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Weekend roundup: Norman Foster’s Saudi flip-flop

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Foster suspends role in Saudi megacity • Pay survey: women do same work for less money • Stockholm ditches schemes by UK architects • Southend ditches Hawkins\Brown museum

The ethics of what projects an architect should be willing to take on is a perennially debated subject. Should they refuse to accept work on a – possibly worthwhile –project in a repressive regime – or is it not their place to cast that kind of moral judgment? Should they be willing to design a morally dubious scheme, such as a torture centre? (Or ‘physical information extraction unit’ as the press release might have it?)   

Saudi Arabia, we have learnt, has no need for such a unit since it was able to adapt a table in its Istanbul consulate for the purposes of torturing and killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

So it was perhaps unfortunate that, as the details of Khashoggi’s fate were emerging, it was also announced that Norman Foster had joined the advisory board on Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion NEOM project for a megacity to be built in the desert. The endeavour had been championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who many believe to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder.  

Foster has shown himself to be fairly thick-skinned over ethical issues in the past, designing a Palace of Peace and Reconciliation for Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a man with an atrocious record of corruption, suppressing the media and political opponents and torturing dissidents.  

But it appears that on this occasion, perhaps the high-profile nature of the Khashoggi case was too much to stomach. Within 18 hours of the AJ running the story of Foster’s involvement with the megacity, it was announced that ‘earlier this week‘ the architect had ‘suspended his activities in respect of the board ’.  

Italian architect and MIT professor Carlo Ratti, was among other members of the advisory board who also appeared to be considering their future involvement.  

Strangely though none of these people appeared to have a problem with Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen – including attacks on hospitals and aid facilities – which has been taking place since 2015, killing at least 10,000 civilians and causing what is set to be one of the worst famines in living memory.  

Weekend poll: Should architects accept work in Saudi Arabia? 
• Yes 
• No 
• Only if it is socially beneficial 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll inquired as to readers’ situations following a survey that showed architects set up their own practices on average 8 years 8 months after qualifying. The results showed a strong urge for independence, with 64 per cent having either set up a firm or considering doing so. 

Poll result 8 yrs 8 months

Poll result 8 yrs 8 months

A pay gap to prevent emasculation?

Emasculation mk

Emasculation mk

The deep-running gender disparities within the profession have been well reported. Numerous surveys show that women receive less pay on average and are under-represented in senior roles.  

Earlier this year, data released by the 12 largest UK practices revealed an average median pay gap of 16.3 per cent. But the explanation, we were told, was not so much overt contravention of the Equal Pay Act as related to having children – and the fact that mothers, far more than fathers, tend to shoulder the major responsibility for childcare, often putting their careers on hold as a result.  

How then to explain the results of the latest salary survey from 9B. This showed that even at entry level to the profession, women are paid significantly less – £18,500 on average for those in their first year, compared with £20,700 for men.  

‘Is there still a perception that men need to be paid more to avoid emasculation?’ wondered Maggie Mullan, principal of Maggie Mullan Architects.

Ah yes, the emasculation problem, as recently highlighted by TV presenter Piers Morgan, who equated carrying a baby in a papoose to being ‘emasculated’. You can see the rocky road we’re on if men do take a large role in childcare to increase their partners’ career prospects. As the US president has said, these are scary times for men.  

Pay still stagnating 

Elsewhere, the survey paints a discouraging picture for both genders, with pay rises averaging 0.6 per cent at a time when inflation is close to 3 per cent – which means a pay cut in real terms.  

And yet this is at a time when the construction industry is thriving and the jobs market is buoyant. So why can’t architects command higher salaries?  

John Assael of Assael Architects seems quite certain that ‘architects’ salaries are low due to low fees’ and believes this is because practices undercut each other in a way that other professions simply don’t. Is this because architects are seen as an optional extra in a way that engineers and surveyors (not to mention doctors and lawyers) are not?  

Rather than wait for this perception to change, many are urging a more entrepreneurial approach. Colander founder Caroline Cole tells the AJ that many young designers are consciously stepping away from what they see as a profession in decline, and winning projects as multidisciplinary groups. Elsewhere, architect Jo Cowen has set up an investment company alongside her practice that helps raise funds for speculative schemes.

Stockholm’s new broom sweeps away British architects

Chipperfield nobel centre

Chipperfield nobel centre

Back in May, when David Chipperfield’s design for a Nobel Centre in Stockholm ran into trouble, no one seemed overly concerned.  

Sweden’s Land and Environment Court had ruled against the project, saying it would ‘cause significant damage’ to the city’s historic Blasieholmen district. The city council said it would appeal the decision, while the Nobel Foundation announced that it was ‘not unusual for urban development projects in central Stockholm … to encounter a reversal along the way but finally be implemented. We are convinced that this will be the case with the Nobel Centre.’  

The foundation, it seems, had not counted on a change in the political make-up of the council. In elections last month, the ‘red-green’ alliance that had been in power since 2012 was replaced by a centre-right-led administration, which seems less enthusiastic about the scheme and has dropped its appeal of the court’s ruling.  

The council has also said it will block plans for an Apple Store designed by Foster + Partners following heavy criticism of the scheme. And it has abandoned a bid by the city to host the 2026 Winter Olympics, just days after the city had been shortlisted against Calgary and Milan.  

The Nobel Foundation is not so phlegmatic this time around, accusing the council of reneging on signed agreements.  

Interestingly one of the opponents of the Nobel Centre was Sweden’s king. Royals using their influence to block architectural projects? Perish the thought.  

No ‘Bilbao effect’ for Southend

Southend-on-Sea will not be having a ‘Bilbao moment’ or even a ‘Dundee moment’. The Essex seaside town had been planning to boost its tourist appeal through a new seafront museum designed by Hawkins\Brown. But following a report suggesting the cost had risen from £40 million to £55 million, the council has decided to ditch the scheme.  

Hawkins\Brown defeated rival bids by Arup, BDP, UNStudio and DSDHA to win the museum delivery contract in 2017. The museum would have featured archaeological discoveries from Southend’s royal Saxon tomb – unearthed in 2004 – and items from the shipwreck of the London, which sank 350 years ago. 

The decision follows the recent opening of Kengo Kuma’s V&A Dundee, where an originally budgeted £43 million scheme ended up costing £80 million – though already the Scottish city is being touted as one of the world’s top cities to visit.

Perhaps the council felt that Southend being home to the world’s longest pleasure pier was already enough of a draw for anyone.

Also this week

  • Big names in architecture have written a letter to prime minister Theresa May warning of the risks to the profession from Brexit. The 400-plus signatories include Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Níall McLaughlin and David Chipperfield. The letter, organised by Invisible Studio’s Piers Taylor, warns that ‘unless we are members of the EU with the free movement of ideas and people that this brings, the culture within which we practice architecture in Britain will be immeasurably diminished’. 
  • Sadiq Khan has pledged £10 million to help councils boost their housing and planning teams – including by hiring architects. The mayor of London’s Homebuilding Capacity Fund, which will accept bids for up to £750,000 per local authority to use to help build new housing. 
  • The City of London Police have said they will not be pursuing allegations of fraud levelled at the RIBA over a ‘missing £1.1 million’. Earlier this year, RIBA Council member Elsie Owusu made an official complaint relating to a loan taken out for the lease of 76 Portland Place, which now houses RIBA staff. President Ben Derbyshire has repeatedly maintained that there is no missing £1.1 million and said the allegation of fraud was ‘completely unfounded’. 
  • Competition of the week

Ww2radio studio at milton bryanimagebyjayembee1969

Ww2radio studio at milton bryanimagebyjayembee1969

The Museum of Military Intelligence is looking for a team to design it a new landmark £4.7 million base in Bedfordshire. But examining this photograph of its existing home, we wonder whether they have a mole.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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