"Announced by the soft chiming of a handbell and the high, keening wail of an unknown visitor, 9,000 bills wafted serenely through the New York Gugenheim’s rotunda on Saturday in a colorful, surprisingly beautiful protest against the deplorable labor rights of workers building the museum’s newest addition on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi."
As children, and later as idealistic architecture students, we learnt about about the slaves who built the pyramids under terrible conditions; & the rampant, unsustainable inequality that enabled the construction of, and was so perfectly symbolised by, the Sun King’s palace at Versailles. Far less did we learn about, and far less do we now talk about, those great buildings now, in our own time, that are built with indentured labour, again in dreadful conditions; and/or sequester material resource in displays of wealth & status.
We gloss over this grim subject, shrug it off as a ‘foreign’ problem, as we rush to praise or critique the buildings themselves. We all know the architects names, and envy them their opportunity; but we know nothing of the workers who built them, the locals displaced, the homeless left unhoused whilst resource is expended in beautiful stadia & galleries accessible only to a global few - we do not know their stories.
Closer to home: at one end of the market, houses so large, so many roomed, we have to invent singular uses for each silk-lined room. At the other end, cramped boxes built out of match-sticks, resentfully compliant with minimum standards. Try critiquing this - you will be told, with a shrug, not to bite the hand that feeds you…
So, is architecture just for the 1%? Or, as professionals bound to a standard of ethical behaviour, is it not our duty to loudly & stridently call out the system that allows, even encourages this poverty of compassion?