Who Builds Your Architecture?

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The above image was taken by Hans Haacke, of Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi. Saadiyat is an artificial island that currently houses the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne and will be the future home of NYU Abu Dhabi (Rafael Viñoly), the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Frank Gehry), and the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel). Several people talked about this project and who’s building it at a roundtable at the New School today. So this  is the setup — oil heirs and heiresses  (the young & often Western educated élite children of the Sheiks and Sheikhas) are the new brokers of ‘enlightenment’ . Walid Raad, the panel’s first speaker reminded us that this was not historically unusual…  If it seems weird to think about Abu Dhabi as the center of the art world—just think about how weird it seemed in the late 19th century when John Taylor Johnston, the über rich railroad executive and merchant banker seeded the Metropolitan museum with his own collection—an attempt to shift the center of the art world from its once stable center in Europe to the fledgling and decidedly uncultured United States—A country attempting to emerge clean from the black smoke of its own productivity. I.E. what we have here is dirty money and capitol A art—art that attempts to transcend the base realities of its acquisition AND Walid Raad’s point is that this is NOT a new phenomenon. It is, however complicated by the fact that we are now dealing with a global division of labor. I should point out here that it was most probably Southern Italian immigrants and other recent immigrants that built the Met, that is to say global in a different sense. What’s different, however is that workers in Abu Dhabi are migrant labor, workers who move from one location somewhere in the world to another, living in temporary quarters, who will never enjoy the rights of citizenship in the countries in which they work.

Sidebar:  This is what is so F***ked up about immigration reform in the United States;  some of which has been focused around a so-called “right to work” (which was  a deceptively titled strategy to thrust a crushing blow organized labor in America)… Basically what this means is that employers are ‘free’ to hire non-union labor, many of them desperate immigrants. Ultimately what this means is that employers can all join in on the race-to-the-bottom in terms of providing as little as possible to their employees in the interest of keeping prices low for the consumer, and for keeping the straight up tally of jobs deceptively high. Where, then do we find people willing to work for so little? A HA! A whole bunch of people desperate for work who hail from countries whose currency is worth way less than ours (which is, of course no coincidence)… even THEY have a “right-to-work.” A good infographic would be to trace the ‘flow’ of remittances in states with right to work laws on the books… 24 states as of December 2012 have right-to-work laws on their books. But I digress… back to the panel…

Back to the panel … It was really weird how much the term ‘enlightenment’ was so casually being thrown around on this panel… especially by the one dude who was clearly the panel’s sacrificial lamb (a project architect for FX/FWLE… who believed that the work he was doing (a cultural center mallish sorta thing centered around what they call MOBE – The museum of the built environment) was literally bringing enlightenment to the Middle Eastern masses. He seemed to miss the whole point of the panel, totally evading the question of who built what he helped design. I don’t really think he knew, never said anything about a single soul mixing concrete on site.  Lucky for him the panel and audience were way too nice to sink their proverbial fangs in).  I think the audience understood that he was overdetermined… but also understood that he actually had a sliver of agency here. Maybe they were trying to get him to recognize that. Anyway, the obvious contradiction here being how or why can/should these brokers of enlightenment permit human rights abuses (which are certainly present on all of the construction sites) in the construction of their new art/culture/education island?

The panel arranged by Mabel Wilson, Kadambari Baxi, Jordan Carver and Beth Stryker brought together academics who worry about this kind of thing, some peeps from Human Rights Watch who monitored construction sites in the Middle East and architects working in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including the aforementioned sacrificial lamb and the much sharper Chris Sharples who presented a project of his in Kenya… he seemed to understand the shortcomings of his well intentioned efforts, I think). The panel attempted to bring together the issue of sustainability with labor conditions in ‘developing’ or ’emerging’ economies. Walid Raad, who sat on today’s panel brought up that it’s strange to consider that Abu Dhabi is still considered an ’emerging’ economy despite the fact that it has the second largest “Sovereign Wealth Fund” in the world (second only to Norway… though it has 5 sovereign wealth funds which collectively are far larger than Norway’s single fund)… what is a Sovereign Wealth Fund you ask? I had no idea what it was until about 2 minutes ago when I looked it up on Wikipedia. If we were to think of the viability of states solely on the criteria of economic ‘self’-sufficiency, then Abu Dhabi is SUPER sovereign. By the way the ‘self’ is in scare quotes because many or most of Sovereign Wealth Funds invest in the global market. By this criteria sovereignty is paradoxically a measure of just how much you entangle yourself with a global market.  You are thus increasingly immune not only to your country’s own financial volatility (and Abu Dhabi has all the classic symptoms of a bubble economy) but you’re also increasingly immune to the volatility of other economies in which you invest…

Anyhoo… many interesting things were said. For me the most interesting panelist was this dude  Philip Bernstein, the vice president of AutoDesk of all things. He wrote along with Penny Deamer Building (in) the Future: Recasting Labor in Architecture. Anyway, he had some interesting ideas… about how labor issues can be tethered to imperatives of efficiency… and how licensed architects should be held accountable for job safety. He understood that licensure above all is the acceptance of certain legal responsibilities. Just as architects and engineers are held accountable for errors in calculation (i.e. for the lives of those occupying the structures they design) they should also be held legally accountable for the lives they enlist for the execution of a project. This was a great idea… which seems to me doable, though the legal framework for this gets mindbendingly complex  in a context like Abu Dhabi (with foreign contractors, multi national work forces, weak international law, a non-existant global building code, and sovereignty issues all throwing chaos into the mix)… okay maybe not so doable. Where Bernstein was getting more traction and on perhaps an even more monumental scale was in the idea that new technologies are ushering in fundamental changes in social relations… by this I mean buildings are being built differently, so differently that it is changing labor conditions on the work site. Though most sky scrapers (esp. in ‘developing’ nations) are built with poured in place concrete (that is to say with armies of unskilled labor) large unitized systems manufactured offsite (in typically better conditions) are becoming more and more common. Bernstein was hoping that at this junction we could think about our responsibilities as coordinators of labor seriously once again. He brought up that we are up against an at least 600 year old tradition (dating back to Alberti) that separates the designer’s intent from the execution of the architectural object… Hmmmmm

OH yeah… one of the points that was starting to get fleshed out just as the panel was shutting down was the idea that Architects (with a capital A)… of the buildings of the kind that were being discussed that night  are in a way irreplaceable. Or I think that’s what was starting to be alluded to. You cannot replace the caché of Frank Gehry—and there’s real power in this. Whether we consider Gehry a virtuoso or not… the world sees him as one… he is the sole conjurer of the Bilbao effect. He ostensibly has the power to advocate on behalf of the laborer. But the worker is an abstract entity to Gehry… whose double curvatures come into being  between expressionist sketches and Catia translations.

TO BE CONTINUED… (reminder to self… FX/FWLES’ calculation…. ratio of poured concrete to curtain wall… i.e. ratio of unskilled to skilled labor… the new calculus).

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