Architects and Autocrats

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I was interested to see that the New York Times on Sunday ran a feature about prominent architects flocking to work for not-quite-democratic states, meaning China, Russia, the various emirates, etc. My own, somewhat more polemical take on that question appeared a few weeks ago in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy. On their website you can only read the first part of that piece before they hit you for an archive fee. (Hey, you could always become a subscriber. I’ve been one for years.) But let me box out a couple of pertinent paragraphs here.

It’s no mystery why architects find themselves in an equivocal relation with power. They can’t work without it. Every big building, whether it’s in Manhattan, Singapore or Dubai, is a triumph of the will, usually the client’s — whether that client is a developer, a museum director, or an authoritarian government. What architects prefer are fearless clients, the kind who commit serious money and laugh in the face of local opposition. How tempting it is, then, to build in places where where some emir or Vladimir can call the shots with impunity, where cash is plentiful, ambitions boundless, and the local opposition more preoccupied with police surveillance or being thrown in jail.

I appreciate that power can be exercised unscrupulously in Western democracies, and that projects can be forced through. Democracy doesn’t banish the will-to-power. It tries to contain it within a framework of competing interests. In genuine democracies there’s still such a thing as community input, environmental review, property rights, zoning and historic designation. Sometimes all of those things are no match for a determined developer or government agency. And sometimes they are. In the early 1960s, Robert Moses, the most powerful city planner in American history, was prevented from running a highway through lower Manhattan by little bitty Jane Jacobs and the people who agreed with her. (And for the record, sometimes the developers are right and the community groups are wrong.)

The standard defense by architects for working with iffy governments is that progressive architectural ideas will help to open up those nations politically. I always think this gives a bit too much credit to the morally beneficial effects of architecture, even good architecture. High Modernism never did quite usher in Utopia, for all the expectations of the early Modernists. In that connection, one last bit from the Foreign Policy piece.

The overarching defense for good architects working with bad leaders is that they bring enlightened ideas to places that need them….But here’s the catch. That position takes as a given the optimistic Western assumption that authoritarian regimes will “evolve” into something more like democracies. But if anything, Russia under Vladimir Putin began evolving in the opposite direction. That may change under [new Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, or it may not. The Chinese authorities probably think they have arrived already at a new model for society, one that mixes a quasi-free market economy with limited freedoms. And it’s a model they are happy to propose to the rest of the developing world, impeccably dressed by all the best architects.

I don’t know myself where to draw the line on when and where to work. But I know there needs to be a more serious conversation on that issue than the one we’ve seen in the last few years, when no one offered many questions about any commission, no matter where it came from. That really struck me when Zaha Hadid, an architect I admire — so are a lot of the architects who are taking these jobs — agreed to design a cultural center in Azerbaijan. For good measure it will be named after the former dictator Heydar Aliyev, whose son Ilham has since taken his place. At a public ceremony last year she even laid flowers at Aliyev’s grave.

Very possibly she was pushed into the graveside ritual as part of the price of getting that commission. All the same, when I first heard about Zaha’s adventures in Azerbaijan I couldn’t help but think of that line by Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. He’s confronting Sir Richard Rich, a witness against him at trial who is lying on the stand because he’s been bribed with the office of Attorney General for Wales. And More says:

“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world….but for Wales?”

For Azerbaijan?

Robin Pogrebin’s Sunday Times piece is here.

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