Artistic freedom, at a profit, can be a powerful pull over principles on human rights. Where do you draw the line?
Sharks lurk in ethical waters
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.