NY TIMES - FOUR months ago the architect Daniel Libeskind declared publicly that architects should think long and hard before working in China, adding, “I won’t work for totalitarian regimes.” His remarks raised hackles in his profession, with some architects accusing him of hypocrisy because his own firm had recently broken ground on a project in Hong Kong. In the long run does architecture transcend politics and ideology? If the architect’s own vision is progressive, can architecture be a vehicle for positive change?
Since then, however, Mr. Libeskind’s speech, delivered at a real estate and planning event in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has reanimated a decades-old debate among architects over the ethics of working in countries with repressive leaders or shaky records on human rights. With a growing number of prominent architects designing buildings in places like China, Iran, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where development has exploded as civic freedoms or exploitation of migrant labor have come under greater scrutiny, the issue has inched back into the spotlight.
Debate abounds on architecture blogs, and human rights groups are pressing architects to be mindful of a government’s politics and labor conditions in accepting commissions.The ideological issue is as old as architecture itself. By designing high-profile buildings that bolster the profile of a powerful client, do architects implicitly sanction the client’s actions or collaborate in symbolic mythmaking?
For the most part, the issue is not a concrete one for the field’s top practitioners; no architect interviewed for this article except Mr. Libeskind has publicly rejected the notion of working for hot-button countries. Yet the debate underscores the complex decisions that go into designing architecture — from the basic financial imperatives, to public access, to the larger message that a building sends — and is prodding architects to reflect on their priorities.
“It’s complicated,” said Thom Mayne, the Los Angeles architectwhose projects include a corporate headquarters in Shanghai. “Architecture is a negotiated art and it’s highly political, and if you want to make buildings there is diplomacy required.”
“I’ve always been interested in an architecture of resistance — architecture that has some power over the way we live,” added Mr. Mayne, who said he had recently been interviewed for projects in Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Middle East and Indonesia. “Working under adversarial conditions could be seen as a plus because you’re offering alternatives. Still there are situations that make you ask the questions: ‘Do I want to be a part of this?’ “
There is little question that this is a highly charged global moment for the profession: a building boom in Asia and the Middle East, combined with a hunger for designs by name brands, has created unparalleled opportunities for architects to make their mark. Every city wants its own Bilbao, the saying goes, a reference to the explosion of excitement over Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim museum there, and every architect craves the recognition that comes with a high-profile commission.
Architects face ethical dilemmas in the West too. Some refuse to design prisons; others eschew churches. Robert A. M. Stern, who is also Yale’s architecture dean, drew some criticism last year when he accepted an assignment to design a planned George W. Bush Library in Dallas. Mr. Stern shrugged off the sniping. “I’m an architect,” he said. “I’m not a politician.”
Some architects argue that architecture is more important to them than politics. “I’m a guy who has on my wall a picture of the guy in front of the tank,” said Eric Owen Moss, a Los Angeles architect, referring to the famous photograph from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. “But I’ve never turned down a project in Russia and China.” Mr. Moss has designed the Guangdong Museum and Opera House in China as well as a ceremonial plaza, Republic Square, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which has been ruled by the same autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since the 1980s.
Others go even further, arguing that their projects will be an emphatic force for social change. The Swiss architect Jacques Herzog has asserted that by supplying acres of public park space to city dwellers in the long term, his Olympic stadium in Beijing, designed with his partner, Pierre de Meuron, “will change radically — transform — the society.” “Engagement is the best way of moving in the right direction.” he said.
Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London and the author of “The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World” (Penguin, 2005), agreed that Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium sent a signal of openness. “In that stadium people see each other, rather than being looked down upon by a leader,” he said. “It is a space which people can use in a way which is a shared democratic experience.”
“Albert Speer designing for Hitler might have said the same thing. His building itself is not political, but the act of building it, for a regime like that, is a political act.” Examples abound of clients whose political ideology was considered inseparable from the buildings they commissioned, from Louis Le Vau’s palace at Versailles (Louis XIV: “L’état, c’est moi”) to Speer’s Nuremburg parade grounds, based on ancient Greek architecture but magnified to colossal scale for Hitler’s Nazi Party rallies.
Still, the distinction between political and nonpolitical architecture can be hard to draw, whether the focus is ground zero in Manhattan (think of the “Freedom Tower”) or China’s new buildings for the Olympic Games, which are a source of deep nationalist pride.