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Fran Tonkiss on the architect's duty to construction workers

Fran Tonkiss

Somewhere between the drawing board and the building site lies the extent of the architect’s moral responsibility - but where exactly?

Construction Workers

Source: NPR

As the days count down to the soccer World Cup in Brazil, the body count rises. By the end of March, seven workers had died in accidents on stadium construction sites. After the most recent death, the FIFA Secretary General tweeted he was ‘deeply saddened by the tragic loss’; a social media missive unhappily timed just after one confirming that Carlos Santana and Wyclef Jean would sing the official anthem at the closing ceremony.

The Brazilian numbers are small, though, compared with the human cost of the building boom that is muddying Qatar’s National Vision 2030. The trade union Building and Wood Workers International reports that 426 Indian and Nepali construction workers died in Qatar in 2013, as the country pursues rapid infrastructure development and architectural excellence on the backs of a labour force that is unrepresented, unprotected and fundamentally unfree.

‘The distance between sleek design and sweated labour marks very starkly the limits of architectural influence’

The symbolic centrepiece of the Qatari plan is the staging of the World Cup in 2022, although − à la Brazil − a tilt for the 2024 Olympics is also in the pipeline. Zaha Hadid raised eyebrows recently when questioned about the migrant worker death toll in Qatar, given her practice is designing the main stadium for the 2022 event. ‘I have nothing to do with the workers’, Hadid was quoted as saying. ‘It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.’ The distance between sleek design and sweated labour marks very starkly the limits of architectural influence. ‘I cannot do anything about it’, Hadid continued, ‘because I have no power to do anything about it.’ She is right, of course. But if it’s true that architects can’t do anything about debt bondage and dead workers, then isn’t the only power they have that of a more decided doing nothing in labour contexts such as these? What exactly is the ‘duty’ of an architect in this (or any other) setting to the people who get their buildings built?

In an interview with Arabic newspaper Arshaq Al-Awsat in February, Hadid expounded on the fact that: ‘The period we live in now is dealing with a group of serious social complications. These complications, in light of the dynamics of contemporary life, cannot be addressed through traditional construction using networks or architectural blocs inherited from the 20th century.’ It would seem wrong to describe the ‘networks’ behind Qatar’s big build as very 20th-century, except that indentured labour has never disappeared from the modern economy. Slavery is an enduring ‘dynamic of contemporary life’: the International Labour Organization estimates that more than 20 million workers globally are in forced labour, with construction a particularly blighted sector and migrant workers among the most vulnerable groups. If architects do feel called upon to respond to the complicated nature of contemporary life, doesn’t this include labour ‘dynamics’ as much as the complexities of changing use or the uncertainties of demography? Buildings are workplaces before they ever become apartments, art museums, shopping centres, concert halls or sports stadiums.

‘Why are the human technics of the construction process not registering at all alongside a more cultivated concern for materials and building technologies.’

The Qatari stadium schemes lead on design innovation and environmental technologies − not least in seeking solutions to the challenge of staging sporting events in temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius. Environmental correctness is one area in which autocrats and architects find common cause. The despot can do environmental good without regard for social abuses or economic blow-outs, while the designer can exercise some of their limited power in this domain. In contrast, architects are not expert in labour relations (although some are pretty good at exploitation). Still, it’s not clear why the human technics of the construction process should not register at all alongside a more cultivated concern for materials and building technologies.

Whatever the creative risks taken, designing buildings is generally not very dangerous, but building them can be extremely so. This is true not only in the Gulf. In Britain, the construction sector accounts for only 5 per cent of all workers, but over a quarter of all workplace deaths. Building sites are also the deadliest workplaces in the United States, accounting for around 20 per cent of all employee deaths. When the dangers of this kind of work anywhere are compounded by super-exploitation and total lack of representation, there may be some wider duty to ‘look at it’. In the end, after all, architects are not the ones who actually make buildings.

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