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Blueprint for power

The German feuilletons spent the spring debating the relationship between architecture and morality.

After a visit to the Beijing Olympic Stadium by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Guido Mingels, writing for Das Magazin on 25.04.2007, described Bejing as an "Elysium for star architects." De Meuron told an interviewer that it would be stupid and cowardly not to build for China on the grounds that it has no democracy. Albert Speer, the son of Hitler's architect, who has years of experience building for China including the planning for two car cities, Antin near Shanghai and Chanchun, took an apolitical stance in the TV magazine Kulturzeit on 24.05.07: "I think of architects in general and our office is particular as service providers. (...) Ideology shouldn't enter into things." In an interview with die Welt, he was more affirmative: "I have made it my business to make sure the Chinese start thinking about the environment, energy provision and energy saving. I believe that over the next ten years there will be a dramatic rise in the demand for German planning know-how for environmentally friendly and energy-efficient cities, building and transport. If we can have some influence here and put a few of our ideas into play, we won't only be doing good business, we will changing more than we could elsewhere, because the effect is so much greater here."

Jacques Herzog, Ai Weiwei und Pierre de Meuron in front of the Olympic Stadium. Photo from the film "Bird's nest".

In an article in der Spiegel from 21.12.2007, architect Christoph Ingenhoven wrote an article aimed at provoking a "long overdue debate" about what Deyan Sudjic describes as the "close ties between architecture, power, money and politics", which make it difficult for some architects to view their work with the necessary political distance. Ingenhoven said he would never "want to be responsible for the representative buildings of a non-democratic regime", adding that he wouldn't build for Libya, because he couldn't see "why [he] should champion an intolerable regime."

Beijing, Airport Terminal 3, Norman Foster

The feuilletons gladly took up the challenge and on 03.01.2008 Alexander Hosch, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, traced a line (article in English) from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Kohlhaas, who designed the Chinese state television tower CCTV (which is not open to the public). Architects of evil? Hosch asked whether "in democratic times we should not condemn building for dictatorships" but then went on to suggest that in China, Russia or Dubai "each project should be judged individually", thus avoiding a clear position. In an interview published on the same day in the SZ, Wolf Prix, co-founder of the architects office Coop Himmelb(l)au, said he thought it "absurd to reproach Rem Kohlhaas for the CCTV tower" while at the same time claiming: "We don't build in China or Dubai". In an article in the Guardian from 2002, Ian Buruma had criticised Kohlhaas for his symbolic building: "CCTV is the voice of the party, the centre of state propaganda, the organ which tells a billion people what to think. [...] I cannot imagine a Koolhaas, say, or a Perrault wanting to build a television station for Saddam Hussein. What, then, is it about China that makes it OK?"

On 29.01.2008 in der Spiegel, Severin Weiland raised the issue of "the responsibility of the elite", the so-called star architects. Hans Stimmann, who retired in 2006 after 15 years as Berlin's building director, condemned, in an interview, "the architects' stony silence about their buildings in authoritarian states". He confirmed: "No architects question the moral dimensions of their planning. This again highlights the hypocrisy of much of the debate here." In a brief interview with the German Vanity Fair of 19.02.2008, Daniel Libeskind stated: "I do not build for totalitarian rulers. I see architecture as a commitment to democracy and this means ethical responsibility." But Libeskind also builds in Hongkong.

On 04.03.2008 in the SZ, Gerhard Matzig referred to the new governmental quarter in Libya, designed by German architect Leon Wohlhage Wernik, and asked: "If an architect delivers showrooms and architectural elements for political systems, is he not also producing a 'blueprint for power'? And what if the power has no democratic legitimacy?" As in China where Leon Wohlhage Wernik has designed a TV tower in Guangzhou.

Olympic swimming pool in the foreground by PTW Architects, Olympic stadium in the background by Herzog & de Meuron

The protests against the Chinese government's handling of Tibet, which erupted worldwide during the Olympic Torch relay, added fire to the debate. Hanno Rauterberg asked, in die Zeit on 27.03.2008, why people would expect architects to reflect on their business with autocrats. "Probably because a building is more than just a car or an expensive piece of jewellery. Rulers can decorate themselves with all three, they all function as symbols of power, but architecture is the only one which could be credited as having a 'meaning beyond the individual'. It not only provides a state with the necessary rooms and spaces, but also with images and metaphors. It becomes a foundation, a support, a pillar of the system. And this is why an architect should always ask the system question – say advocates of the China boycott."

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung pinpointed on 14.04.2008 a "dilemma for western architects in China" and criticised the silence surrounding "the fact that these architectural hallmarks are only made possible thanks to an army of poorly paid migrant workers who risk their health, working in slave-labour conditions." (See one example captured on video.) The taz reported, on 26.04.2008, about an event at the "Spiegel Forum" in Hamburg where architects Meinhard von Gerkan and Christoph Ingenhoven had a furious argument about building for despots. In his role as "service provider", Albert Speer built the criminal court complex in Riyadh where Sharia law is imposed.

CCTV-Tower (Bild, © OMA)CCTV-Tower (Bild, © OMA)
Rem Kohlhaas, the main point of reference for most articles in the debate, was himself confronted with the question in an interview with die Zeit on 05.06.2008: "Are you in cahoots with a dictatorship?" The Dutch architect was hearing none of this. He found it "rather fatuous that the west is always only critical. The west is critical, nothing but critical. This form of uninterrupted criticism only leads up a blind alley. (...) We simply have to recognise that the right of the individual, which we hold so holy, has no tradition in countries like China." Shortly beforehand, in the SZ on 03.05.2008, Gerhard Matzig described Koolhaas' CCTV as the "highpoint and poster building for the entire discussion about 'architects of evil.''' When questioned about the migrant workers and their working conditions, and the general issue of architecture and responsibility, Kohlhaas explained: "I think we have to be pragmatic."

In Kohlhaas' eyes, the only way to change the world is to build in China. "CCTV is currently discussing whether to divide the state television into a traditional and a modern part, which would be strongly BBC-oriented. And the modern, enlightened TV people would then move into our building. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, as I see it, the building is a symbol of change."

Meinhard von Gerkan, whose Hamburg office gmp is involved in over 50 construction projects in China, explained at the aforementioned discussion panel in Hamburg, that he was "convinced that his buildings and the process of exchange they had initiated could only be conducive to China's democratisation." "Development not boycott" was Jacques Herzog's slogan in the 07.06.2008 interview in the NZZ.

Criminal Court Complex in Riyadh. Photo: Albert Speer und Partner

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei shows how difficult it is to judge even what at first glance might appear to be harmless buildings. He worked for Herzog & de Meuron for many years on the design, planning and construction for the Olympic Stadium. But then a year ago in the Guardian, he explained that he would never consider going to see the building and would not be there at the opening. "The joy of design is already there, the rest is rubbish. I have no interest in associating myself with the Olympics or the state. I hate the kind of feeling stirred up by promotion or propaganda. I instinctively avoid it. (...) I don't like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment."

Matthias Korte

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