Architects With a Conscience: Liebeskind & Williams Speak Out

In the early 20th C. there was a sustained debate about the role of architecture as a medium for social change. Czech modernists devoted themselves to building public housing that is still considered today as beautiful landmarks. These modernists dismissed architects like Mies van der Rohe for his lust for luxurious materials (marble, alabaster, etc.) and big money patrons. These modernist for the people preferred more utilitarian materials like concrete and stucco. [Mies had no conscience and even designed the German pavilion in 1934 that included swastikas and Nazi party symbols.]
Today most major architects don’t seem to blink when the latest dictator knocks on their door. They blindly support regimes with severe human rights abuses and autocratic governments that only seek to bolster their cult of personality or empty ideology.
Sunday’s NY Times examines this question, using Daniel Liebeskind’s quote about China’s abysmal human rights record as a springboard:

“I won’t work for totalitarian regimes.” His remarks raised hackles in his profession…since then, however, Mr. Libeskind’s speech…has reanimated a decades-old debate among architects over the ethics of working in countries with repressive leaders or shaky records on human rights.

Here is a short list of architects kissing up to autocrats (I’ve included some not included in the Times article):

Architect Autocratic Regime Building Purpose
Tadao Ando Abu Dhabi, UAE Maritime Museum To remind UAE they were once a seafaring people?
Paul Andreu Beijing, China Opera House To entertain the cultural elites
Frank Gehry Abu Dhabi, UAE Guggenheim satellite To help grow the Guggenheim empire colonize the world
Zaha Hadid Baku, Azerbaijan Cultural Centre To honour father of dictator Ilham Aliyev‘s equally dictatorial dad Heydar Aliyev
” “ Abu Dhabi, UAE Performing Arts Centre To entertain the “old money” of Abu Dhabi
Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron ” “ Olympic stadium To give China an air of international sophistication
Steven Holl Beijing, China Linked Hybrid housing complex Housing & the largest green total community in Beijing
Rem Koolhaas ” “ CCTV HQ To propagate Chinese gov’t propaganda
Thom Mayne Shanghai, China Corporate HQ of Giant Group Pharmaceuticals To make sure the Chinese have drugs?
Eric Owen Moss Guangdong, China Guangdong Museum & Opera House Cultural complex
” “ Almaty, Kazakhstan Ceremonial Plaza in the city’s Republic Square So that dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev can parade his military might
Jean Nouvel Abu Dhabi, UAE Louvre satellite To help make $$$ for the Louvre
I.M. Pei Suzhou, China Suzhou Museum To showcase traditional Chinese art
” “ Doha, Qatar Museum of Islamic Arts To showcase a traditional notion of Islamic art
Wolf Prix – Coop Himmelb(l)au Guangzhou, China Guangzhou Opera House To entertain
Adrian Smith Dubai, UAE Burj Dubai A classic case of mine is bigger than yours

Thankfully not everyone is letting the architects off the hook. William Menking, editor of Architect’s Newspaper, recently wrote:

“To suggest that providing high quality design justifies working there is slippery ethics. Albert Speer designing for Hitler might have said the same thing. His building itself is not political, but the act of building it, for a regime like that, is a political act.” (source)

Tod Williams and his wife and partner, Billie Tsien, also seem to have a scrape of decency. Williams is quoted in the Times as saying:

“We could not work in Abu Dhabi unless we were clearly helping the people.”

Both Williams & Tsien and Liebeskind have built in Hong Kong, which is technically part of China, but I think they are right in differentiating between a place with some semblance of democracy (even if increasingly complicated) and the rest of the country which doesn’t even pretend human rights exist.
What is to be done? First off, let’s stop glorifying these dolts that exploit workers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Beijing while pretending to be civilized liberals or conservatives in London, New York or Paris.
Check out this great slideshow by Human Rights Watch that presents the reality of South Asian workers in UAE…namely they are NOT allowed to organize, payments are often withheld from workers for long periods of time, some work for as little as $4/day and hundreds (yes, HUNDREDS) die each year while the UAE government only admits to a few dozen.

4 responses to “Architects With a Conscience: Liebeskind & Williams Speak Out”

  1. […] Vartanian has a handy chart of architects and the autocrats they work for. Plus: Looking Around has some wonderful bits from a […]

  2. brandon Avatar

    how About building in the occupied territory of Palestime? is that imoral/illigal? what does Monsieur Liebeskind think abou it?

  3. hv Avatar

    The day I discovered that an architect I greatly admired, Moshe Safdie, built some of the settlements in the Palestinian territories, I lost all respect for him. I would hope Liebeskind would have the conscience to avoid colonial lands too.

  4. […] still fuming over the fact that Western architects are (so far) getting a free pass as they fellate dictators (I […]

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