A truly ethical architect would have turned down a World Cup Stadium
On the eve of the World Cup in Qatar, shrouded in controversy over workers’ rights, architect Irena Bauman argues the profession can still say no to unethical jobs
Architects’ denial of their moral duties to the wider society is frequently highlighted on high-profile architectural commissions. In 2014 Zaha Hadid, then working on Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar, was famously quoted as saying that architects had ‘nothing to do with the workers’ who have died on construction sites. Eight years on the ethical debate has not budged an inch.
Foster + Partners, which worked on another Qatar venue, the Lusail stadium (with AFL), states that the practice ‘was only involved in the initial design concept development phase’, adding that ‘enquiries regarding the welfare of workers engaged in the venue’s building process are best addressed by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, who have managed the workers’ welfare programme across all of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup projects’.
But what of the Professional Code of Conduct by which all practising members of RIBA are bound? The code enshrines members’ duties to the wider world, towards society, and towards oneself. It also specifically states that members ‘shall seek to promote social justice’.
Vanity and greed drive many architects to take on projects
Architects want to see themselves as ethical, and even act ethically, but in truth, vanity and greed drive many architects to take on projects that openly and knowingly violate human rights. These practices should be called out either collectively by the profession or by individual members for breaching the code. Instead, the disregard for moral responsibilities is justified through disavowing the problem, passing the buck, prioritising business interests and even resorting to pitching current ethical behaviour against potential historic value.
Architectural influencers offer reasons to uphold the breaches. Philip Johnson famously said: ‘Architects are pretty much high-class prostitutes. 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.’
This sentiment was echoed by another commercial architect Rem Koolhaas who stated that ‘not many architects have the luxury to reject significant things.’
Most recently Ben Flatman in his opinion piece in Building Design laid out his circular arguments. Having first accepted that most architects turn a blind eye to ethics and that maybe ethics can only be a matter for personal conscience, he concludes: ‘For centuries architects have served power and money. And yet when the wealth and influence has long dissipated, what remains is the architecture.’
He therefore proposes that, ‘perhaps the architect’s responsibility is not to ethics, but to posterity’, thus releasing the architectural profession for all our ethical responsibilities for here and now. A landing place that protects business as usual.
I can only conclude that our best choice is to tweak the Code of Professional Conduct one more time to put an end to our professional hypocrisy. Let’s have a code that enshrines what we already know to be true: that our prime responsibility, one that trumps all others, is to sustain ourselves in business.
To those architects who are really troubled by the ethics of our actions, and I know many who are, I would say that in a democratic society we all have agency to say no to jobs and projects. And yes, it is possible to turn down a World Cup Stadium if your value system commands such action.
Irena Bauman is the author of How to be a Happy Architect
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