Moral Responsibility, Zaha Hadid, and the al-Wakrah Stadium

Writer Sherin Wing offers an alternative take on whether or not the architect is as powerless as the latter claims.

The following is a second opinion piece occasioned by comments made by Zaha Hadid on the limits of an architect’s responsibility on and off the construction site. See Martin C. Pedersen’s earlier piece for another perspective on the issue.

In her book, Moral Literacy, UCLA Professor of Philosophy and Law Ethics Barbara Herman says, “It is generally agreed that there is a duty of easy rescue […] when the cost to us is slight or moderate. And also there is a companion duty of consideration or helpfulness, a requirement that we ‘lend a hand’ to persons whose permissible activities or projects would founder without some small help we might easily provide.” But she continues, “What is less clear is the nature and scope of the moral requirement in other cases.”

Herman’s comments seem an appropriate framework for Zaha Hadid’s latest comments. At last week’s unveiling of the redeveloped London Aquatics Centre, Ms. Hadid was questioned about the migrant workers who have died while working on the al-Wakrah stadium in Qatar, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Ms. Hadid likened her concern for their plight to her concern for Iraqi deaths: “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. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” She further asserted that her responsibility was limited to personal censure: “I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.”

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So when a disaster occurs during an economic or architectural endeavor, is it just a matter of legal responsibility or is there a moral component as well? Does the fame of the architect somehow mitigate the responsibility? Or, as some actors have claimed, does one’s fame and bully pulpit make one more responsible to use that influence towards promoting good or charitable causes that will ostensibly benefit fellow human beings?

It might be interesting to look at other examples of what individuals and corporations can do when they are either 1) involved or implicated in tragic incidents or 2) at odds with the unsavory practices of a government that happens to employ them. The most obvious case is the Bangladeshi Clothing Factory Fire of 2012. In the aftermath of the fire, Western corporate consumers of the factory were slow to respond, with some initially claiming powerlessness. As months progressed, some European corporations signed a binding legal accord that offered employees certain protections in their work environment. Because the accord also ensures a union, U.S. corporations, including the Gap, Target, and Walmart, have refused to sign and instead have produced their own resolutions which, not surprisingly, are neither legally binding nor do they offer any true oversight. Some European and Australian branches of U.S. companies have even offered compensation to surviving family members, while again, U.S. firms have refused. The factory owners are also being held legally responsible. Says the prosecutor in the case, the owners are “the beneficiary of the factory [so] the responsibility for what occurred lies with them.”

Now, it might seem like a stretch to compare corporations such as Target and the Gap with a single architect. However, Ms. Hadid actually runs a firm employing over 400 people, working internationally, as is touted on her firm’s homepage. Moreover, not only did they “benefit,” but they most likely continue to be paid for services associated with the on-going construction of al-Wakrah. In fact, architects are intimately involved with the construction process and oftentimes large projects even require a temporary office either onsite or nearby for construction administration. The idea that Ms. Hadid has no influence except as a private individual, then, strains credulity.

We might also look at another example that perhaps draws a closer point of comparison. Architects such as Daniel Libeskind have previously declared that they would not work in China because of the country’s oppressive politics. (Libeskind has since changed positions. His Zhang ZhiDong and Modern Industrial Museum is currently under construction in Wuhan.) These boycotts fall in line with similar stances, such as the cries of “human rights” violations, that often mask deeper concerns over China’s perceived economic, military, and political might. And despite evidence that China could actually offer Westerners a good example of how to proceed with urban development—for example, that 9% of its GDP is devoted to infrastructure and that architectural innovation on varying scales, in public and private projects, is present in a way that is rare in the U.S.—the issue of whether or not foreign architects should practice in China remains entrenched.

But the spotlight now rests on Qatar, which is readying for the 2022 World Cup. AECOM, who worked with Ms. Hadid’s firm on the al-Wakrah Stadium, had this to say last year: “Qatar has strict labor, health & safety laws, and the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee is committed to ensuring these are met. Safety on our projects for our clients and staff is always our number one priority.” Setting aside this vague moral commitment, the issue of legal liability for foreign firms working in Qatar is especially relevant because human rights abuses committed overseas can be tried as civil cases in the E.U. Said a UK solicitor, “It’s the law of negligence and the general duty of care, which applies to employers but also to third parties.” (One wonders what the definition of third parties is.) To add to the complexity of the issue, while Qatar is the wealthiest country per capita in the world, it also relies inordinately on migrant labor. Its regulation, while notionally controlled by the government, actually gives disproportionate discretion to employers. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed concern over the exploitative conditions on Qatari construction sites and have demanded action from all firms involved in the World Cup projects.

We return, then, to the question, what is the moral obligation of people involved in situations that are not easily resolved? How does one determine action or non-action? Here are a few issues to consider in the specific case of Ms. Hadid and the migrant workers on the al-Wakrah Stadium. First, there is the issue of financial consequences. Now that her response has been so well-publicized, Ms. Hadid will certainly experience some backlash from both sides of the issue. Then there is the issue of the internal consequences—i.e. moral and ethical—connected with either intervening or not. This effects not just herself but those associated with her, including her firm’s 400 employees. Finally, there is the issue of agency: whether Ms. Hadid is truly powerless in effecting change for the construction oversight system in Qatar. As to this, I think the answer is clear: judging from the responses so far, she is not.

Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to ArchinectArchitect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @SherinWing

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