As labor conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island fall under ever-increasing scrutiny, Frank Gehry, the architect behind the Guggenheim’s outpost there, has issued a statement regarding his firm’s “substantial and on-going dialogue” on the issue. Gehry had previously gone public with far milder reticence over the multi-billion-dollar museum effort, telling Foreign Policy in 2013 that he was “reluctant” to take on the project. But his most recent comments, appearing in an Architectural Record article published last week, shed serious scrutiny on the Saadiyat labor issue and could make him “the first prominent architect to take steps towards labor reform on Saadiyat Island,” as Architectural Record‘s Anna Fixsen writes.
The statement comes weeks after architect Zaha Hadid sued New York Review of Books critic Martin Filler over his polemical criticism of her stated disinterest in laborer welfare. But Gehry’s focus on the matter has apparently been longstanding: he hired human rights lawyer Scott Horton in 2009, when Human Rights Watch published a damning report on Saadiyat Island. Architectural Record adds that Gehry used Horton to push for workers conditions “before contracts were finalized” with TDIC, the Abu Dhabi government entity responsible for the project, and quotes directly from a statement provided by Gehry Partners:
Gehry Partners has been engaged in a substantial and on-going dialogue over many years now that has involved government, the construction industry, architects, project, sponsors and NGOs … It is a process in which we will strive to be continuously engaged, not something that is simply done at any one stage.
As is well known at this point, the implementation of TDIC’s seeming assurances to its various counterparties on these projects — be it New York University, the Guggenheim, or Frank Gehry — leaves a lot to be desired, with a major New York Times investigation published in May finding extensive abuses on the NYU Abu Dhabi site, among other investigative efforts carried out by the likes of the Guardian, Gulf Labor, and Vice.