Specifically he was severely critical of some of his high profile peers, accusing them of amoral commissions,
‘I’m not interested in building gleaming streets for despots; I prefer making work in the challenges and constraints of a democracy than working in a homogeneous system’
Libeskind does have fairly strong credentials to support his claim for the moral high ground. His career was founded on his revered Holocaust Museum. He is currently designing a Peace and Reconciliation Centre on the site of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. Whether Polish born Jewish-ness gives you automatic understanding of Northern Ireland’s fractured advancement towards yet-to-be achieved peace and reconciliation is a whole other debate. Perhaps he might also want to reconsider his original commission for the Freedom Towers on the site of the New York World Trade Centre in light of his gleaming tower for despot comments.
Regardless of your opinion of the controversial Mr Libeskind, he does have an increasingly sound argument in this case. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this idea. When I was in Azerbaijan, I was pleased to make my way up and out of the city for a look at Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, a pure uncompromised example of her work. ‘How lucky I am,’ thought I, ‘not many people will get to see this’. I now realise that this is exactly the point. It is a ridiculously extravagant building in a country riddled with corruption and inequality. Of course not many people will be able to see it. The majority of the locals live well below what we would recognise as the poverty line. This humongous creation of ego is no use to them. It is instead a direct physical manifestation of the squandering of Azerbaijan’s natural resource wealth by the ruling elite. The reason I don’t get to see much of her work in my own city (aquatic centre aside) is we think construction on such a level is uneconomic and unviable. And we are right. This is exactly what Libeskind meant when he referred to ‘working within the constraints of a democracy’
Ms Hadid is now the starchitect of choice for the small gang of international despots that view large constructions as symbols of power. She is currently working on the King Abdullah station for the Riyadh Metro. This is probably a good thing, all those women who are not allowed to drive can get about on the new underground system, if they are allowed out in the first place that is. She is also engaged on the Al Wakrah stadium in South Doha for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. A stadium of no obvious use post world cup and one that requires constant air conditioning to prevent near fatal temperatures.
Previous holder of the title was undoubtedly Lord Foster, whose schemes in Kazakhstan I’ve already written about. Forster has strong ties to Russia, although things have gone a little sour for him there lately. He was recently forced into resigning from the multi-million pound extension to the Pushkin Museum and his 2000 room hotel scheme for the former site of the gigantic Rossiya Hotel was pulled by none other than Putin himself in favour of a park. The fantasy-like Crystal Island was rightly binned due to the recession in 2009. It would have been the largest structure on earth. It was also an unfocussed shrine to retail extravagance and little else. For once Putin deserves a little credit for his realism and for clipping Foster’s wings.
There are two important aspects to this to consider. Firstly, big business is big business. International markets at best pay lip service to human rights issues whilst happily ploughing investment into autocratic regimes. Our own Prime Minister David Cameron was recently only mildly criticised for taking a trip to energy-rich-ruled-by-despots Kazakhstan. By the same token, we in the west do not foist ‘regime change’ in the name of human rights on co-operating oppressive dictatorships, only those that do not toe the line. Therefore it is ok for Foster, Zaha and co to take work from, or invest in, those countries, just like it is for BP, Shell, Glaxosmithkline, Rio Tinto, Vodafone, Barclays. It is simply another international commercial transaction.
But are a lot of these commissions simply big business? No they aren’t, far from it. A lot of these are sport. Sport is about ideals, not money. Or is it? The reaction to the recent anti-gay legislation in Russia was centred round the idea that we in the west strongly believe that society has moved on. They appear to think otherwise. However, from a pure legal point of view their legal jurisdiction is their legal jurisdiction. There is little that can be done about this other than protesting and raising awareness in the normal channels. One of the forms of protest, interestingly, is a proposal to boycott the coming Socchi Olympic Games in Russian in 2014. If the recent Moscow based World Athletic Championships is anything to go by the Russians would fail to notice our non-attendance. Better to go and make a statement like those made by Emma Green and Nick Symmonds and wait for the Russians to embarrass themselves, like Yelena Isinbayeva.
The sporting world faced the same criticism for ignoring human rights issues when it awarded the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing, China. If there was a time to use the sporting arena as a political tool for change, it was then. That time was lost and so we must move on though Russian anti-gay legislation, the Bahrain Grand Prix annual fiasco and the ethical and environmental disaster that is Qatar 2022. The bodies that award sporting events are open to severe criticism for ignoring human rights violations in the recipient countries. It would appear this is not going to change any time soon.
Our athletes should go and make their own pleas in support of our western norms without fear of arrest and persecution. Our fans and supporters should go and join in without fear of recrimination or persecution for behaviours that are our norms. But should our architects engage and profit on such a grand scale from these schemes. If you follow the previous argument, then yes, they should be free commercially to accept and execute work, of course they should. But should they be open to criticism for making these choices? Yes I think they should, in the same manner our sporting bodies are criticised for their decisions and their motives publicly examined.
The second thing at work here is the deliberate attempts made at self publicising, particularly recently by Zaha Hadid. It is true she is a very engaging individual, eccentric and funny and she makes for excellent TV documentary fodder. Her profile in this country has been on the rise for a long time. A forceful personality, exotic background and undeniable artistry are making her famous. Practising this high profiling in any other sector of industry and entertainment means criticism normally follows. She is famous in this country, without actually building a great deal: a Brixton School, the Aquatic Centre and a Glasgow museum does not count as a large body of work. Being famous for building out-of-control-money-is-no-object schemes in countries lacking democracy or any demonstrable viability in construction planning is a bit less attractive.
So we need to stop making fawning documentaries or writing articles in glossy Sunday supplements about the ‘genius’ of our starchitects and examine their decisions as much as we do our sporting bodies and our athletes. In reality this probably means nothing will change. But the media needs to catch up and the pedestals need to be just that little bit lower.