DANIEL LIBESKIND SPARKED A BLAZE in February, when, during a speech in Belfast, he made the following proclamation: “I won't work for totalitarian regimes. Architects should take a more ethical stance.” So how does the Polish-American architect explain the 1,129-unit luxury housing complex he designed in Singapore? His client there isn't just some developer, it's a conglomerate that's 30-percent owned (and reportedly controlled) by the government.
What's wrong with that? The small-but-prosperous city state is a democracy in name, but not necessarily in function, and the government isn't nearly as clean as the sidewalks, where spitting is famously illegal. Since Singapore gained self-governance from Britain in 1959, the ruling People's Action Party has held power without interruption. Here are a few actions the party took in 2007 to stay on top, according to Amnesty International: “Freedom of expression and assembly came under increasingly close controls. Men arrested in previous years were held without charge or trial. … Death sentences were imposed and at least five people were executed. Criminal offenders were sentenced to caning.”
As the market for Western architectural services expands to encompass unfamiliar territories, architects are having to grapple with equally unfamiliar ethical issues. Zaha Hadid, for instance, has designed a memorial to late president Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, a paragon of corruption. What ran through Hadid's mind when she laid flowers by Aliyev's grave during a recent visit to the capital city of Baku?
Unfortunately, there's no hard-and-fast rule about what makes a state totalitarian, and there's certainly no clear ethical road map for architects considering a job in or with one. Such situations require an entirely different kind of due diligence. It's no longer just a question of whether clients pay their bills on time, it's a question of how they treat their staff. Is caning in the employee manual? To find an answer, start with Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, both of which post reports on various countries on their websites.
RMJM, the subject of this month's cover story (“The House of Morrison,” page 96), has received considerable flak for its role as architect of the proposed 1,050-foot Okhta Tower, the headquarters of the state-controlled energy company, Gazprom, in St. Petersburg, Russia. UNESCO is threatening to strip the city of its World Heritage site status if the project goes ahead. The tower is to be built next to the baroque Smolny Convent, and, UNESCO claims, it will destroy St. Petersburg skyline. Between this potentially devastating aesthetic impact, Russia's sketchy human rights record, and Gazprom's monopolistic control of vast energy resources (Russia holds the world's third largest reserves of oil and natural gas), RMJM's got its hands full.
I doubt Hadid, Libeskind, RMJM, or any other architect is aiming to become the next Albert Speer, and admittedly there is a lot of gray area when it comes to evaluating the human rights records of various far-flung governments. Even commissions in the U.S. come with ethical challenges. Consider the number of voices raised in disapproval when Robert A.M. Stern agreed to design the presidential library of George W. Bush.
Due diligence is one thing. Personal ethics is another. In our globalized economy, architects are having to ask increasingly difficult questions of themselves in the pursuit of a buck, yen, or ruble: What's my position on Tibet? Is caning acceptable? How about waterboarding? If I turn down the Presidential Palace, is it OK to design worker housing? What if I make the project green? The answers to such questions can be found in only one place: one's own conscience.
Editor in Chief