Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect

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.” Continue reading

In memoriam: Lebbeus Woods one year after his death

A little over a year ago the visionary architect Lebbeus Woods died. I never got around to writing up a reflection on his passing, something commemorating and celebrating his lifework. Thankfully, many whose opinions and insight I respect did.

What follows is thus a pastiche of images by Woods and text from two articles — one by Sammy Medina (then at Architizer), with whom I’ve collaborated in the past, the other by Kelly Chan (then at ArtInfo), a fantastically overproductive architecture critic who I know through Sammy — as well as a quote from the British author Douglas Murphy on Woods’ oeuvre.

Early drawings

Not much I can really add to their comments, really, except to point out a few intersecting themes that unite them (for good reason, too, as I think they hit upon something):

  • First, there is the contrast of Woods’ career with those of his contemporaries Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid, both of whom transitioned from speculative architectural drawing in the late 1970s and 1980s to become “starchitects” by the mid-1990s. Douglas, Sammy, and Kelly all stress Woods’ disappointment with the naked careerism of his former peers.
  • Second, related to the first point, there was Woods’ refusal to capitulate to the imperative to build in a reactionary age. This wasn’t an act of simple asceticism, I don’t think, but rather a recognition of historical reality.
  • Finally, there is the comparison that both Sammy and Kelly made of Woods to the pioneering Italian draughtsman Piranesi — whose work, according to Manfredo Tafuri, prefigured that of the twentieth century avant-garde. Piranesi, like Woods, built very little during his lifetime. Both are instead remembered for their resolute commitment to “paper architecture,” whose unsettlingly speculative content served to disenchant the triumphant conservatism that had overtaken architecture in their time.

With that, I’ll conclude. Enjoy.

Lebbeus Woods, Makeshift House (1990s)

Lebbeus Woods, Makeshift House (1990s)

On the passing of Lebbeus Woods

Douglas Murphy

Guardian quotes Douglas Murphy as follows:

Around the end of the 1980s Lebbeus Woods was just one of a number of radical architects making their name through the production of imaginary projects; elaborate drawings and paintings occupying a milieu somewhere between fine art and architecture, which allowed many to interrogate the conventions of their discipline. Open a book on the experimental architecture of that period and Woods’ heartfelt and haunting drawings regarding the siege of Sarajevo share space with early works from the likes of Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. But unlike so many of that generation who eventually made the career transition from avant-garde upstarts to global superstars, Lebbeus Woods never got rich by building rubbish. Continue reading