Regarding Bab el Bahrain

Some thoughts on international architectural competitions in the 21st century, in response to Mitch McEwen's recent column "Urban Design Serves as Tool of Repression in Bahrain".

Reading Mitch McEwen's column "Urban Design Serves as Tool of Repression in Bahrain" in the Huffington Post and Klat Magazine, condemning the recent Bab al Bahrain Open Ideas Competition for which Domus was a media partner and I a member of the jury, the situation could hardly appear less ambiguous.

The actors are neatly lined up in front of the wall of shame. A cynical Ministry of Culture serving as the dark agent of a violent and repressive State. A herd of famished young architects, pining for work, fully prepared to suspend their moral judgement for a shot at a prize of a few thousand euros. An opportunistic international design magazine, ready to lend its weight to the deceitful scheming of a repressive government. An unscrupulous and morally corrupt international jury, fully prepared to act in connivance with the sinister intents of a repressive government. Could there possibly be a clearer illustration of the degree to which the architectural profession — at every level, from its practitioners to its intelligentsia — has lost its moral compass?

As one watches the abuses of human rights unfold in Syria day by day, the impulse to instinctively buy into this crystalline narrative is almost irresistible. There is, however, a problem: the good intentions McEwen's column irradiates with almost blinding intensity conceal a series of assumptions that struggle to stand up under closer scrutiny.

The first assumption is that the identity and intentionality of a government is necessarily singular, unitary and coherent. A government supresses unarmed demonstrators (an unquestionably evil act); ergo, every act committed by every arm of that government must be evil and lead to the perpetuation of its own power through some form of repression. What this blanket condemnation overlooks is the possibility of diverging agendas within the State itself. A repressive army slaughters innocents with heavy artillery: can one automatically conclude that the Ministry of Culture's agenda is driven by equally nefarious motivations? As it happens, no; to do so would exclude the possibility that there are those who believe that change, however marginal, is best effected from the inside. Whether sharing this moral and ethical stance or not, one must as due diligence take it into consideration.

Armies with bullets, ministries of culture with architecture competitions: each pursue their own finalities with the weapons at their disposal. Surely it is naive, if not disingenuous, to assume that in every possible instance their objectives coincide any more than their instruments do? As McEwen acknowledges, in this particular instance a clue that something unusual is going on can be found in the brief, which references — in "contemporary or even critical terms" — the Arab Spring uprisings. It would be sad to assume that according to McEwen's worldview, the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Bahrain would be best advised to focus its energies on more toothless activities, rather than expending considerable effort on inviting critical readings of its conflicted urban landscape on an international stage. (It is interesting to note, in this regard, that at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, well before the dawn of the Arab Spring, the Ministry of Culture of Bahrain was awarded a Golden Lion by a jury including Beatriz Colomina, Arata Isozaki, Francesco Dal Co and myself for choosing to self-critically analyse, on an international stage, the negative and positive effects of its own coastline urbanisation).

This brings us to the second assumption, which regards the winning entries. The underlying implication in McEwen's text is that the only acceptable outcome of the competition would have been the superimposition onto Manama of a Tahrir Square-style void — a sort of copy-paste logic, in which political reform is the direct and presumably immediate consequence of a specific urban typology's instatement. Needless to say, among the Bab al Bahrain competition submissions there were abundant variations on the idea of direct consequential relationships between open spaces and political reform, but this was precisely the kind of simplistic, predictable and possibly naive logic the jury attempted to resist, in the belief that it represented a somewhat narrow understanding of what constitutes an instrument of reform and transformation in the reality of Bahrain today. Wisely or not — but, to the best of my knowledge, in good faith — the jury turned instead to more nuanced projects that address the complex issue of community-building, in an era in which public space is either controlled or commodified to the point of becoming a misnomer. Having said that, open spaces were not by any means absent among the winners. The fact that one of the winning projects, Partizan Publik's New Times Square, proposed a car park is hardly an attempt to "block aggregation", since car parks — although usually devoid of any form of design intentionality — constitute today the de facto epicentre of much of the the Gulf's automobile-centric youth culture.

As for first prize winner Lukas Lenherr's Pearl Dive, the relationship between water and the city has for centuries been a force of social cohesion in Bahrain, as well as a point of encounter — until the urban core was cut off from the sea by reclamation operations, something the winning entry sought to remediate. It remains unclear why exactly, in McEwen's opinion, an international jury of notable professionals would be in cahoots with the Bahraini government to concoct a Machiavellian scheme of urbanistic repression. One should also note that the competition organisers displayed every single entry in a temporary exhibition on the site of Bab al Bahrain, and solicited the opinion of the public by instituting a People's Choice Award.

The final assumption implicit in McEwen's critique is that it is possible to carve the planet up into two distinct, interlocking geopolitical blocks, Good and Bad, categorised according to moral virtue. A clear boundary exists between them, which the architect traverses at the peril of his or her integrity. While this is a seductive idea that must seem particularly appealing from the moral high ground McEwen occupies, to call it simplistic is a gross understatement.

The first problem arises when one attempts to draw up such a list. If Bahrain is off limits, so presumably are China, Russia and Iran, all states guilty of brutal repression and limited freedom of speech. The blacklist quickly extends to other Gulf states, much of Africa, Belarus, Albania, a good number of the "Stans"… and so on. The resulting cartography soon begins to look suspiciously like a map of geopolitical alignment to Western ideology, which begs the question: is it really in the best interests of humanity, of the architectural profession, and of the advancement of intercultural dialogue to subscribe to such a conservative and narrow-minded definition of civility? And if it comes to that, are we so absolutely certain our own moral rectitude is unassailable? No one would bat an eyelid at the idea of Brooklyn's "new economy" freelancers participating in an ideas competition organised by ministries of the British or US governments, but are we entirely certain their own records in the fields of human rights and respect for freedom of expression are entirely spotless?

I am not questioning that the designer exercise moral judgement as to the relationships he or she enters into, and McEwen is right to point out that as architects we too often consider our voices powerless. Yet it is not through blanket dismissals that architects will achieve a place at the table negotiating a better world or more upright political systems. Such an attitude smacks more of moral bigotry than ethical commitment, and amounts to accusing an entire generation of architects who have built in China of ethical dishonesty and opportunism. This is tempting, but also disingenuous and simplistic. Would such a judgement extend to Ai Wei Wei, China's best-known human rights activist, who for years designed parks and stadiums for the government? It's not as though China's human rights abuses began three years ago.

There is value in this debate around the moral duties of the architectural profession in a globalised 21st century, so long as we recognise that the issue is a complex one: we won't find the answers in silver bullets or blacklists, but in dialogue and gradual reform. There are those who are using urban design as a tool of repression, but for the moment, thankfully, they are not in Bahrain. Unfortunately, assumptions and sensationalistic headlines that mindlessly discount the work of those attempting to effect change on the ground do nothing to help. If there's one thing Cedric Price hated, it was assumptions.

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