Governments Should Shoulder Responsibility for Worker Deaths, Says Hadid

The architect’s controversial comments have come under fire. But might Zaha be right?

Zaha Hadid set off a mini-shitstorm on Dezeen yesterday when she declared that architects have “nothing to do with the workers” who have died on construction sites in Quatar, site of the World Cup in 2022. The Guardian had reported that nearly 900 workers had died in the past two years building the infrastructure required for the massive event. One of the projects under construction is Hadid’s Al Wakrah stadium (above), a swoopy, curvilinear 40,000 seat facility that some critics likened to a vagina when the scheme was unveiled to the public. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it,” Hadid said, on the worker deaths. “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.”

Her tone-deaf comments elicited a firestorm of predictable outrage, but I’d contend they had a near-truth about them. As I see it, Hadid had four possible courses of action, all of them limited in scope. She could:

1) Resign the commission. Since the design for the building is largely complete, this would have been an empty gesture. They surely would have completed the building without her.

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2) Express her concerns, privately, behind closed doors. Unless she leveraged this with the threat of quitting, this would have limited impact (although it might help her sleep better at night).

3) Issue a public statement condemning the situation and urging her clients to clean up their act. This might get her fired, but then again maybe not, since her worldwide renown offers some her protection here. Would it have resulted in improved worker safety? An open question.

4) Declare that human rights aren’t a concern of architects. OK, this isn’t exactly what she said, but it’s definitely in the neighborhood. This is a cop-out worthy of Philip Johnson. Cynical and self-serving, yes, but not entirely wrong. There’s a defensive tone to her remarks—over and above the usual Hadid bluster—that leads me to think that the architect herself is having some misgivings. (I certainly hope so.) But the truth is, these are misgivings that all of us in the architecture and design world should share. When she says, “There are discrepancies all over world,” I agree. Some of the greatest and most glorious works of contemporary architecture have been built on the backs, and at the expense of, the people who build them. This is hardly a new story, but it’s almost never talked about. Although Chinese officials denied it at the time, Reuters reported that 2 workers died building Herzog + de Meuron’s magnificent Bird’s Nest, while other news outlets put the count as high as ten. And that’s a high profile project: how many unreported construction deaths do you think have occurred in China? Although I have no way of knowing, it can’t be a small number.

The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, reported only one construction death, but according to the workers toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as $4 a day, in conditions that largely amounted to a form of indentured servitude. Even here in the United States: non-union construction workers in the South, for instance, make a fraction of what their compatriots do in cities like New York City and Los Angeles, performing high-risk jobs with minimal compensation and little or no safety oversight.

Zaha was right. There are indeed discrepancies all over the world. She may have been ham-fisted in her response (and maybe, just maybe, tinged with a bit of guilt) but her remarks reveal an ugly truth about unprotected (and yes, non-union) workers all over the world.

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