Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect

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The prominent Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has recently come under fire in the press due to her alleged indifference over labor conditions in Qatar. Hadid’s curvaceous design for the al-Wakrah soccer stadium was selected by the Gulf state to house the 2012 FIFA World Cup competition. Revelations emerged in the Guardian newspaper last week regarding the extraordinarily high number of worker fatalities involved in the execution of her design, particularly among precarious migrant populations. Five hundred or more Indian workers have already perished in the construction of the building so far, in addition to almost four hundred deaths of Nepalese nationals.

Confronted with these figures, Zaha first pleaded ignorance and subsequently claimed powerlessness. She said:

I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.

[W]hat do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.

I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Zaha’s remarks came across as cold and detached, if not utterly insensitive. Though she spoke of her “concern” over the situation, she refused to take the blame for any of it. In the opinion of many analysts and architectural critics, this simply confirmed what they’d suspected about her all along: namely, that Hadid is an architect without an adequate sense of civic responsibility, a near-perfect embodiment of the “designer” (in Hal Foster‘s sense) in the neoliberal age. Dezeen points out that even close peers and contemporaries such as Richard Rogers or Daniel Libeskind, who have often been criticized along the same lines as Hadid, have spoken out about the architect’s duty to society at large.

Actually I tend to agree with Zaha here, though it probably bothers her — it should bother anyone — on a purely human level. (Which she has already said that it does). Hadid must be made to answer for her designs, however, specifically “as an architect.” Personally, I think this qualification is crucial to any balanced assessment of her what she said. Unless there was something intrinsic to her design that would necessitate cruel labor conditions or expose workers to undue risk, there’s nothing about the project that demands she take responsibility “as an architect.”

You see, architects seldom have the leverage to stipulate that certain standards be met for workers in the construction or execution of their work. Zaha is a starchitect, a “brand” unto herself to be sure, but that likely pulls less weight in Qatar, and if she had made any demands at the outset her project would have probably been rejected in favor of another one. And whatever would end up being built would have probably involved the same hyperexploitative conditions as Zaha’s project. So I’m not big on issuing ethical injunctions of this sort. It’d be hypocritical for Hadid to take the Qatari government’s money in hand and then condemn it from afar, knowing well that she can do nothing about it. Besides, it’s hard for me to imagine Zaha issuing a public statement attacking the existence of these conditions that wouldn’t just be a cynical PR move on her part.

If anything, it’s something that FIFA as an international sports organization should condemn, under threat of a change of venue (though it’s a little late in the game for that now). Though it probably wouldn’t be able — since the governing body fairly restrictively bound by its earlier commitment — such a move would have devastating effect. Qatar’s government would have gone to such extravagant expense only to reap no windfall and gain none of the prestige that comes with high-profile sporting events like these. Already FIFA has made some gestures in this direction, putting pressure on Qatar to abide by generally-accepted international standards of worker safety and waged or medical compensation.

On the other hand, the existence of such wretched labor conditions at the site and elsewhere in Qatar should be used as a rallying point for more effective self-organization of workers in the country, between both working-class citizens and foreign migrants. This is not a “blame the victim” narrative. Unjust labor conditions are most effectively fought by laborers themselves, acting in coordinated conjunction with one another, rather than by a slew of liberal pieties and rituals of scandalized outrage coming in from abroad. Workers cannot expect the Qatari state to yield to international calls to reform its labor conditions, nor even uphold the labor laws that are already on the books. Even if the Gulf country would bend to mounting pressure without any impetus coming “from below,” any such concessions would likely prove extremely short-lived, and not applicable to lower-profile cases where international scrutiny isn’t such an issue.

This isn’t to say that journalism can’t or shouldn’t expose terrible conditions where they exist. Rather, it’s what practically results from such media exposure that is key. It’s somewhat astounding how much focus is given to Zaha’s personal or professional views on the matter, rather than on the conditions themselves and efforts to ameliorate or improve them. Such is the prestige that media accords to celebrity, however, and it should probably be said that Zaha doesn’t mind the attention.

4 thoughts on “Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect

  1. Well, that’s architects for you. Egotistical monsters ever ready to serve tyrants & plutocrats, as long as it gets their fantasies built.

    • The definition of a designer/architect as a pure formal art form is frustrating to me. Design and architecture especially should be improving a situation for a better one and how you build something must be part of the design concept and ethic. Architects like shigeru ban could not consider their practice otherwise. But Zaha seems to have no problem with it. Saying she has no control over the construction is not true, when you consider incorporating smart systems and techs at the design and engineering level, taking into account the people building the damn thing, you are improving a situation by design.

  2. Ross, The Guardian states that the “more than 500 Indian migrant workers have died in Qatar since January 2012, adding to the 382 Nepalese deaths there in the past two years during construction work connected to the World Cup”, not, as you state, just on building Zaha’s al-Wakrah stadium. It is not clear how many workers, if any, have died building the Hadid-designed stadium.

    This changes the argument completely. For Zaha to say that it is not her problem, if all these deaths had occurred in the construction of her building, would be monstrous. But it is less clear whether addressing the gross inadequacies of the Qatari construction industry and the deaths on other projects should fall within her duties as an architect.

    However I would be concerned that if health and safety of workers is being compromised so badly, what other aspects of the construction are also being mis-managed?

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