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.
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.
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.