keep him alive. He prays for safe passage because on every shift he is confronted by the dangers of working on the new Istanbul Airport project. There’s evidence of at least two new vehicle crashes each night; twisted wreckages being towed or red and blue lights speeding towards a new collision.

Osman’s battered 20-tonne truck trembles under the strain of twice its recommended weight as he struggles to navigate the narrow path ahead at 80km/h, twice the speed it should be. He knows that, travelling that fast, not only do the potholes become deadlier, his braking distance is extended. So even if he sees an oncoming vehicle, or worse a person, and slams on the brakes it might not be quick enough to avoid killing them.  

But slowing down is not an option for the workers, like Osman, building the world’s biggest airport. If you don’t follow orders or you dare to complain about conditions you’ll be fired, and Osman must provide for his family.

So, night-after-night, he drives trucks piled high with excavated material for 12 hours straight. 

As Osman recounts his experiences on the multi-billion dollar project via Skype video and an interpreter, he’s careful not to show his face. 

‘I’m scared,’ he whispers towards the end of the conversation, wringing his hands. ‘I don’t have any money to hire a lawyer.’

Indeed, those who have spoken in the Turkish press about their experiences building the new airport have been hit with legal action and other repressive measures from the Turkish authorities and the companies involved.

Three of the airport’s four main architects – Grimshaw, Scott Brownrigg and Haptic Architects – are British

In September last year, just before the project’s official unveiling, worker frustrations with the poor safety and working conditions spilled into protests.

The Turkish police and local gendarmerie violently repressed this, imprisoning more than 400 of its organisers, a move that drew criticism from Human Rights Watch.  

After the protests were reported by Turkish media, the government and the joint venture building the airport acknowledged that some mistakes had been made and confirmed some of the on-site deaths.

The official death toll now stands at 55, but that is disputed by anecdotal accounts of workers and trade union organisations which claim it could in fact be higher than 400.  



The $12 billion project has been built and operated by a joint venture called iGA, comprising several large Turkish contractors and supported by a host of international firms.

Various international engineers have worked on the project and its design was very much made in Britain. Three of the four main architects involved – Grimshaw, Scott Brownrigg and Haptic Architects – are British. Norwegian practice Nordic was the other international practice involved alongside Turkish architects Fonksiyon and TAM/Kiklop. 

Crushed to death 

The first time Osman saw someone die, he was queuing in his truck, working the night shift. 

The drop-off points were always manned by a worker on foot. They would beckon the vehicles into position and direct the dumping of loads.

Another vehicle in the queue had excavated material piled way above the driver’s cab. It was a larger truck designed to accommodate 80 tonnes but was carrying around half as much again.

As the line of trucks moved forward, the overloaded vehicle moved into position to release its load. 

The worker directing traffic moved across the back of the truck to gesture where it should be dropped. But the visibility was poor and the driver could not see him. A horrified Osman watched as the hatch was released and the earth was tipped over the man behind the vehicle. He was buried alive and did not survive. That victim wasn’t the first and he wouldn’t be the last. 

Questions over safety training 

By the time they’d discovered Arda*, it was too late, he’d bled to death. As the workers looked down at the corpse, its arm blackened from dried blood, they knew Arda’s death could have been prevented if there had been safety measures and emergency protocols, or if anyone had known what to do to save him. 

When someone was injured or killed, supervisors would promise to train the workers. But nobody we spoke to knew of such training ever taking place

None of the workers we spoke to had been given health and safety training. Instead, they had signed forms that said they had been trained – but the documents were simply for show.

When someone was injured or killed, supervisors would call the men together and promise to train them. But nobody we spoke to knew of such training ever taking place – they’d just write down ID numbers and act as if it had.

In some instances, the charade went further. Workers say that wherever international companies were operating, the appearance of the site would be transformed to give the appearance of a safe working environment. Traffic lights and safety barriers would be installed, and shifts reduced to eight hours. 



But when the foreigners moved on to a different section, the safety measures went with them. 

The workers’ accommodation, which was situated far away from the bedrooms occupied by the international engineers and architects, was even worse. Beds were ridden with bed bugs, rotten food crawling with insects was served and facilities often had no running water.

Arda was one of the unlucky ones. He’d got out from his vehicle to clean dirt from the piston that raised the back of the truck because it was so filthy. In the process of removing the dried mud, his arm had become trapped and started bleeding.  

He was stranded on his own for many hours and by the time someone found him, Arda was dead. 

Dangers on the roof 

Burak* never got used to the sound of sirens. They blared across the site around five times a day and were a sign that someone was badly hurt. 

He worked as a roofer on one of the terminal buildings and had seen some near misses himself. He’d had to drag his friend’s leg from underneath a girder, that had been accidentally lowered on to it by a crane.

But what scared him more than anything was that the wind would blow the roof off, something he’d seen happen in other places. 

Joining the roof sections together, he was forced to cut corners and use fewer bolts than intended. Burak could see there were five holes for screws, but he was only allowed to put three in.

When roofers asked ‘why don’t we put the full amount in?’ bosses would reply, ‘don’t complain.’

Burak’s silence was required when the project’s top management or a government inspector came to visit.

The roof was built using a German engineering system, and foreign engineers would be there for the final quality control. But by the time they came to inspect the roof, you couldn’t tell there were too few screws holding it together. 

File9 1

File9 1

‘We are not slaves’ 

Finally, workers across the site downed tools in September last year because they could no longer stand the filthy living conditions, the disgusting food, the long hours and the sheer risks they were being forced to take.  

By this point, the pressure on iGA to complete the job had been ratcheted up further because of President Erdoğan’s desire to see the airport open in time for Turkish Republic Day at the end of October. 

iGA had already tried and failed to have it open in February 2018 in time for the president’s birthday.

Yet now it was witnessing thousands chanting ‘Kole Degiliz’ (‘we are not slaves’) while occupying the area where the workers’ shuttle buses departed.

The police and local gendarmarie were quick on the scene, as too were a handful of Turkish television journalists from broadcaster Arta TV. They captured images of the authorities using water and tear gas to violently disburse the crowds. While 401 workers were arrested and detained because of the walkout, the protests were successful in communicating the plight of the workers to a wider audience including human rights groups and international media outlets such as Reuters. 

Architectural promotion 

In terms of what was known and when, the Turkish media reported that by February 2018 there had been 27 fatalities on the project. The international press picked up on this during the protests that September, and in January this year, Turkish authorities confirmed the number of deaths had risen to 55. 

Yet despite the project’s mass protests and heavy death toll, the British and European architectural practices that designed Istanbul Airport have continued to promote the project in recent months.

As protesters against the death toll sat in jail, Scott Brownrigg invited British journalists to tour the facility and construction site. 

The six-runway development has a prominent place on the websites of delivery architect Scott Brownrigg and concept architects Grimshaw, Haptic Architects and Nordic Office of Architecture. The practices have entered the scheme for awards, exhibited their design at trade shows and posted about it on social media. 

In October last year, as site protesters sat in jail, Scott Brownrigg – which acted as lead designer for the new terminal building from March 2015 to October 2017 (initially as GMW) – invited British journalists to tour the facility and construction site. 

The invitation was sent to coincide with the airport’s partial opening that month on behalf of iGA and boasted that the ‘incredible’ scheme had been completed ‘after only 42 months of construction’. Both the AJ and Construction News declined the invitation.



Scott Brownrigg says that during its time on site it was ‘not made aware of any fatalities, poor working conditions or the site safety issues’. On its website, the practice says that it always ‘considers the social, environmental and economic context’ in which it works and understands that its operations ‘have impacts at a local, regional and global level’. Additionally, the firm has signed up to the 10 principles of the UN Global Compact which includes sections on protecting human rights and labour rights.

The practice’s director of aviation, Maurice Rosario, defends its work on the airport but declines to explain how this aligns with its ethical policies other than to say that Scott Brownrigg cannot ‘control the policies and procedures of our clients’.

He says: ‘We developed the design and reviewed mock-ups but were not required to review any on-site work during the construction process. 

‘Access to the site was limited and tightly controlled by the EPC contractor,’ he adds. ‘During this time, we were not made aware of any fatalities.’

Unfortunately, construction is inherently risky. Deaths and injuries can also happen on UK sites

Maurice Rosario, Scott Brownrigg


Rosario says that Scott Brownrigg was not ‘contractually responsible’ for on-site delivery and construction, and was ‘shocked and saddened’ to hear news of the deaths.

‘The safety of all who work on projects we are involved in is of paramount importance,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately, construction is inherently risky. Deaths and injuries can also happen on UK sites despite extensive work to mitigate them … it is only by being involved internationally that we can try to make the situation better and provide a catalyst for changing and improving global design standards.’

Asked about the practice’s recent promotion of the airport, Rosario says the design has won several awards including a World Architecture Festival (WAF) prize and that it is ‘widely acknowledged to be of architectural interest to journalists and those within the sector’.

Concept architects Grimshaw, Haptic Architects and Nordic Office of Architecture all ceased working on the project in late 2014 or early 2015, prior to the construction phase, and have voiced shock and sadness about what Grimshaw has described as the scheme’s ‘alarmingly high number’ of subsequent deaths.

A spokesperson for Grimshaw says its concept design enabled ‘straightforward and safe construction’, adding that, ‘while we are generally always keen to see our projects through to completion’, it decided against bidding for the delivery role ‘after careful consideration of the very swift programme and associated design and construction challenges.’

The spokesperson adds: ‘Istanbul Airport is a very large and complex project and it was clear to us from the outset that our designs should be clear, simple, modular and must prioritise ease of construction. 

‘This would allow the contractor to build safely and with reliable quality, even in circumstances where our involvement in the project wouldn’t continue through the later stages of design.

‘As a practice, we place the highest importance on the safety of all who work with us, either directly or indirectly, and we endeavour to work with clients and contractors who maintain the highest possible safety standards for all those involved at every stage of a project.’ 

For its part, Nordic, which is based in Oslo, says it is ‘very proud to have designed this fantastic building’ but also ‘deeply saddened’ by the scheme’s health and safety record.

Founding partner Gudmund Stokke says he visited the construction site but did not see evidence that it was ‘different to any other building site’.

He adds: ‘I’m aware of what I’ve read in the newspapers. It is very sad. This experience makes me think in relation to future projects: can we as architects do more to safeguard good working conditions on our building sites? 

‘It strikes me that policies for this could be a challenge for the Architects Council of Europe.’

In a statement from London-based Haptic Architects, the firm says it is ‘very saddened’ by the large number of people who died building Istanbul Airport, adding ‘as far as we are concerned any death on site is one too many, as we hold the safety of our teams and co-workers to be of the highest importance.’

Commenting on the situation, architecture and human rights expert Eyal Weizman, the founder of Forensic Architecture, says he finds it disturbing that contemporary architecture around the world often has what he calls a ‘pharaonic dimension’.

He adds: ‘These projects are made mainly for the affluent sections of society and are built by a poorer migrant workforce under gruelling conditions and schedules.

‘A building like this should be a monument or a memorial. It should be dedicated to the casualties that its architecture and its delivery demanded.’ 

‘Soul searching’ 

What do the workers who endured life in ‘the cemetery’ – as the project was nicknamed – think of the involvement of the international architects?

For some, it is difficult to see how rolled-out blueprints composed in an airy London studio can relate to a man dying alone in the dirt on a building site near the Black Sea. But for others, the connection is all too clear.

‘English architects need to do some soul-searching,’ says Burak, the roofer.

‘It’s us that put our blood, sweat and tears into building it. Officially, on record, we have 55 friends that died. Their blood has been shed building the airport.

If the architects are so proud of being part of building the airport, they should be willing to give their lives like the 55 people did

‘Wherever you are in the world, you need to consider the relationship between money and labour. They should think about the workers and support them.’

In a complex international project, stakeholders naturally tend to be selective about their involvement when things go wrong. But can you boast about your involvement in the world’s biggest airport while simultaneously disassociating yourself from the workers that lost their lives?

For Burak, whose labour helped bring the architects’ visions to life, this pride should recognise the costs borne by those who built it.    

‘If the architects are so proud of being part of building the airport, they should be willing to give their lives like the 55 people did,’ he says.

‘I’m not saying the architects or engineers need to die, but none of them did. It shouldn’t be the fate of those building the airport either.’ 

Construction News and the Architects’ Journal contacted iGA, detailing the allegations laid out in this article. A public relations company acting on behalf of the joint venture responded with the following message: ‘iGA will not answer the request you sent.’ 

The politics behind the world’s biggest airport

Shutterstock erdogan square

As the land on the edge of the Black Sea was transformed from ancient forests to the world’s biggest airport, the rest of Turkey was rapidly changing too.

Two years after construction began, the infamous 15 July 2016 Gülen coup d’état took place. 

Even beforehand President Erdoğan (pictured) and his ruling AKP party were being described by The Economist as establishing a ‘new sultanate’ that ruled with an ‘iron grip’.

But following the failed coup, Erdoğan further cemented his grip on power.

A two-year state of emergency, which came to an end after the election in June 2018, has seen more than 107,000 people removed from public-sector jobs and more than 50,000 people imprisoned pending trial, according to official statistics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). 

Turkey also became the world’s leader in jailing journalists during this period, topping the Committee to Protect Journalists global list for a third straight year in 2018.

Perceived insults of the president on social media platforms such as Twitter, which are also intermittently blocked by the government, can also land you in jail.

And Erdoğan’s strongman status has always relied on delivering megaprojects.

Multi-billion transport investments, which include a new bridge across the Bosporus, are described by the Turkish leader as his self-proclaimed ‘crazy projects’.

The airport is the latest and most ambitious to date and its successful completion is of great importance to Turkey’s most powerful man. 

Top image: Associated Press

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