Earlier this year, during an urban development forum at a university in Belfast, Ireland, the New York-based architect Daniel Libeskind ruffled feathers when he admonished fellow architects not to accept commissions from China and other so-called repressive regimes. “I think architects should take a more moral stance,” he proclaimed. The Polish-born architect’s speech incited backlash from colleagues and charges of hypocrisy—some pointed to his Hong Kong project, the now-under-construction Creative Media Centre—but his remarks incited a question that can leave some architects feeling squeamish: Is it ethical to accept commissions from authoritarian governments with poor human rights records?
It is a dilemma that more firms are facing as globalization puts foreign markets in reach, and non-democratic Asian and Eastern European countries direct their attention toward large-scale urban development. Beijing is a prime example. The ancient city is booming (“Beijing at Warp Speed”), thanks to ambitious economic development schemes envisioned decades ago. More recently, scores of architects, from Herzog & de Meuron to Rem Koolhaas, have descended upon the ever-sprawling metropolis, which will host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The cost and scope of projects are astronomical. Consider Norman Foster’s $3.5 billion Terminal 3, which at 14 million square feet broke the record for the largest airport in the world.