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Escape from Parametric Island: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim is part of a post-Fordist Disneyland built on slavery and oil

A day after dropping a 39-foot banner reading ‘Stop Labor Abuse: Countdown to Abu Dhabi’ inside the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum’s spiralling rotunda on 6 November protestors descended on the New York museum’s annual gala. Greeting socialites and philanthropartiers with signs, slogans, and clanging pots and pans, activists affiliated with the group Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) denounced exploitative labour conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, the site of a planned Guggenheim satellite museum slated to open in 2017. The latest in a spate of direct action aimed at the Guggenheim, the banner drop and the gala picket inaugurated GULF’s new ‘Countdown’ campaign targeting museum donors to ensure fair labour practices for the tens of thousands of migrant workers who, as Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report and many follow-up investigations explain, are systemically subject to debt bondage, poverty-level wages, and substandard accommodation. On 29 November, the International Labour Organization, a United Nations body, moved to conduct an official investigation into the abuses.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is a cornerstone of an ambitious luxury real-estate development 500 metres off the Abu Dhabi shoreline. Overseen by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the $27-billion property development plan will transform a formerly uninhabited desert island into a purpose-built citadel of cultural tourism and cosmopolitan leisure. Billed by the TDIC as a ‘museum city’, Saadiyat Island, or ‘Island of Happiness’ in Arabic, will also host Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zaha Hadid’s performing arts centre, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, and the British Museum-affiliated Zayed National Museum, designed by Foster + Partners and dedicated to late Emirati statesman Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Other attractions include an offshore campus of New York University, countless luxury hotels, high-end boutiques and golf courses.

Digital renderings of the proposed Saadiyat Island Cultural District reveal a glistening mecca of titanium and glass manipulated into biomorphic, non-Euclidean architectural skins. Indeed, Saadiyat poses as a pantheon of Parametricism, a technical methodology and aesthetic programme of algorithmically generated blobs, cleavages and folding topologies that has coalesced as the early 21st century’s first International Style. According to Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects and one of the style’s primary evangelists, Parametricism, with its insistence on tectonic fluidity and ‘continuous differentiation’, is the most appropriate expression of ‘the increased complexity of post-Fordist society’. As ‘the mass society that was characterised by a single, nearly universal consumption standard has evolved into the heterogeneous society of the multitude’, he writes in his 2008 manifesto, Parametricism has supplanted Modernism’s fetishisation of space with the supposedly more elastic, egalitarian notion of the field. ‘There are no platonic, discrete figures with sharp outlines.’ Instead, ‘we might think of liquids in motion, structured by radiating waves, laminal flows, and spiralling eddies’. Embedded in the rhetoric of Parametricism is the promise of freedom − from the cold, antiseptic universalism of archaic Modernist aesthetics, from the rigidity and inertia of the built environment.

Schumacher’s association between what he calls ‘the great new style after Modernism’ and the economic and social phenomena he casually alludes to under the rubric of ‘post-Fordism’ is instructive. Characterised by the decline of assembly-line manufacturing in advanced capitalist economies, post-Fordism offers a new smorgasbord of attendant cultural values: flexibility over security, mobility over stasis, decentralisation and hybridity over chauvinism and essentialism, creative and ‘immaterial’ labour over physical muscle, freedom and self-realisation over the monotony of full-time employment. While these ideas can be easily mapped onto Schumacher’s aesthetic programme, Abu Dhabi’s post-industrial aspiration to remake itself from an oil fiefdom into a cosmopolitan hub − to shift away from the extraction of natural resources and towards the marketing of culture − is symptomatic of the post-Fordist passage from the brawn of industrial production to the ‘soft power’ of museums and cappuccino bars. With its resplendent inventory of Western cultural institutions and luxury amenities, Saadiyat promises to redouble the so-called ‘Bilbao-effect’ − where the architectural spectacle of Gehry’s curvaceous titanium building and the cachet of the Guggenheim brand were leveraged to transform a rusty port town to a hotspot of highbrow tourism. Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority chairman Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan’s comments during the Saadiyat proposal’s unveiling in 2007 make the economic stakes of the project clear. ‘In all the studies we have undertaken,’ he said, ‘culture has been shown to be a strong driver of the kind of tourism Abu Dhabi has identified as its primary market: upscale, high-repeat visitation.’

As the now well-documented system of labour abuse and economic exploitation on Saadiyat Island show, the post-industrial creative economy doesn’t arise out of thin air as the rather windy term ‘immaterial labour’ might suggest, but is purchased with the expropriated hard labour of an underclass of migrant workers.


Frank Gehry’s design for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The fluid forms of parametric design have been mooted as a corollary of post-Fordist ideology - disconnected from material reality

Under the UAE’s Kafala sponsorship system, foreign-born workers must be supported by an employer or Emirati citizen to enter to the country. Beholden to their sponsors for a minimum of two years, guest workers are unable to leave the country or seek alternative employment. The migrant construction workers building Saadiyat arriving from their countries in South Asia are already indebted by usurious recruitment and relocation fees paid to third party contracting agencies. With salaries between $200 and $300 a month, it takes a worker an average of two years − the standard period of a UAE work visa − to break even. The New York Times May 2014 investigation of workers’ on the NYU project confirms previous reports of isolated and ill-equipped labour camps, low pay, harsh working conditions, long hours of manual labour, and violent strikebreaking.

In Abu Dhabi, the liberal values of decentralisation and transnational mobility espoused by post-Fordism and given spectacular form in Parametricist architecture are perversely realised in the figure of the migrant worker, whose experience of global mobility is far from liberatory, but contained and delimited by the asymmetrical and hierarchical structures of debt and indentured labour. Far from the delirious, crypto-Deleuzian utopia of Schumacher’s architectural sensorium, reports from Abu Dhabi present an old-fashioned nightmare of squalor, poverty, and exploitation.

‘Untrammelled mobility,’ critic Lane Relyea recently wrote, is a ‘leading trope of artistic agency today,’ referring to the ballooning network of international biennials, art fairs, travelling exhibitions, and their attendant entourage of nomadic artists, dealers, curators and collectors. To this roster one might add exportable museum franchises such as the Guggenheim, which, more than any other museum, has worked to circulate its brand on an international scale. Under Thomas Krens’s stewardship 1988-2008, the Guggenheim transformed from stout monolith of European high culture into a constellation of satellite institutions in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas. Several aborted projects included museums in Rio, Guadalajara, Taichung, Tokyo, Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore and Lower Manhattan. On 2 December, Guggenheim announced the finalists in a design competition to build a controversial museum in Helsinki, amid much opposition from locals and GULF activists. ‘However different in detail,’ reads the GULF press release, ‘the starting point for the competition is the creation of a landmark building with little or no connection to the local context and the urban fabric as a whole.’

Krens, the original planner of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, appears in museological history as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, a harbinger of the museum transformation from patrician temple of aesthetic contemplation to shiny pleasure palace of upper-middlebrow consumption and entertainment, where the architectural container displaces individual artworks as the locus of aesthetic sublimity. Art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss anticipated this shift as early as 1992, writing ‘we are having this experience, then, not in front of what could be called art, but in the midst of an oddly empty yet grandiloquent space of the which the museum itself − as a building − is somehow the subject.’

Numerous critics have bemoaned the bald commercialism of blockbuster exhibitions, the Krensian logic of aggressive building, the nouveau-mannerism of trophy architecture, and the general absorption of museums into a spectacular event economy. The immiseration on Saadiyat Island, however, reveals the human cost where unregulated labour markets and exploitative subcontracting chains enable culture-based urban development. The hallucinatory rhetoric that celebrates indeterminacy and mobility as inherently positive values, and the seemingly effortless, liquid architecture that disavows the human labour that built it, can’t ornament or obscure the realpolitik of labour abuse in the Persian Gulf. The agglomeration of museums taking shape on Saadiyat Island, and Zaha Hadid’s much debated response to the assertion that architects are responsible for the wellbeing of construction workers, belie Parametricism’s claims for itself as a radical improvement on Fordist Modernism. Rather than add a seal of cultural legitimacy to abusive labour practices, perhaps a truly radical architecture should leverage its power to ensure health, safety and economic justice for its builders.


In Abu Dhabi, Bangladeshi migrant workers are housed in tiny dormatories. Many work on outposts of European cultural institutions

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