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What Will It Take for Architects to Stop Working With Autocrats?

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the opening of the new Mariinsky II theatre in St. Petersburg, in 2013. Photo: Anatoly Maltsev/AFP via Getty Images

In 2013, I attended the gala opening of the Mariinsky Opera’s new home in St. Petersburg, designed by the Canadian architecture firm Diamond Schmitt. When the lights went down, the company’s music director, Valery Gergiev, the emperor of Russia’s musical world, remained backstage. The orchestra stayed silent; the curtain didn’t rise. Instead, Vladimir Putin strode onto the lip of the stage alone, followed by a spotlight, and orated for 20 minutes about the glories of Russian opera, Russian culture, and the Russian nation. The music world was watching, and he wanted it to know that this was his baby. The government had covered every dime of the building’s $700 million budget.

Those were more innocent times. Russia had not yet invaded Crimea or shelled Kyiv. True, some Russian journalists critical of Putin had been murdered, Russian assassins had poisoned a Putin critic in London with a radioactive tea, Russian firepower had obliterated the city of Grozny, and Russian politicians were crafting a “gay propaganda law” that Putin would sign a few weeks later. But the world was willing to overlook those glitches in human decency if there was work to be done and money to be made. Architects entered sexy competitions, like the one sponsored by the state-controlled energy company Gazprom. Some critics took potshots at Diamond Schmitt — the firm that is also designing a rebuilt Geffen Hall — but mostly on aesthetic, not ethical, grounds. Gergiev made the usual case that politics and opera belonged to separate spheres, a position undercut by the president’s presence on the Mariinsky stage. But then the curtain of pretense descended again, and working for the Putin regime was almost universally considered just fine.

In recent weeks, a slew of Western architects, along with the Metropolitan Opera and many American businesses, abruptly cut ties with Russian partners for a combination of reasons: humanitarian outrage, brand protection, compliance with sanctions, and the sudden impossibility of getting paid in rubles. But beyond the immediate horrors of the war in Ukraine, the cloud of anathema that has descended on Moscow brings up a larger question: When is it acceptable to do good work for bad people?

That issue dogs all business and cultural ventures, but it especially bedevils architects who chose their careers in the hope of bettering the world through design. That goal sustains them through the years of sweating over duct placement and hinge selection, and it’s not mere fantasy. Many designers improve lives by building high-quality low-cost housing, lowering environmental impacts, or providing the blueprints for critical civic infrastructure: libraries, hospitals, and public space. A thread of moral ambition runs through the profession.

But noble purpose slams against a service industry’s realities. Erecting just about any building larger than a barn is a mammoth enterprise, requiring capital, approvals, foresight, and the ability to defeat opposition. Architects work for the rich and powerful and always have — a relationship that has given us the Taj Mahal, the Chrysler Building, and the great cathedrals. Without the patronage of potentates, we’d all be living in mud-and-wattle huts. That historical truism leads to impossible dilemmas, which often get resolved through some mixture of expediency, principle, hypocrisy, rationalization, and extremely fine distinctions. Daniel Libeskind spoke regularly about his refusal to work in China — until he did. Frank Gehry has never accepted a commission in Saudi Arabia, but the main reason he invokes is that he found potential clients there “somewhat insulting.” Many architects agonize over working for questionable clients, and some quietly walk away, but few are willing to make it a matter of unshakable principle. Instead, they have developed a whole catalogue of rationalizations.

The Everyone’s-Okay-With-It Argument. A decade ago, Diller Scofidio + Renfro entered a competition to design Zaryadye Park in Moscow, a public commission within shouting distance of the Kremlin. “The city architect, Sergey Kuznetsov, was really smart, very progressive, and really bent on engaging international architects in discussion,” recalls Elizabeth Diller, the firm’s co-founder. She was soothed by the makeup of the jury, a mixture of Russian officials and foreign luminaries (including the scholar of global cities Saskia Sassen). That panel acted as a seal of approval from the profession as a whole, a sign that the competition would be rigorous and aboveboard. It also reflected a reassuring consensus: None of Diller’s peers would chastise her for taking a Russian job; steering clear on principle would seem sanctimonious and weird.

Zaryadye Park by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Photo: Max4e Photo/Shutterstock

The Trojan Horse Argument. To Diller, the opportunity to design a public park virtually next door to Putin’s stronghold was a chance to smuggle some enlightened liberal thinking into the heart of an illiberal regime. “Cities are so much more progressive than countries,” she says, invoking the global network of mayors who often meet to consider urban issues that transcend national borders. She was delighted when the finished park acquired a reputation for outdoor trysts and government officials fulminated with predictable prudery. “People were unintimidated and liberated there,” she said.

For years, I’ve been assured that Western architecture acts as a delivery mechanism for Western values like freedom, capitalism, and democracy, and that the most idealistic thing a firm can do is support enlightened clients with loud voices and disruptive intentions. Architects can address social problems, they say, but only if they go to where those problems are most urgent. “We need to fight climate change, which means working in China,” says the head of a European firm who considers the topic so inflammatory that he didn’t want to be mentioned by name. “They need to put 400 million people into flats, and we have to participate in that. If we retreat to social democratic nations, we’ll just be working in places that are already done.” That position seems plausible yet also perpetually hopeful: Western architects who have helped China evolve into a nation of vibrant, cosmopolitan cities should acknowledge the part they play in shaping an enclave of high-tech repression.

The No-Politics-Here Argument. In the cake-having world of architecture, good design exists in a bubble of neutrality, bringing benefits to people untainted by their leaders’ ideology, cruelty, or cynicism. That is, of course, wishful thinking with state-controlled economies like those of Russia or China, where even nominally independent developers need to remain in the regime’s good graces. A few years after DS + R won the Zaryadye Park competition, Diller was in Moscow supervising the final touches when she got the news that Putin would preside over the ribbon cutting. She quickly got on a plane. “We didn’t want to be within half a mile of him,” she said. “But you can’t prevent a project from being politicized.” Unless, of course, you assume that a large-scale public project in an authoritarian country will be political from the get-go.

The See-No-Evil Argument. Businesses started pulling out of Russia when the government’s nefariousness became impossible to ignore — that is, when denial was no longer an option. Mostly, though, architects cloak themselves in willful naïveté. Thomas Fisher, a professor of urban design at the University of Minnesota and the author of The Architecture of Ethics, says qualms should kick in even when designing, say, stalky condos on 57th Street, the kind that are routinely used to launder stolen gazillions. “What should architects do when they know that their building is going to be half-full of oligarch money?” he asks. “They claim they’re too far removed, that it’s not their role to inquire.” And it’s true: No firm has the investigative skills (or subpoena power) to follow its fees upstream through a tangle of shell companies to an illicit source. Nor can they control who buys the 10,000-square-foot duplex penthouse they’ve obligingly inserted on the pinnacle of a 100-story tower.

But nobody needs conclusive proof to say no, thanks; a couple of obvious clues would do. Architects can no longer afford “the comfort of ignorance,” says Shawhin Roudbari, a professor of environmental design at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a member of the group Dissent by Design. “As a profession, we need to educate ourselves more about the politics of the built environment; we need to understand how power works, how influence and finance work.”

Dominion Office by Zaha Hadid Architects, in Moscow, completed in 2015 Photo: Hufton+Crow/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty

The That’s-Business Argument. Many large, international firms actually have a pretty good grasp of power and finance, and it has taught them not to be too squeamish. They have employees to sustain, bills to pay, enterprises to grow, and designs to execute. Deyan Sudjic put it starkly in his 2005 book, The Edifice Complex: “The totalitarians and the egotists and the monomaniacs offer architects, whatever their personal political views, more opportunities for ‘important’ work than the liberal democracies.” Autocrats have the ability to get things done unilaterally, without irritants like community input or consensus. Beyond that, their fondness for big gestures, symbolic designs, and transformational projects aligns with the grandest architectural ambitions. It takes a special sort of self-abnegation for architects to relinquish those chances out of concern for worker safety, genocidal policies, or the crushing of dissent.

All these debates come down to the question of how much influence — and responsibility — design professionals can command. Does it even matter what they choose? Two seemingly opposing beliefs permeate the profession, and many creative spirits manage to hold them both at the same time: Architects have no power, except to design a better version of what someone else will do worse. Or: Architects have the power to change the world through the sheer force of their creativity.

The way to reconcile those positions is to distinguish between individual practitioners and the profession as a whole. The fierce competition for juicy jobs places each separate firm in the position of supplicant, service provider, and client pleaser. Together, though, they can forge new rules, as they have started to do around climate change.

In recent years, the design and construction industries have begun to see carbon emissions as a necessary evil that must be honestly quantified, minimized, and paid for. Governments have enacted laws, new technologies have emerged, clients have paid premiums, developers have pursued LEED certifications, and practices have changed. Or to put it another way, the negative externalities of pollution are finally starting to get folded into the costs of construction.

Ethical pollution is harder to put a number on, but it too has hidden costs, as everyone who has ever propped up Putin has recently been forced to realize. Working together, architects could map the ethical morass they operate in and bring rigor to their moral calculus. For now, that effort is confined to the purist end of the spectrum, where activist groups have coalesced around an explicitly progressive agenda: Capitalism is tainted and irredeemable, prisons are a form of enslavement, urban planning must gestate in communities rather than be dictated by developers and politicians. The group Design for the Just City is developing an “index of value-driven design” with rubrics like “Acceptance,” “Fairness,” “Identity,” and “Welfare.” The Architecture Lobby, a collective that focuses on exploitative labor practices, racism, and inclusivity, advocates boycotting only one oppressive state: Israel. The American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects publish ethical guidelines, but the rules tend to govern day-to-day business practices: Don’t cheat employees, don’t defraud clients, don’t be cavalier about safety. Those bodies could ask their members to confront just how much cruelty, theft, and repression they are willing to abet.

“Be honest about your level of cynicism,” advises Mark Kingwell, a philosopher at the University of Toronto and the author of the recent book The Ethics of Architecture. “Start by finding your place in the range between I’ll build anything anywhere for the right amount of money and I’ll just put myself out of business because I won’t build anything for anyone.”
Few architects can be saintly and solvent at the same time; being in business requires some measure of complicity. Still, a thorough moral audit, as conscience bruising as it is to contemplate, would reveal the extent to which seemingly disparate issues are linked. “The networks of responsibility that we call ethics are not separable from each other,” Kingwell says. Who pays for what and why should be an ongoing source of internal debate. “People think that by focusing on narrow things like halting a project in Russia, they’re done. But that’s not enough. Ethical work never stops.”

When Will Architects Stop Working With Autocrats?