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Regime values are less important than a building's use

Paul Finch

Architecture may be political, but it is fundamentally about creative ideas, says Paul Finch

The crass treatment accorded to Zaha Hadid by the BBC last week (for which it grudgingly apologised) was followed by an unpleasant attack from a Times columnist, who said that even if the BBC had been wrong in detail, there was still a case to answer about working for, or in, dictatorships. Needless to say the Times columnist wrote without any reference to Rupert Murdoch’s relationship to the Chinese government, and its suppression/control of free speech in the digital media. Hypocrisy, as they say, is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

This column has discussed this issue before, not least because it has long been a topic of conversation in the Hadid office among others. The view I continue to hold is that there is a very big difference between designing a cultural complex in, say, Azerbaijan, and designing a police headquarters. What architecture can achieve in bringing about cultural exchange is important precisely because the individual and collective experience of music, theatre, ballet and art cannot be controlled by any dictator; along with trade (including pan-national architecture) and sport, they sow or nurture the seeds of freedom. It is regimes that would not allow international architects to work within their borders that you really need to worry about.

As far as site conditions are concerned, this is properly a matter for contractors and government regulation; the duty of the architect is to ensure that thoughtless design does not endanger the lives of those building it out, though I agree that architects should discuss this with clients as a matter of ethical importance, preferably in conjunction with contractors who in the end will make all the difference.

Decisions surrounding any building cannot be divorced from political and social context

Richard Rogers famously remarked that all architecture is a political, in the sense that the decisions surrounding the creation of any building cannot be divorced from the political and social context in which they are made. On the other hand, the creative mainspring for design, the architect’s imagination, requires no political impetus, and indeed may wither on the vine if politics becomes all-consuming. An obvious case is the Pompidou Centre, which began in the radical spirit of 1968 and ended up, as Richard has ruefully noted, as a symbol of a right-wing president. It doesn’t invalidate the architecture. The Casa del Fascio is a good piece of architecture, whatever its back-story.

I spent last weekend visiting towns on the south coast, catching up on ancient and modern architecture and design, including the revived Dreamland (Wayne Hemingway) and Turner Contemporary (David Chipperfield) in Margate; the nicely maintained Saga headquarters and amenity wing in Folkestone (Michael Hopkins); the De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill (Mendelsohn and Chermayeff); the Experimental Station in Dungeness (Johnson Naylor); The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings (HAT); and the Burton/McGuigan house in St Leonards (Decimus Burton); while further inland was Great Dixter house and gardens (Lutyens/Christopher Lloyd).

What a feast of talent and imagination – each building with its own particular story, in relation to client, location, site, choice of designer, and outcome. What shines through is the individual relationships rather than the political contexts that made these projects successful. Earl de la Warr was a very left-wing figure for an aristocrat; however the architecture he commissioned has at least a kissing-cousin relationship with Terragni on the other end of the political spectrum.

In all cases the design is not trying to represent a fixed attitude to politics, but how culture can take its place and hold its own – a still small voice of calm, in a troubled world.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    Thanks to Paul Finch for another clear and insightful piece on a difficult topic.

    Professional institutes need to join forces to avert a increasingly commonplace received wisdom which is now adopting a rather unsavoury holier-than-thou flavour.

    If we are not very careful we will fall into the trap of painting ourselves into a corner in which there is little or no work because we are in a muddle about ethics. Meanwhile there is an enormously challenging job of work to be done to be done in developing countries for people in real need.

    I can see two major strands for those who 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 trip to Iran now sanctions have been lifted) 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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  • So would a job as an architect designing a cultural building at Sun City during the days of apartheid be OK? I don't think so. The sporting and cultural boycott was the most powerful one which helped turn South Africa.

    As you would be the first to agree Paul, when it comes to architecture context is key, and nothing is more contextual than politics

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