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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.”
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