The architect and the construction worker

In Pradip Krishen’s film, In Which Annie Gives It These Ones, a comedy about the life of an architecture student, Radha, played by Arundhati Roy, is a rebellious design student in her twenties. Bent over a drawing board, a cigarette in her mouth, Radha is writing her final dissertation on the disparity between the lives of architects and those of construction workers. “This year’s bleeding heart thesis!” notes Bilimoria, the teacher. “Do you really think the jury is interested in this spiel? We all feel that guilt, but it’s outside of your professional drawing skills, don’t confuse the two… the jury wants results, plans, sections, elevations! He insists.

Last week, The Indian Express published an investigation report into the deaths of construction workers in FIFA-related projects in Doha. In another report by The Guardian, published in 2014, Zaha Hadid, the architect of one of the projects – the Al Janoub football stadium – was asked about the deaths of construction workers. Hadid responded by saying that while she is concerned about these deaths, just as she is concerned about this issue around the world, her company has “nothing to do with the workers”, and that it is a matter that the Qatari government should take care of. .

Hadid wasn’t legally wrong about that. Site safety and construction worker welfare issues are not covered by the architect contract (or training). She was right to say that the safety and well-being of workers was outside her scope. But she was dishonest to imply that she has no power to do anything about it.

While architects have less agency in the construction ecosystem than large construction companies, developers, and government, they have significantly more agency and influence than socioeconomically disabled workers and activists. citizens. Architects and their clients are the two most powerful non-governmental entities in the construction industry and as influential actors, for architects to shift responsibility for worker safety to each other is a disgrace and calls for introspection.

There has been some discourse on the role of ethics in the practice of architecture. In his essays and lectures, bangaloreArchitect Prem Chandavarkar has advocated for changes in architectural education to include exploration of ethics and morality in practice. Bombay-based architect Brinda Somaya is ensuring that the construction of temporary nurseries and schools on site for the children of construction workers is included in his plans. But these practices are a tiny minority.

The hegemonic thought in the practice of architecture is that professionalism is cold and rational, and that professional practice is divorced from social concerns such as workers’ rights. “Don’t confuse the two,” as the professor tells Radha.

It’s not true. A profession creates its own values ​​that follow the broader moral zeitgeist of society. Architects are not the only professionals who have undergone ethical review. Fashion designers were questioned about their involvement in sweatshop clothing exploitation. While most luxury brands have maintained the status quo, for many designers sourcing their products through ethical channels is a matter of market value. We have seen similar discourse in the food retail industry and similar scrutiny in the practice of medicine.

The values ​​of professionalism can be progressively created through discourse in the realms of practice and education. Somaya’s practice proves that influential architects are indeed capable of effecting change in areas that could legally be outside their scope of work – the welfare of construction workers’ children, in her case. Senior architects and large companies dominate builders and the construction industry. They must lead change and set standards for others to follow.

Second, a discussion around these values ​​must be generated in academic spaces. Student work in design schools is (rightly) very exploratory, bordering on fantasy at times. Construction workers’ rights are even closer to the reality of architectural practice than growing mangroves on construction terraces or designing a colony on Mars, and design school educators must encourage students to explore questions of social ethics. Although one occasionally encounters the project of “deployable housing for construction workers”, the exercise is still more rooted in design than in practice.

Students rarely explore issues such as promoting workers’ rights in industry through their clients and contractors. The scope of work is always viewed through the lens of limiting contractual liabilities, and although architects can design an effective structure that provides accommodation for workers, what is most important is not the design of those accommodations but the criticism of the fundamental structure of the ecosystem. Conferences and seminars, which also allow exploration and are relatively isolated from the economic pressures of the construction industry, are also spaces which must question the role of architects in the question of the rights of construction workers.

Some Indian governments have also taken steps to make life a bit easier for construction workers. In August, the delhi the government has launched mobile nurseries and “Doctor on Wheels” to provide nurseries, regular health checks and first aid to construction workers. He has also taken significant steps to reorganize the deteriorating Delhi Building Council. Some construction companies in Karnataka and Maharashtra have also collaborated with NGOs such as Mobile Creches. Why should architects be spectators?

In denying his responsibility for the welfare of the construction workers, Hadid followed Bilimoria’s advice to Radha in which Annie gives him those. She separated her sympathy for construction workers from her role as a designer. Her firm carried out the project, while in the film, Radha was threatened with failure by the jury. It boils down to what we consider virtues and vices. All virtues are created over time. If a certain virtue does not exist in practice at the moment, architects can create it. There is no reason to maintain the status quo.

The author is an independent scholar and researcher in architecture and city studies

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