Zaha Hadid Architects laid off more than 90 employees because of “unforeseen events in North Africa.” More..." /> Zaha Hadid Architects laid off more than 90 employees because of “unforeseen events in North Africa.” More..." />

Michael Murphy | Opinions

The Poverty of Starchitecture

Zaha Hadid Architects, design for People's Conference Hall, Tripoli.

On March 25th, Zaha Hadid Architects made a quarter of its staff redundant, laying off more than 90 employees because of “unforeseen events in North Africa.” The reason was the democratic uprising in the Middle East, and specifically Libya, where Hadid’s new conference center outside of Tripoli had been “put on hold” while the beleaguered dictatorship’s post-meltdown kleptocracy returned its financial priorities to maintaining its grip on power.

But was this really a shift in Libya’s priorities, or rather the lifting of a veil that hid the various tools Qaddafi has employed to maintain such power for 41 years? One tool has clearly been the use of capital “A” architecture to project an image of cultural development.

Following the restoration of trade relations between the U.S. and Libya in 2006, Qaddafi has been busy leveraging his country’s emerging markets for direct, personal gain. He placed pressure on global oil companies to pay more than a billion dollars in fines emanating from the downing of Pan AM Flight 103 and other state-supported acts of terrorism. He regularly imposes — and pockets — fees from corporations seeking to gain access to these markets.

Meanwhile, Qaddafi has invested in branding to create the image of a “developed” country safe for investment. Green technology projects, as well as massive cultural centers for the “new Libya,” reflect a global trend to hire internationally recognized architects to transmit messages of progress through their works, effectively acting as cultural ambassadors.

Zaha Hadid’s architectural language is famously extravagant. When the discussion is complimentary, the word “iconic” is almost certain to pop up. Critics are more likely to describe her as excessive.

But the important question is not whether Hadid’s work looks like a squid or an octopus (as the city council of Elk Grove, California, recently debated about her new masterplan for that locale). It is whom architects are really serving — a community of residents, visitors and workers, or a community of investors — and why dictator states are the ones sponsoring so many of these projects?

Is the demand for architectural service so limited that we follow the money no matter whom it comes from? What role do architects have in changing this quid pro quo? In laying off a quarter of her staff after losing the Libyan project, Hadid seems to be saying, “Not much.” As an image-maker, she is also signaling, “Who cares?” A recent ruling by the Royal Institute of British Architects requiring all firms to pay their interns starting July 1 underscores a long history of heedlessness and apathy in the U.K. where Hadid’s office is. If architects must rely on dictators and free interns to stay afloat, they are practicing a failed business model.

The projects that get graced by capital “A” architects are intertwined with the capital required to build them. What is purchased is the commodity of cultural acumen, and not every client who can afford it has achieved his wealth through altruistic means. Capital “A” architecture should refer not to the avant garde — as it has — but to the financial status required to purchase it. What we as designers have been hoodwinked to believe is that the artistry of architecture is a universal humanist asset. What Hadid in Libya reveals is that it can just as simply be a tool.

Posted in: Architecture

Comments [13]

It's not just architects who perform for dictators.
George Calys

So, if celebrities work for dictators, then, architects can too? Because, you know, everybody's doing it.

OMA's Reinier de Graaf touched on this in his Picnic talk, called Paradigm Shift. If growth is headed to Brazil, India and China. Even Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Then what's an architect from the "democratic" West to do? Follow the money?
C. Tate

as if capitalism does not ring a bell at all? Money makes sense in the new political world order so if the infamous Enron corporation was allowed to relocate in Abu Dhabi, then surely everything else is possible.
The writer made a clear point that Architecture should not be as extravagant nor should architects like Zaha Hadid should never thrive through the assets of a dictator. If the US has accepted Qaddafi's bribery to turn the page and start a clean slate politically speaking. (Let us not forget that the US have tried to Bomb Qaddafi in April 1986 ). There are no saints in politics.
I am not at all defending a dictator nor am I acquitting the US bombing, Qaddafi or the US fatal Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which I am sure was not meant to bring peace and tranquility to the people killed.
Architecture is a tool to build up what dictators and war mongers do so well destroy the essence of life.
I have nothing else to add but I think everyone is ready to believe what they see as facts the reality is perception is partly deception and partly political maneuvering.

Joe Harb

Architects and dictators pass away, architecture lives. The Roman circus in Aquincum (Budapest), was first turned into a Roman fortress, then the Huns who came, arranged a stable there. Today it is a lawn where people walk their dogs. Always useful. I hope, the people of Libya will find the People's Conference Hall serviceable, one day.

Hopefully the writer is better as a teacher than as a writer or critic...
I rarely saw somebody from Harvard as narrow minded as the writer...if you have something again Zaha, just say it don't try to find stupid argument to put her down...Rem working for dictators in China is Ok, or SOM, or KPF or Foster working for dictators in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, is ok for you, companies laid off 1000 people in US because the meltdown caused by Wallstreet an the Bush administration is ok for you, actualy everything is ok for you, or you are just sleeping and have no idea what is going on in the world...
Or maybe the Chinese and the kings of Saudi Arabia are secretly liberal.....god help your students....

I cannot work out if this a genuine piece of writing or more tongue in cheek about making deals with a devil.
Why should we care if 90 jobs are lost. There have been many more before.
More power to Michael.

Completely agree with Michael - Narrow minded right wing sensationalism.
kevin blackburn

Feeding the architectural ego? Or having a tre impact on the built environment? Kudo to Mr. Murphy for highlighting the hypocracy of our profession, as illustrated by Hadid's lay-offs.
Didn't Albert Speer have the same quandry?

a lot of the major works today seem to be more about the architect than the architecture. a way to draw people in as opposed to creating a good, working city. in a way, no different from mainstream artists who care more about fame and money than making good music.

Why single out Gaddafi when you know all of world heritage can be traced to bigger tyrants. He could even have chosen you if you were half as smart as Zaha.
bibhuti man singh

I think the term "A Architect" might better be applied to those that are aware of the cultural capital being leveraged by their work. To suggest that the Zaha's "formal extravagances" favor dictatorship rather than liberation seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of her work and her long-standing professed agenda. I take greatest issue with the way Murphy glosses over the Architect's capacity to produce the image of progress and development. That capacity, alone, is a rare and noble charge! Perhaps it should not be undervalued? Does Murphy prefer 'mere sheds' to symbolic Architecture's with grand world-changing ambitions?
David T

The real issue is that Zaha & Co., in their desperation to produce built work, conveniently market themselves as apolitical, serving humanity at large, etc. The problem is that when someone pays Zaha to design a building, they usually mount their own name to the facade -- not hers. What "starchitects" repeatedly fail to get is that most people (especially those living under dictatorships which practice censorship) don't know who or what "starchitects" are. Ultimately, a conference center in Tripoli with Qaddafi's name on it is a conference center built by Qaddafi. The more breathtaking, transcendent and grand the building, the more Zaha Hadid promotes a dictator's rule over Libya. It's understandable why architects would want to extricate themselves from the political circumstances surrounding their work, but unless they start putting up the money themselves, that's not their choice to make.
Fabiana Meacham

The digitalization of construction is lowering the costs of producing these iconic designs. You've got these architects like Zaha paving the way for complex architecture that will someday trickle down to the rest of us. Remember when only celebrities and dictators had iPhones?

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