Architect Zaha Hadid famously stated that investigating the deaths of some 800+ construction workers was not her “duty as an architect.”
This, understandably, touched off a firestorm of debate. Hadid’s firm was (and still is) designing a major stadium as part of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup Games. Construction practices in Gulf countries such as Qatar are notoriously bad: employers confiscate workers’ passports, force them to work in in dangerous conditions, and pay them little. This practice even has a name: the kafala system. Hadid was sympathetic to the construction workers but pointed out that their safety was purely the responsibility of the government. Was she right?
Technically, she was completely in the right. Architects are empowered to oversee quality of construction, not workplace safety. While anyone visiting a construction site can and should report abuses to authorities, such responsibilities are nowhere in the architect’s contract with their client. Workplace safety laws typically hold the construction companies responsible. That being said, on a fundamental human level, we can never check our moral compass at the door. Hadid and scores of other architects have designed buildings in a region known to mistreat, harm, and kill workers. Conversely, architecture is a fundamentally social activity where architects must cooperate with each other, with other business entities, and with government actors. So where does one set of beliefs and professional ethics begin? Is the architecture a vehicle for an architect’s ideals or simply a job?
The question is immeasurably complex. However, your gut reaction will greatly affect your view of recent events at the AIA (American Institute of Architects). The AIA is the United States’ premier professional architectural association, representing more than eighty thousand American architects. My recent Architectural Record article discusses a human rights amendment to their code of ethics and why the AIA was rejected it. Read on to see how conviction and profession can clash.
Top Image: Eleanor Roosevelt with the first printing of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, via google plus.