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Construction workers balance precariously on steelwork

In 2014 the late architect Zaha Hadid was asked by journalists about working conditions of migrant workers in the multi-billion-dollar construction projects she had designed in Qatar. She replied: “I have nothing to do with the workers…I think that’s an issue the government – if there’s a problem – should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved... I’m not taking it lightly, but I think it's for the government to look to take care of. It's not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

One might agree with Hadid that the professional responsibility of architects is to make sure that the design and construction are sound. This itself is not easy. Architects are called on to mediate between conflicting building regulations, the ambitions and financial capabilities of the client, technical and technological constraints and, only lastly, the architect’s own sensibilities. In these challenging circumstances, delivering quality design is surely the core of the architect’s professional responsibility.

Yet a few architects did feel that their professional responsibility extended beyond their obligations to clients or government. For them, the possibility of justice did not lie in quality design alone, but in breaking rank.

Dr Marco di Nunzio - Associate Professor in Urban Anthropology, University of Birmingham

Addis Ababa has witnessed dramatic transformations since the early 2000s. High-rise buildings, office blocks, and landmark corporate and government headquarters have reconfigured the skyline. Meanwhile, a government housing scheme for poorer urban dwellers, the Integrated Housing Development Programme launched in 2005, has constructed nearly 380,000 homes and built entire new settlements. In this ongoing construction boom, the expertise and credibility of architects is more in demand than even.

Commitment to design

Over a decade, I interviewed many architects who considered a commitment to quality design the core of their professional responsibility, but few were able to practice it. Quality is expensive and reserved individuals and organisations that could afford an iconic building that represented their success and distinctiveness. For most architects in Addis Ababa, their practice was a series of compromises.

Young architects most acutely felt the constraints on their ability to practice quality design. Fresh university graduates faced an even greater struggle, as many worked on specific details in a bigger project and went unrecognised professionally. Some senior architects were also ambivalent about the state of the practice.

Yet, for most architects, their frustrations about architectural design did not extend to how their profession directly or indirectly shaped a geography of exclusion in the city. Architects designed for elite clients who built shopping malls, office blocks and apartment buildings on land that had been cleared of its former residents. Clients drew on architects’ expertise to maximise their profits and minimise construction costs, which impacted on both building quality and working conditions on construction sites. The architects I interviewed felt that addressing such inequalities could not be their responsibility.

Breaking rank

Yet a few architects did feel that their professional responsibility extended beyond their obligations to clients or government. For them, the possibility of justice did not lie in quality design alone, but in breaking rank.

One of them was Samuel. I first met him at a conference in 2016, where he began his presentation by saying “architecture has betrayed and ignored both nature and society. Architecture has lost meaning to me.”

I met him again a couple of weeks later and then whenever I returned to Addis Ababa. “What is my stake? As an architect, what would be my claim?”, Samuel asked both himself and me. “I don’t consider myself someone baptised with architecture”, he continued. “I am primarily a human being. And my service as an architect must be to improve the quality of life of human beings. I don’t sacrifice my values for my architecture. Architecture must be sacrificed for my values.”

Responsibility, for Samuel was about answering the question of what urban development is for and for whom.

Cities could be otherwise

Making the argument that it is not an architect’s job to deal with the social inequalities of city building reveals that a moral and ethical professional focus on quality design is not a guarantee of justice. As philosopher Iris Young wrote: “it is very possible to act in accord with rules of morality and yet not have discharged one’s responsibilities.” One might act morally, lawfully, and ethically, while still contributing to the persistence of inequality and marginality.

Instead, the possibility of justice is dependent on professionals taking direct responsibility for challenging the established ways of doing that facilitate the reproduction of oppression and exclusion in cities.

Efforts to imagine alternative ways of building cities must be witnessed, not exclusively for what they achieve, but for being attempted at all. Even when they fail, they stand as permanent provocations: they are reminders that our cities could indeed be otherwise.