The despot dilemma: should architects work for repressive regimes?

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Bjarke Ingels is the go-to golden boy for Big Tech and now Brazils Bolsonaro wants a bit of his magic. But should architects boycott oppressive leaders? Do their buildings glorify their ideology?

Sun-kissed walkways in the sky, platefuls of seafood ceviche, a private helicopter pickup from the beach the Instagram account of Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has unfolded like an escapist travelogue epic in recent weeks, as his adventures in Latin America have taken their place in his dizzying globetrotting itinerary. But there is one photograph he hasnt been so keen to share with his 730,000 followers: of him standing next to Jair Bolsonaro, Brazils far-right president, with the uneasy smile of a man whos just secured his latest big commission from another unsavoury despot, in this case one who has boasted of being proudly homophobic.

According to a statement from Brazils ministry of tourism, Ingels visited Brazil to tour several states and discuss strategies for developing sustainable tourism on its north-east coast, in partnership with the Nmade Group, which recently built an eco-conscious luxury resort in Tulum, the ruins of a Mayan walled city in Mexico.

Theyve pioneered this incredible barefoot light-impact environment, says Ingels, speaking by phone from Santiago in Chile. Its a model of tourism development that doesnt replace the forest or the sand, but strengthens and preserves it. Its a very welcome alternative to the kind of high-rise hotels that spring up on the beach in many places.

And heres me with the homophobic, climate-crisis-denying president Bjarke Ingels, centre, meets Brazils Jair Bolsonaro, second left. Photograph: Marcos Correa

Such an eco-conscious approach doesnt seem to chime with Bolsonaros reactionary regime. Since he came to power last January, Brazils president has confirmed every fear that he would be a Trump of the tropics. He has appointed climate-change deniers to prominent roles, dismissed deforestation statistics as fake news, and sacked the head of the institute that undertook the research. Last year, he played down the worst fires for a decade in the Amazon, calling the global outcry the result of deceitful media hype. He once said he would prefer a dead son to a gay one, rails against Brazil becoming a gay tourism paradise, and his recent introduction of abstinence-based sex education has been likened to going back 40 years.

So what is Ingels, self-styled seer of a progressive liberal world, doing with such a figure? Im happy to share the ideas and ideals that I hold with any government willing to listen, he says, especially if they hold different beliefs. If theres a responsibility that comes from the creative platform weve created, it is to use that platform to change the world for the better. He says that the political leaders of the north-eastern Brazilian states they visited are from the opposite end of the political spectrum to Bolsonaro, adding that ultimately great ideas transcend political parties.

Over the last few years, Ingels has gone from being the mischievous young designer of mountain-shaped apartment blocks on the outskirts of Copenhagen, to becoming the go-to celebrity architect for some of the worlds biggest corporations. Now 45, he has recently popped up as the face of everything from Hyperloop to WeWork, and is currently designing a city-sized HQ for Google in California. Then theres his actual city for Toyota in Japan, right under Mount Fuji.But most audacious of all, he tells me, is the masterplan he is now working on for the whole of Earth provisionally titled The Masterplanet.

Calling card how BIGs Toyota city will look. Photograph: BIG

His status as big techs cheeky go-to boy is perhaps what also makes him so attractive to a growing client base of autocrats. Both kinds of patron share an insatiable desire to shape every aspect of the world to their exacting vision, be it a future of autonomous vehicles, or a world where the Amazon rainforest is seen as a virgin that should be exploited, as the climate-crisis-denying Bolsonaro has put it.

BIG, which stand for Bjarke Ingels Group, is also engaged in several major projects in Saudi Arabia, including a new leisure resort city called Qiddiya, 45km from Riyadh, billed as a new capital of entertainment; theres also a confidential project that Ingels describes as a human-made ecosystem that is as close to a utopia as you dare imagine. Would this be a utopia that had in accordance with Saudi law flogging for drunkenness, amputation for robbery and extrajudicial killing for anyone criticising the regime?

I do sincerely believe that the urban transformation of Saudi Arabia that were taking part in is part of paving a path to a clearly needed social and cultural reform of the country, says Ingels. Following the state-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, he says his office debated whether to pull out of the projects (as Norman Foster did), but decided they could do more good by continuing to engage.

Darling of the Gulf monarchs Jean Nouvel with a model of his Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

The road to ethical impact as an architect is to [propose] the future we want to companies and governments, he says, even if they have different views. We have to embrace our differences if we want to create a future that is different. Its easy to dismiss his words as naively optimistic, like a TED Talk for dictators, but he has a point architecture and cities long outlast the ideologies that created them. But they do also reinforce the politics of their sponsors.

Ingels is by no means alone. French architect Jean Nouvel has become the darling of the autocratic Gulf monarchs, designing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the National Museum of Qatar and now a luxury resort in Saudi Arabia. He has in the past dismissed the issue of human rights as an old question, echoing the response of the late Zaha Hadid, architect of the vulva-shaped stadium in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. I have nothing to do with the workers, Hadid said when challenged about the fact that hundreds of migrant workers had died on construction projects in Qatar. I think thats an issue the government if theres a problem should pick up. Its not my duty as an architect to look at it.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was equally frank about his work in China, when asked about designing the enormous HQ of China Central Television, the chief organ of state propaganda. A position of resistance seems somehow ornamental, he said. On our own, we can at most have good intentions. But we cannot represent the public good without the larger entity, such as the state. Revealing the allure of totalitarian regimes, he added: To make matters worse, the more radical, innovative and brotherly our sentiments, the more we architects need a strong sponsor.

Sharing Ingels belief that architects can effect change from within, Jacques Herzog compared his work on the Birds Nest the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium to designing a Trojan horse. He told German newspaper Der Spiegel that only an idiot would have turned down the project on moral grounds, adding that his firms design creates all kinds of niches and meeting places around the edge of its latticework structure, hidden away from government surveillance.

Trojan horse Beijings Birds Nest, which apparently has niches for people to hide from surveillance. Photograph: CaoWei/Getty Images

This is a recurring theme. Whenever the topic of ethics comes up, most architects who work in repressive climates believe their projects can transcend the abuses of the host regimes and make everyday life a bit better for the people who live there. The dilemma is whether to boycott or engage. Should a well-intentioned architect avoid working with any system they disagree with or hope that the conditions of workers, or freedom of speech, might be improved by using their platform to raise these issues?

Its just surface rhetoric, says Jeremy Till, dean of Central Saint Martins art school in London and author of Architecture Depends, which examined the disciplines relationship with money and power. The idea that a single building is going to be emancipatory for a whole totalitarian state is ridiculous.

Till was involved in the RIBAs recent ethics report, which asserted an unequivocal commitment to placing public interest, social purpose and sustainable development at the heart of RIBA activities. He is particularly critical of some of the practices that have signed the recent Architects Declare manifesto, pledging to advocate for low-carbon, eco-friendly development while also designing airports. There are some architects who abdicate their responsibility, he says. I do understand that but then they shouldnt virtue-signal by signing up to these agreements.

As for Ingels latest foray into the tropics, Till doesnt hold out much hope. Its a fantasy that by doing a nice greenwash project in the north-east of Brazil, you are going to save the nation from fascism.

Ingels differs. The proof will be in the pudding, he says. I dont know if were going to succeed in bringing positive change, or come up with a great alternative to the traditional developments that destroy the landscape and debase the local community. But we will definitely not succeed if we dont even try.

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