Who builds your architecture? “Not architects,” said Reinhold Martin. “By definition, architects do not build; they make drawings, write contracts, and do all these other things.” At New School’s Vera List Center on May 3, a roundtable facilitated debate and speculation on the rights of the lesser-discussed “workers” that make architecture happen.
Organized by Kadambari Baxi, Mabel Wilson, and Beth Stryker, in collaboration with The New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics, the discussion focused on Dubai and the Middle East, but the implications of these issues are felt world-wide. Reports of widespread worker abuse in global projects in developing countries are common now, and the panel sought to shed light on these sometimes horrific problems. Reinhold Martin, author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space, moderated the panel consisting of sociologist Andrew Ross, architects Peggy Deamer and Fred Levrat as well as Human Rights Watch senior researcher on the Middle East Bill Van Esveld.
The problem is that the high cost of architecture is often offset by the low cost of labor. Big name architects often continue practicing despite the possibility of potential human rights abuses. Nicolai Ouroussoff said that Steven Holl Architects’ Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China “demonstrates what can happen when talented architects are allowed to practice their craft uninhibited by creative restrictions (or, to be fair, by the high labor costs of most developed societies).” There are reports that workers immigrate from one country to another, are misled into jobs that they did not sign up for—jobs that pay much less than they were told—and they sign contracts that make them essentially indentured servants, as they cannot quit due to immigration and labor laws. What are the responsibilities of the architect in this scenario?
Deamer feels that the problem is two-fold. It is a problem of the owners, not the architects. The owner has the power to change how things are done. What architects can do is think of everyone as a designer, from the fabricator to the bricklayer. Then, architects start to see themselves as workers, not as annointed ones. Everyone is equal. Ross agreed. “The creative profession has been degraded…we are no longer in control,” he said. His work with the Gulf Labor Coalition has been to pressure NYU, the Guggenheim, and the Abu Dhabi Government into fair labor practices at sites in the Middle East. He said that often architects do not respond to his pleas to cooperate with human rights groups and unions. These are often difficult situations, with clients’ interests and authoritarian states making the contracts, making activism more complicated.
Schools are implicated, too. Often schools teach students how to subvert union labor, or at least they teach that architects cannot have a say in this debate. Does “Who builds?” come down to criticism? By using the word “starchitect,” a term Martin prefers not to use, critics are not only elevating them above the realm of “service” or labor, into “anointed ones,” using Deamer’s term. These architects often cannot even pay their own employees a fair wage, so how would we expect them to care about workers half-way around the world?
The panel raised many initial questions, while searching for answers. Will solutions come from architects, or are they impotent to change anything, given their role within the forces of capital? Will change come from an engaging conversation aimed at clients? Or will this be a student-led movement? From the tenor of the discussion, what is important is that we are finally talking about these issues, and that these abuses are being brought to light.