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How should architects respond if asked to work by dictators?

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The values of a regime are less important than what a building will be used for, writes Paul Finch

At the World Architecture Festival in Singapore earlier this month, our thematic conference concerned the question of ‘Value and Values’. That is to say, the value that architecture and design can bring to individuals, organisations and society as a whole, and the values that underlie what it is that architects think and do.

Professor Jo Noero posed the question as to how architects should respond if asked to do work by regimes that are impossible to support from a political and ethical viewpoint. In his own case, as a leading opponent of apartheid in South Africa before abolition, this was literally and metaphorically a black and white question. Almost any commission from the government would be questionable. In his view, the same applied to, for example, OMA’s work for the Chinese CCTV building in Beijing, given the country’s record on human rights.

Then Jeremy Paxman put the same issue to Zaha Hadid in a BBC Newsnight interview touching on her new building in Baku. How did she justify working for such a regime?

This is an interesting and complex question. After all, were architects to be super-scrupulous about regimes and governments, and what was done by them or in their name, it is questionable whether we would have any significant architecture left in the world. Absolutist monarchs, tyrants, religious fanatics, warmongers and revolutionaries have all played a part in commissioning some of the greatest buildings in human history.

Moreover, there is a little mind-trap which arises from this, which is to say that architecture produced at the behest of a monster must be bad. But even if we despise what Mussolini was (or became), does that make Giuseppe Terragni a bad architect? Surely not. We may hate the Nuremberg Rallies, but does that mean that Albert Speer was an unskilful designer? I don’t think so.

There is also the question of building type that is relevant to the morality of an architect’s decision as to whether or not to work for a dictator. Designing a children’s hospital is not the same thing as designing a prison or torture chamber; designing cultural buildings is not the same thing as planning labour camps. How will the building be used and by whom? Is it reasonable to compare a building where a regime’s direct activities are planned and organised with one which is essentially about entertainment and culture?

Just as architecture often outlives the regimes that commissioned it, so too do the legacies of culture and sport, internationalist as they invariably are. And while it is true that architects are in no position to second-guess the uses to which their buildings might be put in future years, nevertheless there is a reasonable expectation that a concert hall is quite likely to continue as such for decades after completion. If you believe that the power of culture and internationalism is on the whole benign, then it is surely proper for architects to contemplate contributing towards that brighter world by accepting commissions, while occasionally holding their noses in respect of who they may be dealing with.

If there is one factor which might invalidate such a proposition, it is the way that the people actually carrying out construction are treated. The ‘guest-workers’ in the Gulf are treated better than we in Britain treated the ‘navvies’ who built much of the UK’s magnificent 19th-century infrastructure. They have organised accommodation and transport, for one thing.

Nevertheless, it is important that architects think about the working conditions of those who bring their design to fruition. If they are truly unacceptable, then the commission should not be pursued; but bear in mind that those guest workers are there on a voluntary basis.

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