Articles

Zaha Hadid Is an Awful Human Being, Says “Not My Duty” to Prevent Migrant Worker Deaths

by Hrag Vartanian on February 27, 2014

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Starchitect Zaha Hadid’s statement this week to a British newspaper suggests that she is severely lacking in the conscience department. The Guardian asked Hadid about the deaths of hundreds of migrant workers in Qatar during construction of a stadium she designed, and she responded:

It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it … I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Hadid is one of the world’s most famous architects, and the project in question is her Al-Wakrah stadium in Qatar, which is being built for the 2022 World Cup in that country. Her statement comes on the heels of a Guardian article last week that reported:

More than 500 Indian migrant workers have died in Qatar since January 2012, adding to the 382 Nepalese deaths there in the past two years during construction work connected to the World Cup.

Hadid callously told the Guardian that it wasn’t her job as an architect to do anything:

Asked if she was concerned, Hadid added: “Yes, but I’m more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of.”

Chart that accompanies the Guardian's February 18 report on migrant deaths in Qatar. (image via flickr.com/markhillary)

Chart that accompanies Private Eye magazine’s “Number Crunching” column about migrant deaths in Qatar. (image via flickr.com/markhillary)

This isn’t the first time Hadid has shown a willingness to welcome commissions from oil-rich autocratic regimes while turning a blind eye to their victims. In 2007, she agreed to design the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku at the request of Ilham Aliyev, Heydar’s son and the current Azerbaijani dictator. At the time, Hadid was televised laying flowers at the grave of Aliyev, a former KGB chief with a significant cult of personality (that’s being exported) and the autocratic ruler of Azerbaijan until his death in 2003. When Hadid’s office was asked at the time about the odd commission, a spokesperson responded:

“The centre is designed to the highest international standards, bringing performances and exhibitions from around the world to Baku. The centre will play an integral role in the redevelopment of the city,” adding that “protocol required flowers to be laid [at Heydar Aliyev’s grave].”

The building was completed last year, but the architectural community has been largely silent about the tribute to the dictator.

Lest you think other architects are as heartless as Hadid, Dezeen reports:

Other well-known architects have previously spoken out over conditions for workers in foreign nations. Richard Rogers says that “architects have a responsibility to society“, while Daniel Libeskind called on architects to consider whether their projects are “legitimate.”

Back during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, many Western media sources, particularly German ones, started raising questions about architects working for autocratic governments. Roman Hollenstein, writing for Neue Zürcher Zeitung, penned an op-ed calling architects who were working in China naïve and “henchmen” for the regime. At the time, he wrote, “their brand could suffer now that it’s clear that the Chinese government was only paying lip service with its promises to improve the human rights situation,” but that has not proven to be true. Ai Weiwei, who helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, stayed away from the opening ceremonies because he said he wanted his building to represent freedom, not be a trophy for an autocratic regime uninterested in change.

Hadid’s comment also comes just weeks before Human Rights Watch report is about to release a major report on another troubling migrant worker situation in the Persian Gulf region, Saadiyat Island.

Last night, at an event at New York University organized by the activist group G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction), Nicolas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch discussed the issues facing migrant workers being systematically abused by the kafala (sponsorship system) used in Qatar, UAE, and other nations in the region. During his presentation, McGeehan pointed out that racial discrimination plays a big role in a system where “people are seen as sub-human.”

“It’s not about money, it’s not about profit, it’s about controlling a large foreign workforce,” McGeehan said.

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Original image for top photograph via flickr.com/mohamedn

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  • Stephanie Henley

    I have to say, I am quite shocked by the tone you have taken against Zaha Hadid. The welfare of the workforce on large builds/schemes is not her responsibility, neither is it the responsibility of any architect. The comment: “Hadid has shown a willingness to welcome commissions from oil-rich autocratic regimes while turning a blind eye to their victims” is frankly so wrong on so many levels. Zaha Hadid is a woman working in a male dominated environment – she has to take the work where she can get it. And all you need to do is look at some of the other large projects/schemes some of the large/well known architectural firms are working on and you will find that most of them work for “oil-rich autocratic regimes” – she is by no means alone – they are all doing it! It is not her duty to protect a workforce – that is not what she is employed for – how can you suggest that she is callous because of that. She has always been outspoken and have never minced her words – but she expained herself “I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it” and that in itself is the answer.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Everyone is doing it is not an excuse. Other architects, as the article mentions, have been critical of doing exactly that, but when she says “I have nothing to do with workers” then it reveals a lot about her and her mentality.

      And my statement is not wrong, and you’ve demonstrated no evidence to the contrary. We’ve been critical of other projects but this statement is, as I said, callous towards the hundreds of workers who have been killed and the thousands who are still being mistreated.

      People are paying her for her brand and name, if she doesn’t think she has power then that’s wrong. Maybe she means she is unwilling to inconvenience herself with the lives of people realizing her vision.

      From what we can tell nothing she is doing is illegal, but it does not make her a nice human being.

      • t.vincent

        You’re right, she has some power to influence decisions on the conditions of her projects job site. Not directly, but through backchannels and interpersonal relationships. In the overall power spectrum, however, her power is miniscule, and amounts to an ant pushing a boulder.

      • antonio bernacchi

        the role of foreign architects in this kind of projects is often misunderstood by hose who are not involved in this business.

        99% of the times they are hired as ‘design consultants’ with limited scope and manouvre space over the actual construction process, regardless of the willingness to manage it more directly or advise those who are the real actors involved in it.

        the statement in the article appers to be highly speculative and quite simplistic.

        the fact that Zaha has become so extremely famous and present on the international scene is more a result of this wierd hyper-capitalist global market rather than of her own intentions and ambitions.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          No need to explain, since that’s a common corporate system (nothing very unique to architecture), but it doesn’t mean an individual isn’t awful for showing this kind of callousness. If just a dozen people died building your building, I would hope an architect would be shocked enough and work to fix the situation or understand why, etc. Maybe that is too much to ask? I don’t think so.

    • scumbag

      this is an absurd response…you change nothing unless people refuse to do such work…then there is change. Its like saying its fine to do work for hitler…its where the work is.

    • dlws8607

      Wow, what a typical example of the whiny power, privilege, and entitlement activists who love to blame everything on men. You are pathetic. She does not care about the deaths of workers, many of whom I suspect are men, and neither do you. I bet you have no problem with men dying on the job, but have a hissey fit if a female gets a splinter on the job. What a loser.

  • t.vincent

    Ranting blogger searching for clicks, perhaps her response reveals her professional reality, that she has no connection to the contractor, and especially no connection to their subs and their workers. There’s a contractual disconnect between architect, owner, and contractor in every country in the world. No matter the context, the architect is merely a service provider.

    Go whine to the owner, who has ultimate control, or local municipalities that set construction safety codes. “Zaha Hadid, why don’t you convince Middle Eastern dictatorships and their accompanying cultures to adopt acceptable construction safety codes? Barring that impossible task, I expect that you’ll bankrupt your practice and lay off your entire staff in quixotic zeal.”

    “Pfft, naive little blogger. Go do some research.”

    On the flip side, if you assume that an architect has any power, why do you insist on perpetuating a societal structure in which those in power are the only ones with the agency to facilitate change? Accept either that architecture as an industry have no resources to spend time and money advocating for your cause and instead work to empower the oppressed to make change for themselves, or accept that architects are essentially powerless in this transaction and go after those entities that are pulling the strings. Better yet, do both, but certainly lay off the architects, who have bigger problems. (Unless you’re just looking to write inflammatory blog posts to get clicks. In that case please continue.”

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      An apologist for autocratic regimes and someone else who doesn’t care about the lives of migrant workers. You and Hadid would get along wonderfully.

      • t.vincent

        Wonderfully misstated, but I don’t think we’d get along at all. I hear she’s a horrible person prone to massive oversimplification and knee-jerk reactionism in support of her personal agendas. In that sense perhaps you two would be superbuds.

        When you say you’re covering “this topic,” I assume you mean your conflation of the Guggenheim’s (read: client) partnership with Abu Dabi with the quandaries of architecture professional ethics. Or maybe you’re referring to that quality piece from January about Milli Vanilli.

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          Oh, I see, you’re a troll. I guess I’ll give you fair warning that future comments will be deleted if you continue to troll. Selective reading and selective humanity seems to be attractive to you.

          • t.vincent

            I suppose you have the right as mod to toss out personal attacks and delete the in-kind responses.

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            You suppose? Your privilege is showing.

  • t.vincent

    Here’s the deal. You say she’s an “awful human being” and then completely oversimplify the difficulties that come with being an architect in the world. It’s much more difficult than that, and you’re both showing how little you know about the issue AND insulting those who have to deal with this. Would I be an awful human being for working for Zaha? For working on a project in China? For working on a project for the US government?

    She didn’t say she doesn’t care, Richard Rogers said that architect’s have a responsibility to society but he wasn’t talking about workers rights, and when Daniel Libeskind made his statement about architects and their clients, he caught a lot of flack from his peers because it’s such a difficult topic.

    YOU have a responsibility to society to take the time to do your research, so that you’re not dehumanizing and insulting an entire profession with lies and oversimplification.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      I think you’re making more assumption about this than I am. And yes, Libeskind caught flack, because architects are always desperate for clients and anyone who seems to get in the way of their work is often vilified in the very tight-knit circles at those levels (architecture is a small world, just like art and other creative worlds).

      Most architects gave Koolhaus a free pass when he designed the propaganda ministry for the Chinese government, for instance, which is a repellant thing IMO. And if you were involved in designing a propaganda ministry then please do, but if you assume others will not point that out and be critical of your decision then you’re delusional.

      She should be talking about the Human Rights Watch report and pointing out there are mechanisms she supports in this matter. She did not. There are actual people working to set up a process, including FIFA mind you, for the World Cup so that labor issues are dealt with and the destructive and exploitive kafala system to broken.

      Not sure why you thought I was insulting an entire profession, but I am disgusted by Zaha Hadid’s callous answer and this isn’t the first time she has spoken like this about others. I actually also know people who have worked for her, and other major architects (and some of whom were exploited in terms of the hours they work and pay they receive, but you probably know that) though you seem to assume I don’t.

      Your anger at me for “dehumanizing a profession” which I’m not ding is misplaced considering Hadid dehumanizes a whole worker class who have been dying in the hundreds for buildings like her. Where is your anger her and her attitude? Non-existent it sounds like, and that is very telling for who you privilege.

      • t.vincent

        (I’ll give you some time to edit all your comments a few times before responding.)

      • t.vincent

        Yea man, you want to write an article about her business and HR decisions and I’ll join your indignation. The whole industry needs as many exposes as you can kick out.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      No one’s saying that it’s not complicated to be an architect, or that Zaha’s saying anything and speaking up for workers would do any good. BUT, there’s a difference between a situation being complicated and theoretical outcomes than the callousness Hadid shows in her remarks. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it” is a complete abdication of responsibility or empathy, and in fact a failure to see or acknowledge the complications of her own position. It is the same as saying she doesn’t care.

      • t.vincent

        Actually, Hrag based his entire article, and the absurd title to start it, on the outlandish oversimplification of the issue. She addresses it as far as saying it’s not – and it’s NOT, professionally, is it – in her scope. YES! it’s callous, and yes I know she’s a terrible manager and business person but the outlandish leap to demonization, based on so very little as NOT talking in more depth about the issue, is what I take issue with. Spend a little more time writing a more comprehensive article and LESS time throwing flames in the comments section and the world will be a better place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/artsnob Kathy Isabel Stockman

    Hrag, keep fighting this good fight. And thank you.

  • Mike G

    Hrag, in context of the professional code of conduct, she is correct in saying that she does not have a “duty” to protect workers. It is beyond the architect’s duty to ensure worker safety during construction outside of designing a safe building. She is right that Qatar is responsible for enforcing safety regulations.
    The more correct term is “social responsibilty”. An architect should not accept projects that are against social ethics; however, many do. But she was not commenting on her lack of social responsibilty in the article, instead she was commenting on her professional duty, which excludes worker safety. Also, the exact question isn’t given, so there also no context to her quote.
    The spirit of her comment is wrong, and goes against the profession. Architects should be champions for change for the better. And when one has as much pull as she does, she really could make an impact.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Thanks for contributing to the comments. The number of deaths in Qajar are surprisingly high. Any idea why that might be? It certainly isn’t because of a lack of money to implement safety regulations or standards.

  • Ella Biondi

    These workers need to organize, it’s all well and good for architects and engineers to understand their predicament, which I think they do. But it’s up to the workers themselves to improve their condition.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      Ella, Every time they do they get deported and they aren’t paid the wages they are owed. The kafala (sponsorship) system is precisely created to avoid labor organization and make the worker disposable. When the Philippine embassy started insisting on better conditions for their nationals recruiters went to Cambodia, for instance.

  • Ella Biondi

    So good to talk to you Hrag. I understand everything you say, I was a chapter chair in the UFT. But it’s up to each of us to work as hard as the starchitects and engineers. If we work hard and organize we’ll win them over. Mostly they’re post modernists and are liberal leftists and will join us. Hadid is already a leading women architect, she’s a force, and a strong post modernist – let’s not lay another burden on her.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      I also don’t think she deserves a free pass.

  • omar yacoub

    Pretty silly! As petrochemical addicted taxpaying military empire supporting consumer hyperdrive powering plastic bottle tossing americans lets collectively remove our heads from our butts just briefly and acknowledge that WE have far more power to change things in quatar or Dubai than Hadid or any one architect. Amazingly clueless seeming, to me, this viewpoint.

  • SnakesNspyderS

    Ms Hadid obviously doesn’t understand the ethics and guidelines behind her title as a member of the AIA. I believe it is her firm that ultimately approves and helps her clients contract every party to execute her projects. With that said, choosing a party to execute work, even one with ‘questionable’ labor practices would make ZHA liable. Choosing a party where they are ‘unsure’ of the contracted party’s labor ethics would make ZHA liable. At the end of the day, the architect’s role is to solidify parties that have ethical and proper track records in completing projects. This has nothing to do with government or gender. Her correct response to the questions about the conditions in Qatar should have been addressed through a simple no comment because it is apparent she isn’t an administrator.

    The fact that she believes that she does not have a role in these issues and that it is up to the government to fix, shows her character as yet another arrogant and luxury, business driven practitioner, not a thinker, maker or philanthropist. Although the site isn’t located in an area where you need a registered member of the AIA to execute a project, the institute should consider re-evaluating her compitance as a professional. It’s beyond obvious that a lot of elbow running and funding may have made her title possible.

  • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

    That’s because no one has the statistics of how many have died on those projects. If you have them please share.

  • dlws8607

    How many of the architects on those projects have basically said, “Oh well if men die, no big deal?”

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