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“I was thinking as a specialist and not thinking as a human being…” So said perhaps history’s most infamous architect Albert Speer, when reflecting on his work as the chief architect and minister of munitions in Nazi Germany. By emphasising his dispassionate detachment from the system in which he worked and memorably taking a stand as the “Nazi who said sorry”, Speer was able to avoid the death sentence at the Nuremberg Trials, and then go on to become an important figure in the international interview circuit, helping to rehabilitate Germany’s reputation by framing the crimes committed in Nazi Germany as the sole responsibility of a handful of madmen. 

The tendency to separate design from the system in which it is practised still affects architectural thinking to this day. It can be seen in the contemporary debate around architects working in the Gulf. Here, funnily enough, Albert Speer’s son, Albert Speer Jr. became caught up in controversy concerning the conditions of workers on the Qatar World Cup Stadium projects, which have been built according to a masterplan devised by his firm Albert Speer & Partner, and include designs by Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects and Fenwick Iribarren Architects. Drawing on Speer’s long-standing reputation for pursuing sustainable, human-scale design (in marked contrast to the work of his father), the masterplan was instrumental in Qatar winning its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, despite summer temperatures reaching 50°C, a population too small to support grassroots football, and an already poor record of human rights and international labour law abuses.

This controversy forms the basis of an interview our editor Charlie Clemoes conducted (originally for the eighth episode of the Failed Architecture Podcast) with Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. The interview starts with a brief overview of Qatar’s international reputation and its relationship with neighbouring Gulf countries and goes on to discuss the conditions for workers working in the Gulf and the responsibility architects have for these conditions.

Speer in Qatar: An Interview with Nicholas McGeehan (Human Rights Watch)

Still from the promo video for episode 8 of the Failed Architecture Podcast

Kees de Klein/Charlie Clemoes

Charlie Clemoes: First of all, could you give a quick overview of Qatar’s political economy and generally what Qatar is like as a country, especially in relation to some of its neighbours?

Nick McGeehan: In terms of what Qatar is like as a country: it’s very small, it’s hugely wealthy, and the wealth comes from liquefied natural gas. I think it sits on the world’s biggest reserves of LNG and technology evolved in the last 20 years which allowed that to be effectively and cheaply drilled and exported. So that’s where they make all their money from. The ruling family are like all the rest of the Gulf states drawn from the same family. It’s a very tribal society like the other Gulf states. The area where I guess it differs slightly from the others is it’s always been seen as a bit more tolerant of political Islam, a bit more tolerant of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and it’s always been seen as a little bit more tolerant media-wise. So Al Jazeera, for example, was run by the Qataris. And actually, if you look back to the root of the antipathy, or the aggression from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, United Arab Emirates, it was really as much as it was about the fact that they didn’t like Qatar’s tolerance of Islamist groups. It was also the fact that they had this news network that had a habit of being quite honest, in its reporting, which isn’t the norm in that part of the world. We’re used to newspapers that toe the line and don’t do anything that was seen as remotely transgressive. And al-Jazeera was. And I guess these two things came together al-Jazeera and the tolerance of political Islam just after the Arab Spring when Qatar was quite supportive of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that were emerging in Egypt and elsewhere, and the other Gulf monarchies particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia saw these groups as a real existential threat and that’s where the split arrived and that’s where we are now so Qatar is now holding desperately on to the 2022 World Cup. It’s difficult. The economic blockade has caused them a lot of problems. And they are aggressed by Saudi Arabia, and by the United Arab Emirates who would like to go in and take the place over completely, but in the absence of political support for that from their Western allies they’ve settled for basically trying to make sure that cartel doesn’t host the World Cup, or has it stripped from them.

CC: You brought it up a few times: Qatar’s liberal perception. What’s the reality? Is there any strength to that image?

NM: Yeah, no, I’d say it’s an image it’s been able to project largely through having a tonne of money and being able to attract a tonne of brands who are quite happy to take those petrodollars. I mean, it’s not liberal. Of course, it’s not. It’s fairly repressive. Its human rights record is poor. Whether that’s migrant workers, whether that’s women’s rights, whether that’s LGBT rights. I guess where it differs slightly, it’s been slightly more tolerant of free speech, in the region than in other countries. But again, it’s very relative. When you’re talking about a region where tweets out of turn result in you being whisked off and thrown in jail, that doesn’t happen in Qatar, which is good, but nor does it make it a haven for free speech as some people might like to think it is. So it’s not quite as repressive as the states around it. But it’s certainly no beacon of liberal politics or progressive policies at all.

CC: In light of this superficial liberal image, what do you think of Albert Speer and Partner’s master plan, it seems they went to quite some effort in promoting the sustainable credentials of their masterplan for the Qatar World Cup stadiums: modular stadiums existing only for the duration of the event and capable of being rebuilt in countries that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. environmentally sustainable cooling technology; stadiums located in close proximity to minimise the environmental footprint of the event. What do you make of some of these measures?

NM: When you play into a public relations narrative, which is what Speer is doing, he’s playing into the one that Qataris want him to play into. Then you have to ask yourself, you know, are you given the full picture here? You know, you’re really talking about everything that’s important here. And all those things sound fine: it’s great that they’re modular. It’s great that you don’t have to travel far between stadiums. It’s great that there’s cooling technology, I guess, I mean, there’s gonna be a lot that’s going to have to be said about that. I mean, that is there to protect the players and supporters, obviously. But if you want to talk about the full thing, he wants to talk about cooling technology, what has he done, for example, to make sure that people building a stadium aren’t building in the heat of summer, when there are extended periods of time when it’s unsafe to operate, and by extended periods of time I mean weeks at a time and I mean 24 hours a day, because of the high humidity levels at night. So what’s he done there? How’s that sustainable for the workers building that? The reason I think architects get off the hook on all this stuff so often is that everyone is very scared of placing any responsibility on them for these issues, because they don’t have any responsibility for these issues. If you take a strictly legalistic approach to this stuff, the people who have responsibility are the contractors and subcontractors and the client, i.e. the person who is paying for the stadium. architects don’t. And people, newspapers, and NGOs, have all shied away from asking these difficult questions of them. I think because of this legalistic separation between responsibility and influence. But what a guy like Speer has is influence. And when he starts talking about all of these amazing things about Qatar, and projecting this very positive image of Qatar, I think what’s missing, and what’s problematic about that is that he’s missing the other part of the jigsaw and it’s a huge part, which is, not what happens once they’re built and once they’re finished but how they’re being built and how people are being abused in their construction, and how his name is being used to promote a World Cup where people are going to die making it, too many people are going to die making it and people are going to be abused making it. 

CC: So obviously, there are risks involved in large-scale projects of any kind, but the vibe I get from a lot of architects is a wilful ignorance as if they’ve done all they can and it’s not really their responsibility anyway. You hear it most famously in a BBC interview with British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, where she said there had not been a “single problem in the stadium in Qatar” when her interviewer Sarah Montague alleged there had been deaths of construction workers on the site of the Al-Wakrah stadium that her firm designed for the 2022 football World Cup “It is absolutely untrue; there are no deaths on our site whatsoever. I sued someone in the press for it. You should check your facts.” I’d be interested to know the extent of the violations in terms of labour conditions and how much that outweighs their proclamations. 

NM: You do you have to separate the starchitect projects from the ordinary ones. So, typically conditions that are appalling, migrant workers, and construction workers are subjected to horrendous abuses. The Labour system facilitates forced labour. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a slave, it doesn’t mean that everyone is in a condition of forced labour but if an employer wishes to treat a worker like that he can: passport confiscated, tied to the employer, wages withheld, slum-like conditions, grim, truly grim. Underpinned by this horrendous racial discrimination that you find across the Gulf. You add to that the working conditions which in those very hot summer months can be life-threatening those risks. I mean, if you actually crunch the data, and I have, it’s terrifying, the heat humidity levels that they’re subjected to it’s like throwing people into a toxic sauna, polluted sauna, and of course, they’re dying and the Gulf states don’t tell us how they’re dying. So overall the picture is still grim. What happens when you get people like Zaha Hadid involved, or Frank Gehry or John Nouvel, they’re typically involved in these very high-profile projects. What happens in a project like that is, because of the attention that those projects are under, because of the scrutiny of the spotlight, they’ll sort of ring fence them with an extra layer of protection. They’ll say, “Okay, so the workers in these projects will be better protected. So we’ll make sure this happens, and this happens and this happens”. No, it’s extra-legal, it doesn’t apply to the rest of the workforce. It only applies to the workforce on this project. As a way of circumventing actual labour reform and protecting everyone, they say, “oh, protect the people on Zaha Hadid’s projects, so she doesn’t feel the heat on this issue”. So when they say things like “there was no abuse in my project… didn’t happen here”. Up to a point, there’s a validity to some of that, you know, but then when you scratch it a little bit more, you find that well, actually, there were abuses on a lot of these projects. There were abuses on John Nouvel’s project in Abu Dhabi, serious abuses. And when that was put to him when it was opened last year, he just shrugged his shoulders and pretended it didn’t happen. You know, when I was at Human Rights Watch I had the occasion to speak to a representative of Frank Gehry, somebody who worked quite closely with him and throughout the conversation, I just got the impression that these guys just want to take what they’re told at face value by the people are paying for these contracts. You know, they’re told one thing, they are told that workers are protected. They see a brochure. They hear some positive PR stuff, and I think they tend to just walk away from that and think “okay, job done, my conscience is clean and I produced this wonderful piece of art that will stand for the ages”. That’s a sweeping generalisation because I haven’t spoken to enough architects to make that stand up. But I’ve never seen anyone use their influence particularly positively. And that rankles a little bit given that the whole reason you’d get Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid or whoever is because of the name. That’s why they call for them, because of the name and the brand. And that’s all part of the project. So it’s easy for them to then turn around and say well, I have no influence. It’s bollocks. You know, it’s totally hypocritical. They all say, you know, “what can we do? Little old me, what can I do?” And you’re like, “well, that’s why you’re there. They went after you. These people aren’t super interested in the nuances of your style or whatever I’m not an architect. I don’t know what sort of language to use here. But that’s not really why they’re there because, you know, it’ll be like, “Okay, who’s the most famous who’s the most expensive architect I can get to building this project”, which is a vanity project. That’s why they’re there. So that gives them influence and it’s that influence they could use effectively and people actually pages you know, they take the money and seem to just walk away.

Speer in Qatar: An Interview with Nicholas McGeehan (Human Rights Watch)

Still from the promo video for episode 8 of the Failed Architecture Podcast

Kees de Klein/Charlie Clemoes

CC: I think the conclusion you could potentially draw is that the whole system is at fault that you know, yeah, and it’s difficult to know where to start. I don’t know if you have that difficulty.

NM: I really do have that difficulty. I was always very sceptical of these codes of conduct for individual projects. And I thought this is not about reform. This is about circumventing reform. This is a very neoliberal approach to worker welfare, which is like “no, we’re not going to protect everyone, but we’ll protect the ones on certain projects and everyone buys into it, all the PR guys buy into and the NGOs buy into it. And they pitch it as “Yeah, it’s small steps. It’s a blueprint for something better”. And actually, it’s not. It’s not that. It’s about corporate management of worker welfare in the absence of state regulation. It’s the only way that these massive firms can operate in an area that is completely unethical. So over the years, I think I just became more and more uncomfortable with them because I don’t think they’re actually about solving the problem. I think they’re actually about perpetuating the system. And in many ways, they allow it to continue because they are the PR face of a horrendously exploitative labour system. I mean if you look anywhere, for example, in Abu Dhabi’s record on migrant workers’ rights, what will come up is a place called Sadia Island and that’s where the Louvre is, that’s John Nouvel’s architecture and that is held up as an example of why worker welfare in Abu Dhabi is fantastic. Similarly in Qatar, when you see some positive stories about what’s happening in Qatar, it’s all about the World Cup, because those are the workers who are better protected. So they use these projects as a way of polishing their image. Now, often that doesn’t work very well because the problem is so widespread and obvious that any journalist who comes in can find the truth, but it fools enough people that it can keep going.

CC: As you said, it’s hard to quantify these things, but I mean, do you have figures or ideas of the extent of the number of deaths?

NM: Yes. So I spent two years working on worker deaths. Just before I left, Human Rights Watch. I looked everywhere I could to get stats. And the shocking thing that’s happening, and this is based on stats from 2012. The best stats we have are from 2012. And those weren’t for the entire migrant workforce, but they were probably for about 75% to 80%. And I believe the stat was that of that year 75% of the migrant worker deaths we knew about were unexplained. That was 375. So 70% of all the deaths of all the workers there were unexplained. Now they’re unexplained because they don’t do autopsies. So when a worker dies, they just put them in a box and send them home. I think that’s a staggering figure, particularly staggering when you consider that the population has increased by 30% since 2012. So let’s just do some basic math. Let’s say it’s 400 (375) 2012, 2013… 14, 15, 16, 17. There have been six years of that. We’re going into the seventh year now. So potentially, you’re talking about two and a half thousand unexplained deaths since they got the World Cup, and that’s just Qatar. But there are more migrant workers in the UAE, there are many more in Saudi Arabia subjected to the same working conditions, the same laws, and the same lack of autopsies. So I think if you get the figures on this across the region, it would be in the tens of thousands, over the last five years and the vast majority of those would be unexplained. I don’t quite know how you describe a situation like that. But we are in my view indisputably talking about tens of thousands of people, mostly young men who have died and these deaths have not been explained.

CC: And this is just the headline aspect of it. You know flashpoints. The big numbers that you see in headlines. But the day-to-day misery, it’s presumably not easy to report on that and get people’s attention. But it would be good to know a little bit more about the Kafala system. How miserable can that get? Or what does that mean in sort of as much as you can explain it day to day, and also the restrictions that it places on people’s lives? 

NM: Some people use kafala as a byword for the entire system. Not really Kabbalah is the sponsorship system which binds the worker to his employer. I mean, you can’t leave the employer under any circumstances and if you do your work visa becomes invalid and so on and so on. It’s very exploitative. It’s very abusive, it’s probably one of the worst things but when you check in the other things that it works in conjunction with, so recruitment fees, you owe $2,000 when you arrive, for example, your passport is confiscated, you are completely unable to access the courts, for example, there are no trade unions. You know, the newspapers don’t report properly on this stuff. So there are a lot of complementary and reinforcing control mechanisms Kafala is at the heart of it, but these are the things that combine together to… I mean, when I said this facilitates slavery and forced labour, I think that’s a legal assessment of the situation. That’s not hysteria or exaggeration. I think, if courts were assessing how exploitative this system is, that is the conclusion they would arrive at. That’s how serious the situation is and the consequences of that are horrendous for the people who work there. They’re utterly powerless. They can be housed 16 to a room in sewage-infested slums basically, they can be forced to work 14 hours a day for six or seven days a week and there’s nothing they can do about it. They can’t leave their employer because they owe too much money, and they don’t have their passport. You know, all of this combines to devastating effect. And of course, it doesn’t happen to everybody. But it happens to many people. I mean, just to give you one story, and this is from the last time I was in Qatar and I was researching worker deaths. And I was trying to find out what sort of access they had to healthcare. So I just went into one labour camp, it was the first one I went into, pretty horrible, just outside Doha, and I asked if any of them had any health issues or if any of them had been unable to access health care because of a health issue. And they pointed to a guy in the corner who very clearly very physically had a serious health problem hernia, a strangulated hernia, it looked like he had a grapefruit in his shorts and he’d been carrying concrete slabs up two flights of stairs for the last three months. He didn’t go to the hospital because he didn’t have money because he hadn’t paid his wages because he didn’t have a health card. And that was just one building. You could walk into any building, and you may not find a story like that but you’d find one that was very similar. 

CC: And that would happen again and again on a massive scale…

NM: Yeah, I mean, we took him to the hospital to get it assessed, and the doctors were appalled. You know, they said you need to stop working, you can’t do what you’re doing. And we drove him home and we told him this and he said, “I don’t care if I die here, I need the money. 

CC: As a last question, after speaking about all of this and based on your experiences and research in the Gulf, what would you say to architects who have participated in projects in the area?

NM: It’s this division between responsibility and influence. No, you don’t have responsibility. You know, it’s not your job to fix Qatar’s labour system. But at the same time, you can sort of take a look at yourself and go, well “does my voice count here? Does what I can say make a difference here?” And yeah it would. Absolutely it would if architects as a whole stood up and said something about what they expected from the projects that they work on. And they don’t from what I’ve seen. So that to me is the most disappointing aspect of it. And you don’t expect it from construction firms because construction firms are what they are, you know they’re there to make money. But architects are supposed to be something different.

Charlie Clemoes: Yeah, there’s a sort of higher calling, that you get in education. A young architect going into it has this notion of the world that’s slightly more morally driven. 

Nick McGeehan: Yeah, exactly. Like writers and poets going off to literary festivals in Dubai, like well, “okay, but do you not come from a place where there are certain values that you think should be promoted in a place and are you actually assisting, not to open up creative spaces and thought, but in countries where those things are being closed down, and you’re part of the PR machine that makes that happen?” Like it’s less obvious in the case of architects, to be honest, but you’d offer something they would think about.