The question of ethics in architecture has taken on a new resonance in recent years, as the autocratic governments of China and the Middle East have begun importing foreign designers en masse to create contrived civic monuments. A certain Mr. Daniel Libeskind once spoke forcefully on the issue in Belfast, stating definitively: "I won't work for totalitarian regimes." However, in the face of monetary gains and the prospect of multiple landmark commissions, he performed a fairly fundamental U-turn, accepting the offer to design the Zhang ZhiDong and Modern Industrial Museum in Wuhan, China.
This is symptomatic of a pattern emerging across Asia: Big-name architects are choosing to turn a blind eye to the archaic human rights records and lack of political freedom in certain countries, the prospect of extravagant public projects too tempting to refuse.
This has never been more evident than in the recently released list of competition entries for the 2017 Expo in Kazakhstan, which reads like a team sheet of the Harlem Globetrotters of Architecture: Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, UNStudio, and Snøhetta have all waded in with brash, exorbitant schemes on a huge scale.
It might appear unclear to the major players in this, an era of exploration into high technology, 3D printing, and parametric design, but they are actually harking back to the dark old days of the 20th century with these master plans. This is wedding cake architecture in both a formal and figurative sense, akin to the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw (the ultimate monument to flawed Communism) and Albert Speer's unrealised plans for post-war Berlin (the ultimate monument to an infamous Fascist despot).
While firms may believe they are helping the people of Khazakstan by contributing to this celebratory international event, they may in fact be aides to a cynical exercise in public relations for Kazakhstan's first and only leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Indeed, these particular wedding cakes may come to symbolize the marriage between a corrupt regime and the liberal countries that will unwittingly sanction its autocratic reign by attending the Expo in 2017.
Design-wise, it could be argued that the majority of the entries are fitting for the tradition of global expositions: they are full of grand, formalistic gestures, with most being driven by a desire to create a collective spectacle rather than focussing on the experience of individuals walking through the site. Zaha's plan is typically derivative: the context-busting, amorphous forms echo overgrown flowers, while the sinuous towers in the center are unnervingly reminiscent of gigantic Pitcher plants.
Himmelblau, on the other hand, has employed a less structured, almost chaotic language across the site, perhaps hoping to shift away from the egotistical connotations of monumentalism seen in other schemes. Ultimately though, this leads to a confused, imbalanced composition of forms – reflective, perhaps, of the clouded motives behind each firm's involvement in this calculated competition.
Other firms (Snøhetta and Mecanoo, for instance) have been more reserved in their approach, maintaining a stronger connection with the surrounding land and, consequently, a more palatable display of considered urban design; the brief centers around "Future Energy," and there is some hope the chosen complex will have life beyond 2017 in the form of housing and various public buildings. However, the general display is one of questionable celebration – should architects contribute to such festivities, given that such commissions may only serve to glorify a dictator rather than benefit the people of a nation?
Zaha Hadid effectively pinned her colors to the mast by agreeing to design the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Azerbaijan, a library and museum dedicated to autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev. On the evidence of this competition, it appears that other big firms are also finding the prestige and prolificacy of such projects too tempting to resist: I, for one, find this very unsettling indeed.