Is it more dangerous to be a soldier or a construction worker? Astonishingly, it’s the latter. According to a recent report in the Guardian, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. In the same period, 760 construction workers died on British building sites.
Life is cheap at the dirty end of architecture and not just in the UK. The number of fatalities of largely migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent imported to implement Qatar’s architectural ambitions, notably the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, has been the subject of much hand-wringing discussion. And rightly so − over 400 Indian and Nepali building workers died in Qatar in 2013, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has warned that up to 4,000 workers may die before a ball is finally kicked in 2022.
If 400 people perished in a plane crash, there would be exhaustive inquiries into aircraft safety, lessons would be learnt and strategies of improvement implemented. There would also be a palpable sense of loss and accountability. But a fatality here and there on a construction site over a period of time does not have the same galvanizing impetus.
And besides, the show must go on; time is money, after all and the latest superstar project waits for no man. It’s only when the statistics are conflated that the extent of the human cost becomes bleakly apparent. "Designing buildings is generally not very dangerous," writes Fran Tonkiss, but building them can be extremely so.
It is an emotive issue, but the question must be asked: what is the response of architects to all this? Judging by the reaction of Zaha Hadid to conditions in Qatar, where she is due to build the main stadium for the World Cup, it is a helpless shrug. "I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it" she has been quoted as saying, which is probably the bald and depressing truth.
Clearly how construction sites are regulated and the conditions of migrant workers, widely considered to be indentured labour bordering on slavery, are a matter for the Qatari government. But as Fran Tonkiss points out, "If it’s true that architects can’t do anything about debt bondage and dead workers, then isn’t the only power they have that of a more decided doing nothing in labour contexts such as these? What exactly is the duty of an architect in this (or any other) setting to the people who get their buildings built?"
In some ways it’s about old-fashioned moral authority. Architects used to lead the construction team but have been progressively marginalized. Yet as instigators and choreographers of construction, they surely have a duty of care and a collective negotiating power that could go beyond mere helpless shrugging. What Tonkiss calls the "human technics" of the construction process should be just as important as a fetishistic concern for materials and technologies. Ultimately, architecture need not cost lives.
This article first appeared in The Architectural Review. Subscribe here.