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Tuesday22 July 2014

Sharks lurk in ethical waters

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Dipping a toe into the muddied waters of architects’ ethics means you run the risk of having your toe bitten off. When UK architects attacked their colleagues in Israel for working in that country’s disputed territories, they were quite rightly reprimanded, not simply by Israel but by many architects here.

The point, made in BD’s letters page at the time, is that while Israel is seen as fair game by some in the profession, such humanity rarely extends to regimes such as China, Russia or Saudi Arabia, where human rights abuses are well documented.

This is because all the above are not only a source of work for international practices, but are so on a scale unimaginable here. But should architects take a line on such matters when making a decision where to work?

This week, we report on Zaha Hadid’s commission from Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, for a cultural centre named after his father, who ruled the country with something of an iron fist for over 30 years. His human rights record — he was a KGB general — and democratic credentials are described by one academic as “pretty poor”. And while Aliyev’s son may be trying to reinvent the country, he came to power after the electoral system was “reformed” to let him succeed his father.

Alain de Botton suggests architects enjoy working for “dictatorial types” because they get things done. He is right. Look at China, which architects talk about in rapturous tones for the simple reason that airports, stadiums, museums, even whole towns can be approved and then built at the snap of a finger.

Architects are constantly confronted by ethical issues — from professional questions to more philosophical ones — and ultimately it is for individuals to decide where they want to work. Some may take Philip Johnson’s line, who famously said: “I’m out to work for the Devil himself if he’s building”. Others may decide that the risk to one’s reputation is too great.

Hadid’s decision to lend her name to this project throws architects’ ethical dilemmas into sharp relief.

Philip Johnson famously said: “I’m out to work for the Devil himself if he’s building”

Skylines follow the economy

Young architects who think they have it tough over here should try working in New York. Four young firms BD interviewed this week (pages 14-15) bemoan the lack of competitions and the selection panels that they claim favour those with long track records.

But at the same time, New York has undergone something of a building boom, using international names to bring cachet to big corporations. Where New York goes, London follows — but will Renzo Piano, whose tower for the New York Times opened last year, get to build in London?

In a week that has seen governments around the world trying to reassure nervous investors, there is an understandable interest in the future of projects like Piano’s Glass Shard and Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie Talkie. Only six months ago, the heritage lobby was warning that London’s skyline could be overrun by a forest of “shape architecture”, which would render the Thames as a wall of glass.

There are many beneficiaries of a credit crunch. One of them is the environment as nervous investors put their money into refurbishment rather than new build.

Another could be London’s skyline after a rethink by the market.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Dear Editor, Who are the sharks? Architects are vested with the power to influence other people's lives and to transform the environment for better or for worse. So we should feel free to criticise one other whenever we believe that the consequences of our actions add to the misery of others. We are talking about a society where architects are free to choose who they work for and we are able to accept or decline commissions. Those who pretend to be above the processes which feed them cannot in the same breath claim the mantle of visionary - for them the role of the architect becomes that of functionary - of whatever state or corporation they are working for. I was unaware of receiving any reprimand for being a signatory to the earlier letter expressing concerns over the position of professionals in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - however I did read with interest the critical response published in BD. It is distortion to single out one campaign and claim that this represents a bias against that particular country. Architects who have raised the question of the Middle East have also campaigned on other issues at home and abroad and would find it very welcome if all of these areas of human activity received the same level of publicity. Yours sincerely, Paul Barham 40 Derby Street Glasgow

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  • Amanda Bailleu's remarks in her leader, Sharks lurk in ethical waters, are gratuitous and offensive. Two wrongs have never made a right, and for any architect to design buildings to be put on illegally occupied land is morally obnoxious and abetting Israel in its ethnic cleansing programme. I do not think Zaha Hadid is wise to build a monument to a leader with a poor human rights record, but the man is dead, the land is Azerbaijan's own. There is no equivalence with Israel, which forces Palestinians from their ancestral property, steals their land and encloses it within their own "defensive" wall, and brutalises the population with daily barrages of rocks, rubber bullets and worse in the hope of driving them off their land. To build on these areas is morally repulsive and utterly wrong.

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  • Amanda Bailleu at least has a responsibility to her readership to think about the issues she chooses to comment on - and take sides on - in a less offhand manner. There is no ethical, legal or moral case supporting Israel's development in the occupied territories. Even the briefest research into what is actually going on there would, I am sure, convince her that architects the world over have a responsibility to expose the harm being done to world peace by any architect or planner involved.

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  • Wow. Last week's editorial was at best patronising, at worst brainless. Are those of use who protest about the brutal occupation of Palestinian land really being censured by 'Israel'? What, every Israeli? Even Daniel Barenboim? The bravest people I think I've ever met are those Israelis speaking out and acting against the military oppression there. Even more hilarious though is the notion that we shouldn't condemn government policy in the West Bank and Gaza unless we're prepared to criticise China, Russia and Saudi Arabia first. OK, then. Let me say the following. The Chinese government systematically commits crimes against humanity; its brutal occupation of Tibet is a disgrace. The Russian government's oppression of the Chechnyan people is medieval in its barbarism. The Saudi royal family does exactly what it pleases, with Britain's fawning assistance, and presides over a fascistic kingdom that flouts almost every precept of civilisation. NOW am I allowed to criticise Jewish settlers? They are nutters and wankers who come from all over the world to grab Arab land and terrorise the indigenous population. Anywhere else we'd call it ethnic cleansing.

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  • I do not see enough similarities to compare the two cases (as what had been done by Amanda Baillieu), that is, Zaha Hadid's comission in Azerbaijan and the criticism of architect's accepting work in the Israeli illegally occupied territories in Palestine. The criticism of the Azerbaijan job, as I understand it, mainly stems from naming the cultural centre after a former dictator. The development itself does not cause hardship for its people. I can only presume that if it had for example been called after the national flower and not after the former dictator, then it wouldn't have been seen as an issue for Zaha Hadid to accept the commision. However, the Palestinian problem has been a long standing problem that can be traced back to over half a century of forceful land occupation and the non implementation of decades of security council resolutions against Israel, and still is a problem that is causing and has caused generations of hardship and oppresion for the Palestinians. While there are other governments around the world that have been oppresive to it's people, and some goverments (who we may be more familliar with) that have supported illegal occupations/wars that has caused deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children, architects who accept jobs in these other countries, in the majority of cases, do not work on projects that are on occupied land where the people have been forcefully driven out and prevented from entering again. If architect's start refusing jobs in China and Russia, then where do we then draw the line? Should architects then also refuse jobs from UK or the US? My point is that there is a fundamental difference between the case in Israel/Palestine and most other countries where some sort of political problem/dispute also exist that justifies the criticism of architects accepting commisions in Israel.

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  • Thank you for all your comments. The point, however, is about architects’ personal conscience. The same issues, I’d argue, would exist for an architect working in a fundamentalist Islamic country which has abhorrent policies towards women. The campaign by Architects & Planners for Justice in Palestine- whose views have had a lot of coverage in BD over the years- condemns those who work in the disputed territories, and architects - including the president of RIBA Sunand Prasad - support their views, although some do not. In my leader I am not suggesting the plight of those living in the disputed territories is equivalent to the situation in Azerbaijan, or that Zaha Hadid is either right or wrong to work there. On the latter we leave you to make up your own mind. It is not for BD to judge where architects should work. It was simply that news of her commission, together with the fact that the UK profession is increasingly global, seemed to be an opportunity to reignite a rather wider debate about ethics and where the line should be drawn. Amanda Baillieu Editor, BD

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