Wednesday23 July 2014

The ethics debate

Ethics debate: Take an ethical stance, Libeskind tells his peers

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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.


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 zblackler@cmpi.biz or fill out the comment box below.

This is what some prominent architects told us.

Will Alsop

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)

Audio Clip


Readers' comments (13)

  • Perhaps it's all very well for the already-successful architects to say such a thing. However, attention can be drawn to 2 issues: 1. Particular to the UK and America, the economy is taking a nose dive, and of the professions Architects are the first to get dumped. In such times, a growing firm may look abroad for work - which is exactly what Foster and Rogers did in the 90s. 2. One day the countries concerned may well be genuine safe democracies, and in the case of China this is happening albeit slowly. To hold an entire country in contempt over it's past is pessimistic and somewhat insulting. Will Alsop, as often, has got it right (if a little egotistically).

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  • This king of Cold War language comes from Mr Daniel Libeskind does surprise me.

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  • While I respect any Architect in his/her stance against immoral regimes, I find it a bit ironic that those who have the luxury of sitting out are those whom have amassed enormous wealth and fame. This, like many things worthwhile, can be a double-edge sword, and Mr. Libeskind is certainly right and justified for showing leadership on this issue, fair play to him. One could say that like sport, (good) architecture and politics do not (or at least should not) mix. As a (relatively) young architect entering the mid-career phase of building substantial work, I am and have been making inroads to working with clients in China. I'm afraid that this is a more nuanced issue than what Mr. Libeskind prescribes; do those of us whom have sat at the 'roundtable' set the tone for those of us whom are up and coming or otherwise 'unheralded'? Obviously a very personal moral issue and decision, I would find it difficult to forego a granted commission from an otherwise reputable Chinese client. But I will concur with Richard Meier, who when his great Courthouses were built in the 90's, apparently said that he would never design a prison. I would start there.

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  • As a South African architect I have experienced at first hand aspects of this dilemma in projects of varying scale over several decades, both during and post-apartheid era. As did many others in my profession who did not support apartheid, I used what opportunities I had to prevent or minimize that policy being cast in concrete. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we failed. I believe we made a positive difference to the lives of the buildings' users. To work within any system is an opportunity to understand it in ways impossible to envision from the exterior, and, if it is negative, to subvert it to the positive as far as one is able. It is an opportunity to do something practical about it and subsequently to voice an informed opinion that can be respected as grounded in experience and reality. Although political and cultural sanctions had some small effect against the apartheid regime, my observations are that it hardened the regime's stance into resisting any and all external influence and only made it more creative and effective in 'sanctions-busting' techniques. A prime example is the highly sophisticated South African armament industry and the 'strategic atomic weapons' research (which was attributed to have achieved 'bomb' status before South Africa voluntarily dismantled the program after 1994) that would never have progressed as they did but for sanctions. These programs drained resources from other areas into a military bottomless pit. Had South Africa instead been assisted in resisting the spread of Soviets into Africa, our history would perhaps have been very different. Mandela was released and Apartheid fell because the Soviet Union fell, international sanctions had a far smaller part in the equation than their proponents would today like to believe. Sanctions are a useless violence that primarily props up one's conscience. Better to engage in amicable dialogue and interaction. A quick glance at their track record in Tibet should tell anyone that (political) China is functionally impervious to both subtle and direct violence. Take any opportunity to be socially responsible, envision a future better than now. It is an opportunity for those individuals on the client's side to be exposed to your world view. Perhaps they might revise theirs.

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  • I think there is a strategic difference between a 'Practitioner' and a 'Star.' I applaud DL's statement of caution, as I do Steven Spielberg's actions. The present government in China is a totalitarian and oppressive regime and should not be able to buy world legitimacy - even if they can buy the whole US economy!

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  • Philip Johnson once said - Architects are prostitutes - and the simple fact is that most will look past the unsavory to the opportunity. We are substantially removed from the great patrons who enabled some of the great architecture in history, but we retain the appetite for serving the well-heeled - no matter the source of their money or their political practices. The argument that we should change from within is both naive and dangerous. While design is powerful, it alone is unsuffcinet to be a catalyst. the towering skylines in China are but an artifice to delude the world into thinking that the repression and murder of its people is a phenomenon of a faint and distant past. The question for architects wishing to work in China or any other such place is - do you enjoy being co-opted?

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  • How wonderful for Mr. Libeskind to tell the rest of us, from his cushy luxury apartment in New York, how to limit our careers. Coming from a decidedly working class background into the field of architecture, I can tell you that it's very easy for wealthy people to take a moral stand such as his. However, when you don't have a trust fund, rich daddy, or well-stocked portfolio to rely on it's difficult for a young architect to ignore the opportunities that China provides. Libeskind needs to get off his high horse and shut up.

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  • I can understand Liebeskind's stance but what about turning his position around and asking about architects who work for imperialist nations who since 1945 have killed over 10 million civilians in their wars defending 'strategic interests', are they equally culpable? Many are designing military installations and weaponry as well as prestige projects funded by war booty. I don't think these designers are entirely culpable because there is a right to protest and debate in western democracies, but we have to recognise that while an imperial nation controls a weaker nation or supports an authoritarian regime, those citizens have no voice: S Korea during the 50-80's, Vietnam under the pro US military regime of the 60's and 70's, various African nations supported by French interventions, the British role in proping up apartheid South Africa. The list is long.

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  • Things are not so straightforward when considering the governmental regime in the globalising world. In China, it is quite obvious as they have totalitarian. In some countries, although from outside you think that they have democracy but in many cases they are just superficiality on the surface covering their totalitarian parliament systems. So should we not trying to do anything if at least we can help ordinary people on the ground? Instead of having our position against the broad regime, we should think how we can really help improving life quality of poor people at least on the physical standard and do it. To add to that should we not doubt the regimes that allow the military occupation over other countries without enough reasonable accounts?

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  • I am glad that the subject of ethics in architecture is being debated, which I would like to think is partly due to Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine first raising the moral and professional issue of architects in Israel building illegal settlements and projects on expropriated Palestinian- owned land both in the Occupied Territories, and even within Israel, by displacing Bedouin citizens of Israel in the Negev, using extreme brutality. All this incidentally is well documented by Israeli human rights organisations. There is a difference between foreign architects building projects in countries like China, with terrible human rights records of land grabs and the occupation of Tibet, and architects being unethical in their own country, and acting in complicity with the state and its military in blatant land theft, and continual infringements of international law and the UIA Codes of Conduct. One can say that 'grands projets' in China, Dubai, Russia and Saudi Arabia will benefit society, but often they are for the super rich and will expand the gap between rich and poor. The building of these mega projects are often at the expense of the rights and conditions and terrible exploitation of migratory workers.Globalisation extends these injustices. Why then is Israel often picked out? One reason is that it wishes to be part of Europe, (Eurovision, football, and gets huge EU concessions etc) and claims to be a western style democracy. In that case it must be held to account if its behaviour towards half population is so discriminatory and the reason of much conflict in the Middle East that has worldwide repercussions. There are parallels with the struggle against apartheid, and the pressure from the outside world did bring about the end of the apartheid regime. Architects and planners who play such an important social role cannot justifiably disclaim responsibility or detachment in such moral issues.

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