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Zaha Brouhaha: Hadid and the Conscience of Architects

Architect Zaha Hadid

Architect Zaha Hadid

Why is Zaha Hadid now being uniquely and unfairly saddled with the burden of becoming standard-bearer for the social conscience of architects?

Because of her big mouth.

At the end of his Vanity Fair piece, Zaha Hadid is Still Wrong About Construction Worker Conditions (reacting to the recent Hadid/Martin Filler contretemps), architecture critic Paul Goldberger suggests that Hadid should use her fame to “bring enormous attention to the problem” of exploitation of migrant construction workers in Qatar, where she designed a planned World Cup soccer stadium.


Rendering of Zaha Hadid’s planned Al Wakrah Stadium, Qatar

But Hadid is no more “wrong” (Goldberger’s word) than the many celebrity architects who have held their noses, averted their eyes, and taken on projects in parts of the world known for oppressive regimes and/or substandard working conditions. Her “mistake,” as a woman who abrasively speaks her mind without a filter, was being forthright about what most other architects prudently avoid discussing: “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved,” she said in widely disseminated, highly controversial comments reported last February by James Riach in the Guardian.

I pointed out the unfairness of singling her out in this interchange with Goldberger yesterday on Twitter:

I have previously commented on the Guardian‘s Abu Dhabi report (referred to in my last tweet). I was traveling in May when the NY Times published its exposé of substandard and exploitative treatment of the construction workers for New York University’s new Abu Dhabi campus. The Times piece reported that despite NYU’s efforts to protect workers’ rights, including a 2009 statement of labor values, “interviews…with dozens of workers…found that conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal.”

Although the Guggenheim has commendably insisted upon strong workers’ safeguards for its Frank Gehry-designed project on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, NYU’s experience, as reported by the Times, demonstrates that paper promises do not necessarily translate into concrete action.

What’s more (as I reported near the end of this post), PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 36-page annual report, published last December (but no longer online at the link I previously provided), on its independent “compliance monitoring” of working conditions and labor practices on Saadiyat Island showed that implementation of the Employment Practices Policy promulgated by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company had improved, but still had a long way to go. PwC found, for example, that workers were still being charged exorbitant, unreimbursed “recruitment fees” by agents in other countries who assembled the project’s migrant workforce.

So what’s an architect to do?

I don’t think we can reasonably expect architects to subject every client to a moral litmus test. But I do think—for ethical reasons and for the sake of their own reputations—that architects should make every effort to ensure that there are no human-rights abuses in the construction of their own projects. Gehry and the Guggenheim Museum are to be commended for trying to effectuate this.

That said, the Guggenheim should ensure that it is not put into the position of NYU, which belatedly issued lame apologies to construction workers for their mistreatment on its Abu Dhabi campus.

“We’re very conscious of trying not to repeat whatever problems happened” on the NYU project, Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, recently told Michael Wise for an ARTnews article about the Global Guggenheim. But Armstrong “firmly refused to discuss the situation further,” Wise wrote.

Four months ago, Armstrong acknowledged publicly, in response to my question, that “we’re not satisfied, of course, with the current situation in UAE [United Arab Emirates].”

Construction shouldn’t proceed unless and until that situation changes. The ultimate moral responsibility lies with the client, not the architect.

an ArtsJournal blog