What are the moral duties of the architect in today’s chaotic, globalised marketplace? asks Rory Olcayto
Last week was typical: on the one hand we have Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne asking the Chinese to build the UK’s HS2 rail network and nuclear power stations and getting a pat on the back from their establishment to boot for ‘not raising the human rights issue’. On the other, we have our high-brow media slamming Zaha Hadid for working in Qatar, where human rights are abused on construction sites, and not raising this very point.
‘Better to be a dog in peacetime, than to be a man in a time of chaos.’ So wrote Feng Menglong, in his 1627 collection of tales, Stories to Awaken the World. Haven’t you read it? Me neither. But you have probably heard a misappropriation of this one line at least, because it is, according to Wikipedia, the source of the oft-repeated Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’. It’s worth mentioning now because, well, we live in interesting times.
It’s all a bit confusing. Why are we courting a government that stifled calls for democracy in Hong Kong as recently as last year? And why is Zaha Hadid targeted for daring to work in Qatar? In the government document Doing business in Qatar: Qatar trade and export guide under the heading ‘Challenges’, the requirement to have a local sponsor or business partner with a 51-49 per cent split in favour of the Qatari partner is cited as the chief burden. Other challenges, it says, include: high levels of bureaucracy; procurement on price, rather than quality; a market not well regulated, especially on environmental matters; a highly competitive and in some sectors saturated market; and so on …
Nothing about the poor health and safety record, then. Nor about the kafala (sponsorship) system, which is easily manipulated to restrict workers’ rights. Both have played a part in the 1,200 deaths of construction workers estimated by the International Trade Union Confederation.
But it’s not simply a matter of who we choose to work with overseas. The profession’s propensity for designing not-very-good ‘luxury’ housing for the international investment market when housing provision at the other end of the market is close to nil suggests its ethics might have been left outside of that particular tent as well.
Then there are architects who find themselves working simultaneously on ‘good’ regeneration projects (where residents have a strong role in the outcomes) and ‘bad’ regeneration projects (where residents are relocated away from their homes, which are subsequently demolished and redeveloped at a much higher market price). Is that OK? Does hypocrisy matter? Should it?
The government promotes work in China, Qatar, and many other places that seem to be at odds with our democratic outlook. The RIBA, too, is less focused on international business guidance than you might expect it to be, given that so much of the profession’s revenue flows from overseas today. Yet there is a growing sense that the time has come to take a more principled stance.
The AJ wants to work with you to fill this void. We want to help define a set of ethics that can reasonably be applied to contemporary architectural practice. The question is: are you up for it? Or is it better to be a dog?