Is Contemporary Architecture a PR Panacea for Autocrats? Western Architectural Ethics & Undemocratic Nations

The recent Beijing Olympics has highlighted a crisis in contemporary Western architecture and some of us are worried. Earlier this year, Thomas Micchelli penned an insightful essay in the Rail entitled “Monumental Squalor,” which indicted architect Robert A.M. Stern for his complicity in the George W. Bush Presidential Library, a project that is planned to perpetuate the bankrupt beliefs of a presidency that has destroyed the ideals of America. But it is becoming evident that it isn’t only Stern who has squandered the trust we place in architects to do the right thing, it has turned out to be an endemic problem in the architectural field.

Migrant workers in July 2007 at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest.” The building was designed by Herzog and de Meuron and their Chinese collaborator Ai Weiwei (Photo by Dominic Ludin).

All over the undemocratic world, architects are lining up to work for autocratic regimes. Azerbaijan, China, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have found it easier to purchase a cosmopolitan sheen rather than to work at fostering it. Why are Western “starchitects,” from Jacques Herzog to Rem Koolhaas, using their aesthetic prowess to tart up these ugly regimes? Greed? Delusions of grandeur? There are many answers but one reality, and there is a crisis.
I don’t think anything could have been more shocking to Western sensibilities than last year’s announcement that architect Zaha Hadid had agreed to design the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku at the request of Ilham Aliyev, Heydar’s son and current Azeri dictator. Hadid stopped by Baku and was televised laying flowers at the grave of Aliyev, a former KGB chief and the ruler of Azerbaijan until his death in 2003. When Hadid’s office was asked about the odd commission, a spokesman responded: “The centre is designed to the highest international standards, bringing performances and exhibitions from around the world to Baku. The centre will play an integral role in the redevelopment of the city,” adding that “protocol required flowers to be laid [at Heydar Aliyev’s grave].”
If Hadid’s aggrandizing a dictator seems more absurd (if that’s possible) than Stern’s celebration of Bush II’s policies, it is not as egregious as Rem Koolhaas designing the headquarters of Communist China’s primary propaganda source, CCTV. His arch-like skyscraper will house a news agency that, as the BBC reported this year, greets its workers in the morning with messages on their computer screens telling them what not to report on.
If there were a few examples from the last century when dictators and one-party states were able to convince major architects to work for them, it definitely wasn’t the norm. Today that isn’t the case, as the world of contemporary architecture seems to sink deeper into a moral quagmire around patrons and politics.
The Beijing Olympics is the most stunning example of architectural PR, if only for the scale of its deceit. When the XXIX Olympiad opened in Beijing it was a monumental occasion, one that China had long been pumping up as its coming out moment, when Chinese pride would be restored and the most populous nation on earth would enter the world stage as the equal of any industrialized power. At the center of the media circus were two specially commissioned buildings meant to represent the new, ambitious face of modern China: Herzog and de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium and PTW Architect’s “Water Cube” aquatic center.

A migrant workers in July 2007 at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest.” (Photo by Dominic Ludin).

It is no coincidence that our current notion of the modern games, with their grand nationalist gestures, was invented in 1936 Berlin, where the Nazis used the Olympics for blatant propaganda purposes, commissioning director Leni Riefenstahl to turn the occasion into the cinematic masterpiece Olympia, which was released two years later. Over the years, television has completed this transformation of the Games into high spectacle.
During Beijing’s “made-for-TV” opening ceremonies, enough fireworks for a hundred Fourth of Julys and Bastille Days (along with computer-augmented firework “footprints” that only television viewers could see) blasted out of Herzog and de Meuron’s stadium and wowed people the world over into believing that China had arrived. I should mention at this point that Baku is hoping to host the 2016 Olympics, and some people have picked up on Hadid’s commission as a sign that the Azeris will also be partaking in architectural PR if they win their bid. Why shouldn’t Aliyev’s regime learn from Beijing’s success?
There are some critics inside China who dislike the flashy foreign designs. One architecture professor at Tongi University in Shanghai complained to an Associated Press reporter: “Most of the venue designers are foreign, and they don’t know Chinese culture well enough. They tended to focus mainly on surrealism, avant-garde style and postmodernism. These things are very good for a short time, but as time passes by, I wonder if they will last as classic design.”
Yet critics are a minority, and China’s success became all the more obvious even before the games ended as Western corporations lined up to fork out hundreds of millions of dollars for the 30-year rights to slap their logos on the “Bird’s Nest” and the “Water Cube.” The world’s totalitarian regimes have embraced contemporary Western architecture, and why shouldn’t they? It has been good to them and asks for nothing in return.
The first rumblings of public dissent began last January when an architectural website, Building Design, reported that Soviet academics couldn’t believe Hadid would allow herself to reinforce the elder Aliyev’s “cult of personality.” Then in February director Steven Spielberg backed out as artistic adviser to the current Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies because of China’s support of Sudan’s genocidal regime. That same month, architect Daniel Liebeskind openly declared at a conference in Belfast that he won’t work for totalitarian regimes.
Months later Tod Williams of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, echoed the same distaste for autocratic clients and told the New York Times he wouldn’t work in Dubai unless it was helping “the people.” Since then, more and more media articles have surfaced to criticize an architectural ethic that disregards human rights—but sadly, their impact has been minimal.
Ever since Frank Gehry built his Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, contemporary architecture has been perceived as the fast track to tourists and glamour. With one shiny silver building in a provincial backwater, an international brand was born. Now other destinations want in and hope the “Bilbao-effect” will be transmittable to Baku, Beijing or Dubai.
In China’s case, no one can argue that the government’s effort to rebrand its negative communist image wasn’t a success. The communist government exercised such tight control over its Olympic PR that its Ministry of Culture banned the loan of artifacts from state museums to New York’s Asia Society for their “Art and China’s Revolution” exhibition that will open this month. The Art Newspaper quoted an anonymous museum official who explained China’s reasons: “We were only told unofficially by people in government the reason was because this was the year of the Olympics and the Cultural Revolution is a sensitive subject.” The Asia Society was fortunate enough to have access to private collections and institutions in the u.s. and Switzerland to fill in the gap left by Chinese censorship.
For the purposes of the government, the building of futuristic-seeming structures has been a PR panacea designed to cure all the state’s ills. Never mind the repression of Tibet, the state endorsement of torture, the censorship of the media and the arts, or the quashing of popular dissent; the fact remains that billions of global media viewers were awed by the engineering and monetary might—never mind the ambition—represented by Beijing’s architectural patronage.

Soldiers in front of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest.” (Photo by Dominic Ludin).

Critics from inside the architectural profession might be rare, but thankfully architectural observers have been more vocal. Western media sources, particularly German ones, have stopped giving architects a free ride on the question of ethics. Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s Roman Hollenstein penned an op-ed earlier this year that called architects working in China naïve and “henchmen” for the regime, since “the Chinese government was only paying lip service with its promises to improve the human rights situation.” Der Spiegel was more direct and in July interviewed Jacques Herzog, asking the billion-dollar question, “Did this make the commission so tempting as to override moral reservations?”
During most of the Der Spiegel interview Herzog’s answers come across as bizarre and emotionally confused:

“Only an idiot—and not a person who thinks in moral terms would have turned down this opportunity—would have said no. I know that there are architects who now claim that they would never have even considered building in China. This is both a naïve and arrogant position, one that reflects a lack of knowledge of and respect for the incredible cultural achievements this country has continuously provided over the last 5,000 years and still provides today.”

Herzog seems to believe he is the victim of unfair criticism. But the most telling part of his interview occurred when he was asked about his exaggerated claim that his stadium is an “act of resistance.” “We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse,” he offered.
“We fulfilled the spatial program we were given, but interpreted it in such a way that it can be used in different ways along its perimeters. As a result, we made everyday meeting places possible in locations that are not easily monitored, places with all kinds of niches and smaller segments.”
Herzog’s answer doesn’t sound any less delusional no matter how often you read it, especially in light of Internet news reports that five pro-Tibet activists were arrested when they unfurled a high-tech “Free Tibet” led banner near the “Bird’s Nest.” Herzog’s Chinese architectural collaborator, Ai Weiwei, has been a little more coherent about his dream for the stadium, writing in The Guardian last month that “The ‘Bird’s Nest’ National Stadium, which I helped to conceive, is designed to embody the Olympic spirit of ‘fair competition.’ It tells people that freedom is possible but needs fairness, courage and strength. Following the same principles, I will stay away from the opening ceremony, because I believe the freedom of choice is the basis of fair competition. It is the right I cherish most.” Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Koolhaas couldn’t resist being there and all were spotted at the opening ceremonies.

Fans in Beijing’s Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies. (Photo by Dominic Ludin).

It is curious to note that Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren have been rather silent since the controversy began, though the Los Angeles Times recently reported, “[Koolhaas] told the critic Deyan Sudjic that when it comes to building in China ‘a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental’—that it is egotistical to think that the government cares what you, as an architect, think about its human-rights or environmental record and might change its policies accordingly.” Since resistance is futile, according to Koolhaas, why resist? This is an about-face from his 1978 book Delirious New York, where he wrote about the symbiotic relationship between the city’s culture and architecture. In its pages he suggests that architecture helps generate the culture. Maybe the new, cynical Koolhaas doesn’t believe in the power of ideas anymore.
If most architects haven’t readily criticized fellow architects, some artists have started to. A painting titled “Bird’s Nest, In the Style of Cubism” by New York-based Zhang Hongtu was banned from an article of his work in Chinese Vogue. Then, the artwork itself was seized at the border because, according to Zhang and the Human Rights in China website, officials told the artist that the painting contained “unacceptable” wording, the representation of the stadium “isn’t good enough,” and the depiction was “too dark and dull.” The words portrayed on the canvas were the Chinese characters for “Sacred Olympic Torch,” “One world, One dream” (the Olympic slogan) and “Family, Joy, Happiness,” as well as the Arabic numeral “8” in repetition and the English words, “TIBET” and “HUMAN RIGHT.
British-American artist Sarah Morris has also been very preoccupied with Beijing’s architectural life and Olympics pageantry, she focused on those issues this summer for her exhibition “Lesser Panda” at London’s White Cube.
Reviewing her origami and ring-inspired paintings, a British critic wrote: “Technically, Morris’s paintings are so accomplished there is nowhere for them to go. They are what they are and do what they do, resolutely declaring themselves as both product and spectacle.” With the machinations of social control as her subject, Morris has tapped into the open secret of China’s Olympic ploy, a strategy that the work of the starchitects has supported wholeheartedly.
The critic continues: “She is much taken with the idea of conspiracy, but wonders if the truth that is hidden from us is that there is no conspiracy, no grand design, nothing at all behind the facades of power, just like the Wizard of Oz pulling his little levers behind the curtain.”
Although AUTOCAD and its progeny have allowed architects to fashion metal and glass structures as easily as clay, the profession seems to be groping for substantial meaning or ideas. Superstar designer Philippe Stark admitted something this year that shocked everyone in the industry:
“Everything I have designed is absolutely unnecessary,” Stark told the German weekly Die Zeit. “I have been a producer of materiality. I do feel ashamed for this. What I want to be instead now is a producer of concepts. This will be much more useful.”
I think Koolhaas, Herzog, Hadid and their ilk might want to follow Stark’s lead and carve out some time in their busy schedules to reexamine their values, or they may one day wake up to find their once-coveted brands forever tarnished.
Article originally published in the Brooklyn Rail (September 2008).

3 responses to “Is Contemporary Architecture a PR Panacea for Autocrats? Western Architectural Ethics & Undemocratic Nations”

  1. Pedro Rocha Avatar

    Excellent content.

  2. hv Avatar

    Thanks, this article took long hours of research.

  3. […] but see the hypocrisy of these starchitects who have worked for autocrats all over the globe (think China’s Olympic propaganda architecture by Herzog & Meuron, towers in the Gulf States, and Hadid’s mausoleum for an Azeri […]

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