Architects, stay away from politics

There has been a long-lasting debate on whether or not architects should design buildings in countries with repressive leaders or shaky records on human rights. Countries such as China, Iran, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are always the center of the debate. I should say, architects, mind your own business, and stay away from politics.

When Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-born architect of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, says “I won’t work for totalitarian regimes,” he is not only stating his personal value judgment, but also persuading his fellow architects to take a more ethical stance. The same as Libeskind, Ian Buruma, also recognizing China with authoritarian one-party government, shakes his head towards architects who wish to have their dream realized on this land of appalling human rights records.

Buruma didn’t go into extreme. As he wrote on The Guardian in July 2002, basically his argument goes like this: western architects should not work for projects like CCTV in China, because it is a piece of Chinese propaganda, which is evil. If you go, you are helping promoting the authoritarian governance, and that makes you morally wrong.
Let’s take a closer look at CCTV building in Beijing, China.

CCTV stands for China Central Television. It is the major state television broadcaster in mainland China. CCTV has a network of 19 channels broadcasting different programs and is accessible to more than one billion viewers. It falls under the supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television which is in turn subordinate to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.

True, it is official, and it is funded by the government. Its building, therefore, is a public building.

But when an architect designs for the CCTV building, whom does he or she work for? The CCTV team? The Chinese government? The Communist Party? The one billion CCTV viewers? Or the tax payers from China?

For Buruma, the answer is obviously the Party, or at least the government. For me, the answer is the people: the tax payers, the ordinary Beijing citizens, the thousands of tourists coming and leaving Beijing, many of them watch CCTV, and some don’t.

One building cannot stand alone from all other buildings in the city. When Buruma is bothered by the fact that western architects go for CCTV building, he was not sure about the true enemy, and he makes architects part of the politics.

“Instead of free speech and democracy, there is propaganda. That is what CCTV is for. And that is what our architects are helping to maintain. It is not a noble enterprise,” said Buruma.
He missed one important fact that everything is changing.

Buildings, unlike fast moving consumer products, always exist for generations. This character distinguishes architecture from many other businesses.

Architecture is not born with value, and it is inappropriate to put it into political conflicts. Buildings serve as a space, and how you use the building is another story. It can be CCTV building for propaganda today, and can be a sphere for public meetings tomorrow.
So architects do not only design for CCTV building. They design for the city, for the people, and for the future that hardly anyone can predict what the world would be like. Therefore, decision making in this industry requires great long-term vision.

If Buruma is right, and we block western architects from working for government-funded projects in China, it would be the victory of “free speech and democracy” for today, but its failure for tomorrow.

And there is actually no noble enterprise at all.

Buruma is saying that NOT all business in China is evil, university campus would be ok, but CCTV is not acceptable since it is the voice of the Party.

But even the universities in China are controlled by the state. I don’t clearly see Buruma’s boarder line.

It will make more sense to ask where the funding comes from, and what do the tax payers want, instead of mixing the Party and the government, and further, the evil power of socialism.
So the core question goes back to who is exactly the client of the architects, and what kind of role the architects are playing.

Architects are artists, and businessman. As artists, aesthetics serves as the highest principle. Buruma is true in pointing out that strong regime offers authority and money that lures architects. But as a businessman, there is nothing wrong with going after money and accomplishment.

“Architects with a utopian bent, who dream of transforming not just skylines but the way we live, are natural suckers for totalitarianism,” said Buruma. However, it will be more like a utopia if one only lives in one democratic island and design for the civilized people.

It is an age of globalization. Buruma is trying to build the wall between spheres with different ideology, while I insist that the world is flat. As a global citizen, it is part of the younger Chinese’s rights to experience the architecture from other cultures.

Buruma holds human right as universal value, but he failed to recognize that if such value is powerless to root in the remote land that is not familiar with it at all, its universalism becomes fake.

For the sake of art and the future generation, save architecture from politics and ideology please.

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