June 9, 2009

Turning a Blind Eye in Exchange for Big-Budget Architecture

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For a long time, architecture wooed me with tales of utopia and romance; I believed that skyscrapers, steel girders and curtain walls would herald positive change in the world. The legacies of the most famous architects include visions of perfection – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin Pour Paris. But the reality of modern architecture is a far cry from these visions. Recently, the industry’s most famous superstars – Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and others – have been called out as enablers of slavery.

These firms have been accused, not of being enslavers themselves, but of being knowing bystanders. “Slavery” still seems like an anachronistic term to me, something Biblical – as an American, on a day to day basis I consider slavery as having ended with Lincoln. Unfortunately, slavery is now a growing stain on the responsibility and reputation of designers.

A couple weeks ago, the Human Rights Watch released an 80 page report documenting the varied human rights violations that are the foundation for construction in Dubai and its sister city Abu Dhabi. It tells of the construction of $27 billion dollar Saadiyat Island – renderings of which are so picturesque they’re just short of have balloons and bunnies in the foreground. A Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are to be built there, as well a liberal arts branch of NYU. The HRW report followed on the coattails of a revealing work of investigative journalism: a piece called “The Dark Side of Dubai,” printed in UK’s the Independent, which documented the institutionalized slavery in the UAE.

In summary, these two reports investigate the treatment of immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South East Asian countries. These workers are subject to “unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers,” according to the press release that accompanied the report. The HRW also uncovered on a “cover-up of the true extent” of construction site deaths whether from heat exhaustion, suicide or overwork. The stories documented in this feature are varied – yet they all share the same chorus: indefinite, indentured forced labor with no pay or hope of freedom.

When designing outside of academia, architects need to look – without flinching – at the conditions at Dubai and elsewhere. I realize that architects make choices and sacrifices in moving from the drawing board to built work; as a student these are obstacles I have yet to confront. This report from HRW, however, makes it apparent that compromises are being made in exchange for inexhaustible budgets in a city more welcoming to formalism than say – the US, or the UK. Dubai has been a hotbed for construction, a playground for architects. Real estate and construction constituted 22.6% of its 2005 economy according to AMEinfo, even before its most recent building boom. It’s Las Vegas for designers – standards there (institutionalized or not) on sustainability, conservation and budget are muted. What happens in Dubai, for designers, stays in Dubai – all that leaves are glitzy photographs of skyscrapers in the desert, endless AC systems, indoor skiing.

The public statements – if any – from these prominent architects remain vague. A statement from Zaha Hadid Architects says that “[We are] confident the implementation of policies included in the TDIC CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Report 2009 address the issues raised by Human Rights Watch,” as reported by the Architect’s Journal. Christopher Sell, also for the Architect’s Journal reported that, “A source close to the Saadiyat Island project said: ‘Neither Gehry nor Hadid have shown concern for the issues. It is quite surprising if they didn’t know what is going on in Abu Dhabi.’”

The public is forced, consequently to choose between two evils – either these architects are ignorant about the reality of their projects, or that they know of them and are choosing to ignore them in favor of quick construction times and big budgets. Sad times for an industry that deals in the bettering of environments, of communities.

Yes, the blame can be put elsewhere, on the Emirati class, the construction firms, the UAE government or the first world sponsors of these buildings (the Guggenheim, New York University, etc. ) However, progress has been made on many fronts to maintain human rights – for example, Reuters reported that the Tourism Development & Investment Company, in charge of the development at Saadiyat Island, is taking “special care” of workers’ welfare. The Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong has issued a statement specifying his plan to “monitor and address the conditions of workers who are involved with the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.” Where are the starchitects – whose inherent attraction of publicity might be used for positive change? In deferring responsibility for the construction of buildings, designers forgo agency in their work.

Designers are responsible for literally and figuratively laying the groundwork for new cities in the UAE. There are many positive consequences that would come from the completion of the buildings – not the least of which is the value of schools and art in a developing country. The positive impact of higher education and exposure to fine art is unquestioned. However, does positive change for future generations void the suffering inflicted on workers today?

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are opportunities to take a stand – to say: slavery and injustice are not the foundations on which our visions for the future are built. The monumental pyramids in neighboring Egypt are too easy of a comparison to make. Times are tough, the economy sucks, I know, I know. It’s hard to get commissions in the States – Gehry’s stadium at the Atlantic Yards was just abandoned for generic suburban architecture; it’s understandable what his project in the UAE means to the firm. Nonetheless, the economy should not be an excuse for sanctioning evil.

In architecture school, we take classes on urbanism, on slums, on the effect of Feng Shui on the heart and soul. It seems like architecture knows a lot about the consequences our buildings have on the people who inhabit them, but less about how we might be responsible for the existing communities we build in. We need to take the reverse tack – to not just consider what influence does our work has on the population, but also what effect people can have on our work. Starting in academia, we need to learn to weigh the consequences of building in a society that sanctions slavery with, comparatively, the positive change wrought by a museum or school in a country lacking in these institutions.

The politics between the United States, the UK and the UAE are complex and historic; today, architects play a minute but key role in literally building the relationship of the future. It’s a hard line to walk – visions of utopia, designs so optimistic that they have to stay on paper forever won’t make great changes in the world. But turning a blind eye to injustice in exchange for the opportunity to build high-budget works takes away our credibility, and our agency, if we want to call ourselves designers of better communities.

So you know, stop joking about doing that competition in Dubai instead of getting a “real” job.

For related information, see the following:

“The Dark Side of Dubai,” from The Independent

“Darkening Dubai,” a blog post by Lebbeus Woods

“The Island of Happiness,” the report from Human Rights Watch

Press Release on “The Island of Happiness”

A Letter from Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation and Museum

“Architects Named in Human Rights Row,” from The Architect’s Journal