This short article from The Independent recaps an interview with Daniel Libeskind in which he calls upon architects to decline working in “morally questionable” foreign environments. This isn’t the first time Libeskind has made this plea, but it sheds light on a couple issues: first, how alone he is among his fellow starchitects in drawing such definite, (but completely subjective and arbitrary) Cold War-esque ethical lines between “good” and “bad” nations ; second, the difficulty Libeskind himself has in maintaining his own boycotts (he now has little problem designing in Asian countries with less than stellar human rights records), and the inherent problem of conflating totalitarian governments and private clients within their borders (not to mention the transnational nature of capital and corporations developing the built environment); lastly, there are the dual issues of the purpose and the actual effects of Libeskind’s words: critics have questioned his motives, given his lack of consistency or logical criteria, and there is probably no chance that Libeskind’s thoughts and actions themselves have any real effect on his so-called despots.
How much agency does a single architect or firm have when it comes to effecting political change through their work? What exactly does saying ‘no’ to a project do? As an architect, drawing ethical lines along national boundaries is no doubt a fruitless endeavor (not to mention plain silly), but that certainly doesn’t mean that ethical lines shouldn’t be drawn when deciding which projects to take on. Those hoping to put design to use towards larger political projects of democratization tend to either focus on reforming the design process or else cling to the utopian ideal that built projects themselves, if designed right, can emit (subversive) democratic forces upon the public. These two approaches are largely incompatible for obvious reasons: on the one end is the ideal of architecture without architects per se, on the other stands the heroic architect in all His glory. But despite the seductive draw of the “design democracy” end of the dichotomy, it may be most pragmatic to keep both options open.