The ethics debate
Ethics debate: Take an ethical stance, Libeskind tells his peers
Daniel Libeskind has urged architects to think carefully before working in China amid growing concern over the country’s ethical record.
Speaking in Belfast last week, the Polish-born architect who now lives in New York said: “I won’t work for totalitarian regimes… I think architects should take a more ethical stance.”
He continued: “I love Chinese history. I’m a huge fan of Chinese literature and art. But it bothers me when an architect has carte blanche with a site… We don’t know if is there a public process — who owns this place, this home, this land?”
His comments follow Prince Charles’s announcement last month that he will not attend the Beijing Olympics because of Chinese policy towards Tibet, and Steven Spielberg’s resignation this week as artistic adviser to the games.
It also comes only weeks after BD revealed that Zaha Hadid has designed a centre to honour a dictator in Azerbaijan, opening a wider ethical debate on working in countries with poor human rights records.
Peter Morrison, chief executive of RMJM, which is designing St Petersburg’s Gazprom tower, said: “We consider the impact the development will have locally and will not work for a client with a history of immoral, criminal or illegal dealings.”
Architect Nicholas Ray, a lecturer at Cambridge University and author of Architecture and Its Ethical Dilemmas, said he respected Libeskind’s stance. “It’s very good and because of his profile, it sends a strong message,” he said.
Future Systems’ Jan Kaplicky praised Libeskind, saying: “I’m delighted Daniel has said something on this. It’s about time, and I agree 100%. It’s essential you don’t work in a country where the regime has a bad record on human rights.”
But Will Alsop claimed British architects in China could democratise the nation. “Can you help to make a positive change? Or do you stay away? In which case, the countries are condemned to terrible architects, and nothing moves on,” he said.
Although the RIBA refused to comment, its president Sunand Prasad has privately raised concerns over working in China.
IT'S A MORAL MAZE: JOIN THE DEBATE
With Libeskind refusing to work in China, we’ve been canvassing opinion on ethics. Should architects be guided by an ethical code and if so what might it look like?
We want to hear where you stand on the issue. Email us at email@example.com or fill out the comment box below.
This is what some prominent architects told us.
The thing about China is that it’s opening up, it will change in the future and architects will be part of that opening up.
I just came back from Baku [Azerbaijan]. It’s a country in transition and of course there is lots of corruption. But the choice you have as an architect is can you help to make a positive change, or do you stay away - in which case the countries are condemned to some terrible architects and nothing moves on.
I would draw probably draw the line at Burma though.
Nicholas Ray, author of Architecture and its Ethical Dilemmas
I respect Libeskind’s stance. It’s a very good one and because of his profile, sends a strong message.
There is a danger that an architect’s design could reinforce the power of a regime and become symbolic of that regime. A professional has a duty to judge the nature of a project very carefully.
Jan Kaplicky, Future Systems
I’m delighted that Daniel has said something on this matter. It’s about time and I one hundred per cent agree. It’s absolutely essential you don’t work in a country where a regime has a bad record on human rights.
How many people have been tortured? It’s astonishing. Look at China’s ban on athletes making political comments during the Olympics – that’s extraordinary.
Bill Taylor, director, Hopkins
It’s about individual choice and conscience and I’m not sure you can generalize. Architects should ask themselves whether they should be doing certain work in certain countries on certain projects since it’s not just about the country but about the project.
Thankfully at Hopkins we talk about projects from an ethical basis but we’ve not had to confront this one. We don’t actually look for work in countries like China that have these issues. Not because of the ethics, but because of the practicalities of distance, language etc.
We haven’t had to confront it in the way Libeskind has.
I don’t see how you would write a code of ethics. Take Zimbabwe, for example. If you could design a new hospital there that would do good, what would you decide? Each case would need to be decided on its merits.
Robert Adam, Robert Adam Architects
I think it's a very slippery slope. Where do you draw the lines? I mean, if you're talking about public consultation, what kind of democratic system do you require to say that has been achieved? In what sense were the people of Berlin really consulted about Libeskind's museum?
When is a totalitarian regime a totalitarian regime? By trying to make those judgements you risk becoming part of the political system yourself. If you look at the current bete noire, Zimbabwe, Mugabe has actually been elected, so then you get into the complicated business of deciding when an election is acceptable and when it's not.
Once you enter into that field of making judgements, unless you take a very simplistic view - which Liebeskind does - you end up in trouble.
What we're actually doing of course is saying that the European enlightenment democratic process should be imposed on the world. Libeskind's taking the North-Atlantic or American view. He's acting as a political hegemonist.
There are of course times when you might have qualms about working somewhere, but they're extreme situations. Unless you've been asked to do something directly connected with something unsavoury, I'd take a relaxed view about it.
Terry Farrell, Farrells
I am married to a mainland Chinese woman and I now have many relations, who I intend to get on well with and I see no problem in seeing the whole country in a positive light. I'm doing major railway stations and other public projects in China, which really speaks for itself.
Who’s working in China?
- Herzog & de Meuron Beijing Olympic stadium (completed 2008)
- David Chipperfield Architects Liangzhu and Ninetree villages (on site)
- Rem Koolhaas CCTV headquarters (due 2008)
- Zaha Hadid Guangzhou Opera House (due 2009)
- Foster & Partners
- Beijing Airport (due 2008)
- Farrells Masterplan for Pearl Island Shenzhen (2000)
- Arup Dongtan eco-city (appointed 2006); Beijing Olympic aquatics centre (completed 2008)
- Wilkinson Eyre Guangzhou twin towers (due 2009)