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Should RIAS forbid China deals?

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4 Jun 2008

Whaur’s your moral compass noo? Suddenly everyone's talking about working abroad and professional ethics. If it’s really unethical for architects to design for China then the RIBA/RIAS should have a policy that forbids it

YOU either have it or you don’t. Work in China that is, and depending upon which side of that line an architect stands appears also to be the basis on which their ethical positions are predicated. For Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, architects of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, the issue is straightforward: “literally everyone in the western world trades with China... so why should an architect not?” Moreover, the duo believes that “doing the stadium and the process of opening will change radically, transform, the society. Engagement is the best way of moving in the right direction.” Similar sentiments have been publicly expressed by Peter Morrison, chief executive of RMJM, the practice responsible for the Beijing Olympic Green Convention Centre – “we are committed to providing the best buildings for the people of China, whether a university building, offices or homes. We don’t think that a population should be deprived of world class facilities because of the problems the country has faced historically.”

The subject of work in China has of course become an issue because of the very public withdrawal of Steven Spielberg from his role as artistic director to the Olympics because of that country’s inaction over Darfur. While questions might be asked as to why he took the job in the first place, given China’s human rights record in places like Tibet, not to mention the massacre of several hundred of its own people in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the fact remains that his resignation has been a huge international embarrassment to the country’s regime. And from world architecture’s premier league, Daniel Libeskind has raised his head above the parapet to declare that he won’t work for totalitarian regimes and to emphasise his belief that the profession should take a more ethical stance on issues of human rights.

The problem for the profession of course (and made fulsomely clear in ‘the Ethical Architect’ by Tom Spector) is that the revolutionary ideal of solving societal problems through design – so vehemently proclaimed by modernism’s proponents in the heroic age of the 1930’s – was exposed by the 60s critiques of Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi as being entirely hollow. The consequent collapse of architecture’s moral mission led the profession into a state of ethical disarray from which it has never really found a respectable way forward. This moral confusion is perhaps best exemplified by Will Alsop, who has suggested that British architects working in China “can democratize the nation”, and that by staying away, “countries are condemned to terrible architects and nothing moves on.” One thinks immediately of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania when reading this statement, but the problem of working for totalitarian regimes is precisely that they are totalitarian and, however ‘good’ the architecture on offer, history indicates that it, and its authors, will ultimately be damned by association.

In the end, the Beijing Olympics all too vividly illustrate the urgent need for professional institutions - if they are to have a useful continuing role in the 21st century and the respect of the societies within which they operate - to confront the issue seriously and once again establish an ethical code for their members to conform to. Ignoring the issue is not an option since, by leaving it to individual choice, the whole profession is inevitably diminished by the naïve or, sadly, venal actions of others. The result may well be that, to remain relevant, professional institutions will be forced to divide into two, with one side taking its lead from an Amnesty International-type position on human rights and another whose moral compass is guided by the twin lodestones of optimism and opportunity. There really is no middle ground.

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