By Zach Mortice
In Rem Koolhaas’s 2003 book-magazine-monograph hybrid Content, the OMA founder wrote that the choice his firm faced between being invited to design the new WTC site and a new headquarters for the Chinese state-run television station was decided by desert. After eating Chinese food, a fortune cookie explained, “Stunningly Omnipotent Masters make minced meat of memory.”
Done. No WTC plan. And OMA would go on to win the competition for CCTV.
So, OMA’s daredevil of a design will be a building that, from a liberal democracy standpoint, fundamentally subverts its program: a TV news station where the news is edited by the government.
Certainly, architects have served such “omnipotent masters” before, and a spate of growth in oil-rich fiefdoms of UAE are again showing what one can accomplish without cumbersome citizen review boards and democratic transparency. Koolhaas certainly isn’t alone in this.
Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, wants to build cultural center in Azerbaijan, dedicated and named after now-deceased president Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-style dictator that ruled the nation for 30 years through limiting press freedom and harassing and brutalizing dissidents. In 2003, Aliyev installed his son Ilham, who is commissioning the cultural center, as president of Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch immediately reported that little had changed.
Buildng Design tells us that Daniel Libeskind, AIA, says he won't work for totalitarian regimes. "It bothers me when an architect has carte blanche with a site," he said during a speech in Belfast. "We don’t know if is there a public process — who owns this place, this home, this land?”
Koolhaas’s looping, cantilevered design (now under construction) will house a client with a long history of killing stories and repressing information deemed unfavorable to the Communist Party. When President Bush visited Kyoto, Japan in 2005 and chided the Chinese government about their lack of religious and political freedom, you didn’t hear about it on CCTV.
True, CCTV (or any Chinese media outlet) is not monolithic in its support of anti-democratic press practices. It’s sometimes pit against government officials (and the “Propaganda Department” to which it reports) to defend its own interests. And Heydar is considered a national hero by some that helped to stabilize Azerbaijan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, though some critics have argues that this type of development would only increase his cult of personality. But the question remains: What is the architect’s moral directive when building for a client that does not share your fundamental values on human rights?
It’s easy to make the case that these buildings will give their governments another tool of oppression and that makes the architect morally culpable, an enabler of an “Omnipotent Master.” But to indict an architect on these grounds requires a level of cultural imperialism that architecture has always been vulnerable to due to its sheer ubiquity. If Koolhaas and Hadid took the presumed high road and refused these commissions, wouldn’t they be imposing their own Western-style, liberal democracy values on parts of the world with vastly different cultures and traditions? Who are they to use their status as a designer to moralize about the role of the press and the legacy of a dead leader, respectively?
Of course, by designing these projects, they appear to be giving their clients tacit approval, and I would suspect that these architects would say that if they don’t build it, someone else will, so it’s up to them to make sure they produce the best design possible.
Is that good enough here? What are your ethical responsibilities when it comes to selecting clients?