Zaha Hadid Wins Defamation Battle, Loses Reputation War


A rendering of the Al Wakrah stadium designed by Zaha Hadid Architects for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

The London celebrity architect Zaha Hadid has attracted widespread criticism for saying she has no power to affect labor conditions reported to be akin to slavery on the building site of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where she has designed a voluptuous stadium. It’s reported that hundreds have died of heatstroke and other worksite ailments as the Qataris, among the wealthiest people in the world, rush the multi-venue complex to completion, spending a breathtaking $200 billion. The ITUC, a labor-rights organization, estimates some 4,000 may die before the Cup begins.

The story has taken a strange turn, with Reuters reporting Aug. 21 that Hadid had filed a defamation suit against the New York Review of Books. The damage had actually been done last February by The Guardian, which first reported Hadid comments that have been widely reproduced: “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at [labor abuses] . . . . I have no power to do anything about it.” The headlines have been ugly. (HuffPost: “ ‘Vagina Stadium’ Architect Says Deadly World Cup Working Conditions Aren’t Her Problem.”) To my knowledge she has not claimed those comments were inaccurate, nor has she sued in the UK, where winning defamation suits is far easier than it is in the U.S. Indeed her assessment is probably legally accurate, if distasteful. She could demand compliance with civilized norms and likely get fired, and her design could be built without her.

A Retraction

The Guardian, and others were careful; they did not attribute deaths to Hadid’s project. Martin Filler, the NYRB’s architecture critic was not, writing that she was unconcerned with an “estimated one thousand laborers who have perished” while building her stadium. The stadium, however, had not yet begun construction. The NYRB published a letter from Filler Aug. 25 retracting the passage.

Hadid may not withdraw her suit since, Reuters says, she sought damages and the closing of the venerable NYRB. Why did she ever file it? The retraction should not have been hard to get; a suit simply extends the damage to her reputation, which, in spite of Filler’s serious error, was principally done by her own flippancy, abetted by the Internet’s facility in sating our lust for “how the mighty have fallen” stories.

Beholden to Wealth

With explosive growth in emerging economies, celebrity architecture has gone global, raising a host of ethical issues for architects that strike a deep nerve. Architects collectively claim a special cultural status as politically disinterested professionals who create public art that inspires, symbolizes cultural values, and creates more livable places. Hence the petard on which Hadid is hoisted.

Hadid, like many international celebrity architects, has become beholden to great and sometimes sordid wealth (with an oligarch’s spectacular lair in Russia, and projects throughout the Middle East, China, and Azerbaijan). She is hardly alone. Almost every large architecture, engineering, and construction firm in America, Europe and Asia relies on projects in countries around the world where labor mistreatment is widespread. The ethereally beautiful world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, was designed by the widely admired American firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill and built under the same inhumane conditions that have drawn criticism in Qatar.

Peril of Stardom

Hadid may resent being singled out, but it is a peril of stardom. Her co-architect, the international design and construction-services conglomerate AECOM, is rarely mentioned in the lazy, self-righteous screeds that have dominated the controversy, nor are the contractors who actually hire workers and set the terms of their employment. They are the real villains, as well as the Qataris, whose workplace standards govern, and FIFA, the World Cup sponsors. But big anonymous designers and faceless bureaucrats don’t make good click-bait in a media landscape desperate for the eyeballs celebrities draw.

Hadid has not helped her own cause.  I have not seen her publicly qualify her remarks or give them context. I asked for an interview to allow her to give her side of the story, if she chose, but she did not choose.

Moral Enforcers

Architects are not immune to the allure of power and money, especially when it rewards their passion to build. If I don’t do it, they rationalize, someone less talented will. (That thinking left both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier on the wrong side of history for cozying up to, respectively, the Nazis and Vichy France, even though neither was successful.)

Architects should not be singled out as moral enforcers in a world of labor horrors, but they are not powerless precisely because they are widely appreciated for the idealistic aspiration to make the world a better place. That profile should not be lightly discarded. Architects do have a moral imperative to collectively work with labor-rights groups and other construction-related professions to end abuse of the powerless by the powerful.



  1. August Ventura says

    James, PLEASE tell me that your phrase “spending a breathtaking $200 billion” is a mis-print! What is that buying in this “multi-venue complex”?

    • James S. Russell says

      Apparently this is what the Qataris think is what it takes to put themselves on the global map. Included something like 12 venues, but it all may be being cut back.

  2. Jeremy Hawker says

    Jim, Zaha doesn’t seem to have given this more than two minutes thought, so shouldn’t the AIA, RIBA & similar professional bodies, the ones for engineers too, have guidelines that outline what architects & engineers should & shouldn’t do in similar situations? Since it’s an international problem, it ought to be the law that architects will lose their licence to practise (in, say, the USA) if they collude with an owner (in, say, Saudi Arabia) who’s planning to use slave labor.

    • James S. Russell says

      Jeremy, thanks for writing. This would be ideal but they do have to overcome the politics of the situation, which is that risks the blackballing of all architects from signatory nations. And groups like RIBA and AIA tend to shy away from anything controversial. Architects and Designers for Social Responsibility do push for such best practices.

  3. says

    I find the “see no evil do no evil” excuse by this architect to be especially seriously wrong. I also find it repulsive. She knows full well that the Qatari want fame to legitimatize a wasteful and silly exercise in legitimization through an internationally sanctioned sporting event. She knows full well if she said no very publicly, then she would likely get some action in regards to the inhumanity of it. Having worked in the UAE, the last thing these very wealthy oligarchs want is controversy. She could even have a human rights clause in her contracts. As Philip Johnson famously said
    “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” For Ms Hadid, recently sanctioned also by the RIBA for unpaid interns, she should use her world class talent to lead the way to some world classiness.

    • James S. Russell says

      I’m not at all sure that any single architect saying “no” would make a difference at all, especially since in some countries they can and do build designs without the participation of the designing architect — a lose lose.

      • Michael Karassowitsch says

        If this is true then democracy itself wouldn’t work. Unfortunately that thought can not be avoided, so how to get past it? If the work of an architect can be destroyed by saying no to pig clients, then is that office legit in the first place? The real issue is about how a profession can be dragged down so far that it must be common to be complicit in crime. That most architects would lose most of their work by saying no means that it has become the democratic choice within the architectural profession to not be of good character, and to accept providing architecture where it is most often not even wanted, it’s just the mechanics of producing ‘competent’ buildings. The Vagina Stadium is for the symbol of another line crossed. One far far beyond ‘Bigness’.

  4. Zeuler Lima says

    Jim, it’s always good to read your pondered and thought-provoking reflections on complicated (and complex) issues. A great exercise of informed intellectual democracy.

  5. Peter Carzasty says

    One issue—not a criticism of Jim or his piece, but but of a source he quotes to illustrate his thoughts: The headlines have been ugly. (HuffPost: ‘Vagina Stadium’ Architect Says Deadly World Cup Working Conditions Aren’t Her Problem.”) Question: Would/has anyone ever “headlined” Robert Mills’ Washington Monument as ‘Phallic Structure?’ Doubtful.

    • Jeremy Hawker says

      It may be a vulgar headline, but if you describe something that looks indisputably like a vagina as vaginalike it doesn’t make your comment sexist. Nearly every new London skyscraper that’s mentioned in the newspapers nowadays gets called “phallic”, as well as “a monument to the massive ego of the architect”, if not in the article then at least in the comments following it. Phallic skyscrapers have been a cliché certainly since the mid 1970s when I was living in San Francisco and the Transamerica Pyramid was known as Pereira’s Prick, after its architect.

  6. JSW says

    “Glibness will get you everywhere.”
    — Philip Johnson on hype-ing oneself & getting PR

    “If there is anything more annoying in the world
    than having people talk about you,
    it is certainly having no one talk about you.”
    — Oscar Wilde

    “No on can make you feel inferior without your own consent.”
    — Eleanor Roosevelt

    “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”
    — Shakepeare

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