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Zaha Hadid is right to be angry

September 5, 2014

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An article in the New York Review of Books called into question both her character and professional competence. Taking issue with that doesn’t make her a diva.

Was Zaha Hadid wise to file a lawsuit against the New York Review of Books and its critic Martin Filler? Probably not. Defamation suits, as I recently reported in Architect magazine, rarely make it to court, and when they do, the bad PR far eclipses the plaintiff’s odds of winning, which are slim. To prove defamation, a plaintiff has to show “actual malice” on the part of the defendant–that he or she knowingly made false statements or had a reckless disregard for the truth. It seems unlikely that Hadid could prove this of Filler and the NYRB (then again, I’m not a lawyer).

But is Hadid right to be angry? Absolutely. Filler (and by extension, his editors at the NYRB) made a grave error in how they characterized her comments on construction-worker deaths. To be clear: In February, Hadid made comments about the deaths of construction workers in Qatar, in response to a question from the media. What she said–blunt, though not quite as blunt when you read it all–was that she hoped the Qatari government would look into the issue, but it was outside her purview as an architect.

“I think that’s an issue the government–if there’s a problem–should pick up,” she said. “Hopefully, these things will be resolved.” In response to a further question about whether the deaths concerned her, she replied,

Yes, but I’m more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world. But, as I said, I think there are discrepancies all over the world.

Now let’s compare that to how Filler characterized her comments in the NYRB (he has since retracted and apologized for the story). He refers to a New York Times op-ed by an advocate for fair labor practices in the Gulf states, mentions Hadid’s Al Wakrah stadium, then writes:

She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. ‘I have nothing to do with the workers,’ Hadid has claimed. ‘It is not my duty as an architect to look at it.’

As has now been widely reported, 1,000 workers didn’t die building Hadid’s stadium–not a single one did, because it hasn’t even broken ground yet. Filler made a mistake that I can sympathize with, as a journalist, taking the total number of worker deaths across Qatar that’s cited in the op-ed and transposing it (by accident, one assumes) to Hadid’s project in particular. But that is a big mistake. And it’s compounded by his selective quotation of her earlier comments, making it look as if she renounces any responsibility, even concern, for people who died building one of her designs.

You may find Hadid’s “not-my-problem” stance on human-rights abuses to be disappointing, or disingenuous. I certainly do. But she’s not angry because people disagree with her about that. As the lawsuit makes clear, what she objects to is the false assertion that 1,000 people died on her watch and she shrugged it off. Morally and professionally, there is an important distinction. Architects are supposed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants, which could reasonably be extended to the safety of the people who construct their buildings (in principle, if not by the letter of the law). Filler’s article impugned her as a person, and also as an architect.

In general, the media response to the case has downplayed Filler’s error and focused on what a misstep it was for Hadid to file suit. ArchDaily published “6 Reasons why Hadid Shouldn’t Have Sued the New York Review of Books.” In Metropolis magazine, Martin Pedersen wondered, “[W]ho the hell is giving Zaha Hadid career advice these days?”

I was troubled by a Vanity Fair piece by Paul Goldberger, a critic whose work I admire, taking Hadid to task for her “diva”-like behavior. “Zaha Hadid is Still Wrong About Construction Worker Conditions,” the headline reads–well, yes, that’s true, if a little beside the point when it comes to the lawsuit. Goldberger lets loose on the “imperious,” “spoiled,” and “self-absorbed” Hadid, warning that she may be remembered as “a cross between Maria Callas and Leona Helmsley,” and throwing in a Barbra Streisand comparison for good measure.

Thin-skinned architects are not hard to find. Goldberger could have mentioned how Le Corbusier once threatened to sue a writer for (accurately) describing him as Swiss–Corb was offended because he regarded the Swiss as a nation of innkeepers. The implication seems to be that as a woman, Hadid is a diva first, an architect second.

A few voices have come to Hadid’s defense, pointing out that many famous architects are willing to work for governments with dubious track records on human rights, but she gets more than her fair share of criticism for it. That’s true, and I think it must have something to do with gender–deep down, we expect women to be carers, incapable of saying “it’s not my duty” to prevent human suffering. I wonder if the same goes for PR–if there’s an unstated expectation that Hadid, a woman, should care more than a man what the public thinks of her. That she should have better “people skills.”

If a similar (false) statement were made about a male architect, and he shot back, would the response be the same? Somehow I doubt it. Diva is a feminine noun.

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