"It demonstrates what can happen when talented architects are allowed to practice their craft uninhibited by creative restrictions (or, to be fair, by the high labor costs of most developed societies)."

– Nicolai Ouroussoff,
on Steven Holl Architects' Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China
(The New York Times, June 27, 2011)

With architects building globally – often disconnected from their own cultural and political contexts – what is their responsibility toward the workers who construct their buildings? Frequently designed by star architects from far away, dazzling towers, university campuses, museums, and office complexes are rising in the United Arab Emirates, the Near and the Far East, but where do the workers who build them come from? Where do they live, and what is their legal status? This panel probes whether the architect’s “uninhibited creative expression” is dependent on cheap labor performed by seasonal laborers, and what the ethical possibilities of new technologies might be that are transforming design and engineering but also reduce manual labor-intensive construction methods.

Organized by the Vera List Center in collaboration with Kadambari Baxi (Barnard College), Mabel O. Wilson (Columbia University GSAPP) and curator and writer Beth Stryker, Who Builds Your Architecture? examines the links between construction practices and workers’ rights, and provokes broader questions about contemporary forms of globalization where architecture takes central stage. Sociologist Andrew Ross, architects Peggy Deamer and Fred Levrat as well as Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher on the Middle East Bill Van Esveld reflect on how architects imagine their role, particularly on how their buildings may transform society not just through their physical forms but through the ways in which they are constructed and used.

Who Builds Your Architecture? emerges in part from two recent petitions: Who’s Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi? by a coalition of international artists and curators, and Who’s Building the Global U? by New York University faculty and students. Both initiatives are organized by artists, scholars and activists, while architecture professionals have remained quiet. This panel discussion aims to generate discussion around these issues by engaging the architectural community at large.

Moderator:
Reinhold Martin, Director, The Buell Center, GSAPP, Columbia University

Participants:
Peggy Deamer, Principal, Deamer Studios, and Professor, School of Architecture, Yale University
Fred Levrat, Principal, ARX New York
Andrew Ross, Professor, Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
Bill Van Esveld, Senior Researcher in the Middle East & North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

* Presented on the occasion of the Vera List Center’s 2011-2013 focus theme “Thingness.”

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