Saadiyat Island, The Qatar World’s Cup, Museums in Abu Dhabi, Petitions and Professional Practice

February 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

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On Saturday I attended a workshop put on by WBYA. I was placed in a break out group that was supposed to consider what it was that architects could do to address the very serious labor issues in the Middle East, most notably in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, where a glut of signature architecture is descending upon the desert. The Guardian has done an amazing job of covering and investigating the story. Though it was asked that our panel focus on what architects might design to make conditions better, I didn’t think there was much. As people we can support Human Rights Watch and the UN, both of which are attempting to pressure practicing Arab States into abandoning the kafala system. We can participate in public actions by joining groups like gulflabor.org and occupy museums in order to bring visibility to the issue. That is all to say we can be activists and even global citizens, but in this case at least there is little we can do as designers to actually ‘act’ on the problem itself. I DO think, however that there are some things that we can do as a profession (which works through and within a legal framework that operates separate from the sovereignty of nation states). To clarify, as a designer it is clear to me that designing a better labor ‘module’ isn’t the issue. Construction companies know what good working conditions look like, they just don’t want to pay for it. Furthermore (and this is a much larger and admittedly more complicated issue) host cities don’t want to welcome migrant laborers into their societies. But if we stick to humane conditions of living alone, solutions have ALREADY been designed, their affordability has even been optimized. However dehumanizing (and accommodating of the problem itself) there are companies like target logistics that have made a business of ‘humane’ working conditions. Honestly I don’t think designers can actually do much better. But if there’s a designer who is willing to take this up as a challenge, I would be happy for it.

Now, in terms of what we, as a profession CAN do… There are VERY few architects ‘designing’ signature buildings in the Middle East. Cultural and educational institutions (NYU, Texas A&M, the Guggenheim, the Louvre, FIFA &c.) that are setting up shop in oil wealthy Middle Eastern states make their selections from an  élite and exclusive corps of Starchitects. In a way this means there aren’t very many people to convince that this has to stop. Never has there been an opportunity to make good of such a maligned system. It would be a gigantic step forward if starchitects (and aspiring starchilets) would only agree to design projects where clients guaranteed humane working conditions. Is it really that much to ask? If we can mobilize thousands of prominent architects to sign a petition to retroactively recognize Denise Scott Brown’s Pritzker Prize, can we not also convince them to make this change—when not only symbolic injustice is being committed, but where real lives are at stake? A couple of possibilities for the profession:

1. The power of contracts: One of the few actual powers that architects have is the power of refusal. Outright refusal, I realize (though with a huge amount of regret) is not a viable option. However, an acceptance with contractual conditions is a professional agency that shouldn’t be overlooked. Because starchitects and their signature buildings are ostensibly irreplaceable (cities around the world have been cashing in on their aura since at least 1997) they can take radical liberties by doing something truly bold like building these demands into their ballooning fees. I would be curious as to how much is spent on creating humane living conditions if we compare that dollar amount to starchitect fees, I am sure the actual figure would help me make my point here.

2. Petitions: not all of us are starchitects, but as a profession we can raise our collective voice.

3. Pledge (built into a professional framework): The AIA already has ethical guidelines, these should be expanded to include the concerns of migrant labor.

4. An intervention into competition culture: Can we design an international standard for international competitions, where architects MUST consider the design of better living conditions—ones that are not only about minimum square footage, clean kitchens and sanitary facilities, but also considers free movement around their host city and communication with remote family members? There would be other demands of course, but this is a start.

5. We can change the culture at home. Unpaid interns… ’nuff said.

Starchitecture is a limited network, professionals work in an extralegal framework and those conditions are in my view some of the few advantages that can be leveraged in this desperate fight.

p.s. I may try to clean this up and publish this somewhere.

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