Arguably, part of being a contemporary architect is being aware of projects and competitions happening all over the world. Living in a city like New York, especially in Brooklyn, there are many more architects than there are local projects. That is probably an oversimplification. The truth may be more that we come here, to competitive universities and big cities, to work globally. We hope that our work and our reputations will cross continents, through publications and academic research, the way that artists' reputations travel with curators and art fairs.
Considering this, I should not be surprised that some of my peers and colleagues have been submitting designs to the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain. I am not talking about large commercial firms designing mega-developments around oil fields and airports. There is, of course, that, too. Where there are military alliance and foreign direct investment there will be international architectural projects. No, I am talking about small firms and freelancers - the kind of folks who participate in Brooklyn's so-called 'new economy' and open offices in Berlin. The theorists and practitioners who form the avant-garde of an international community of architectural thinkers are unfortunately, perhaps unwittingly, participating in political repression via urban design.
Consider the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas Competition, ostensibly a typical open competition to gather the best contemporary designs for a specific site. According to the competition website, the competition is "Organized by the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Bahrain." The competition frames the design context for Bab Al Bahrain square, a public square in the capital of Bahrain, in contemporary and even critical terms:
"One of the few existing public spaces in Bahrain, the Bab al Bahrain square has been progressively turned into a series of surface parking lots. Still, due to its historical importance and its centrality within the Island, it holds the potential to become a lively urban public square; located at the entrance of the Manama Suq it has the advantage of belonging to a tight urban structure which still benefits from a natural pedestrian network..... Considering the recent political events that have taken place across the region, the competition seeks to question what a contemporary public space in the Arab World should look like."
It is not clear whether the 'recent political events' alluded to here amount to the pro-democracy public protests that took place last year or the military crackdown that followed. In February 2011 Pearl roundabout was a major site for Bahrain's participation in the Arab Spring. Bahrain was the only country in the Gulf region to have such a significant pro democracy uprising. Since February 2011 hundreds of people have been arrested, tortured and sentenced without a trial, including at least 20 medical personnel who did nothing more than care for injured protesters. The monarchical regime tightened military authority with key military support from neighboring Saudi Arabia. An Al Jazeera produced documentary called "Shouting in the Dark" chronicles a full year of democratic protests and the horrific military repression, as well as urban erasure, that ensued. The Pearl roundabout was demolished and its image removed from coinage.
Last month's print issue of Domus, the internationally circulated design magazine, has no articles on Bahrain, but it does include a tear-out pamphlet dedicated entirely to the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas competition, complete with text signed by the Ministry of Culture. The text from the Ministry of Culture sounds remarkably like the voice of Domus' editorials. This should not be surprising since the competition jury includes an editor of Domus.
Each of the Bab Al Bahrain winning designs (presented here on the Domus website) serves to effectively block public aggregation of people on the square. In other words, each winning project effectively anticipates and prevents the sort of peaceable assembly and democratic protest that occurred at Pearl roundabout. Design tactics to achieve this include - flooding the site with water (the winning proposal), creating a wall around the site, and filling the site with parking spaces.
The winning design, a water-filled square for fake pearl diving, claims to acknowledge a gulf tradition and tangentially references the Pearl roundabout. Following the competition's selection, local press in Bahrain exclaimed that "OFFICIALS are considering a major facelift to Bab Al Bahrain that could see the area transformed into a watery oasis." Regarding the merits of this winning design, the jury offered, in a statement reported widely in the architecture media: "While it completely disregards the conventions on public water accessibility, it offers a convincing urban attractor through a very simple and radical gesture of inversion.... The collage of ordinary programmes, through their careful assembly, creates a powerful urban device." It is tragically ironic that a design commissioned by a repressive monarchy to forestall the possibility of peaceable assembly might be referred to as an 'attractor' and lauded for its 'radical gesture.'
These urban design proposals in Bahrain are, of course, not the first time that urban design and lofty architectural ideals have been used to hide ugly social repression. In the early decades of the last century, the City Beautiful Movement arguably furthered racial segregation and displacement of the urban poor in cities such as Washington, DC and Chicago, even before mid-20th century urban renewal and the expansion of federal highways to segregated suburbs. The City Beautiful movement's popularity with early 20th century US planners may be traced back to the spectacular World Columbian Exposition exhibition of 1893. Such expositions might be considered precursors to the dispersed multi-media format of publications, panels, and ideas competitions with which we encounter urban design paradigms today.
Recently Bahrain has faced backlash in other arenas where the ruling regime has attempted to produce cosmopolitan images for international consumption. Leading up to the Formula 1 Grand Prix automobile racing competition in April, there were criticisms from British politicians, Amnesty International, and even from the business press against the Bahrain Grand Prix, as well as cyber attacks by Anonymous and coordinated protests in Bahrain's capital and villages. Nothing remotely comparable to this international criticism has been voiced in the design community (check yourself on Google), whether regarding the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas competition or any other design project. The design community apparently considers its work less politically charged than car racing (a sport which, the NY Times notes, continued hosting competitions in Apartheid-era South Africa, long after other international sports had boycotted that country).
Perhaps, in this situation, we architects and urban designers are too quick to consider our own work inevitable, to consider our own voices powerless. We do not often say no. There is a well known story of Cedric Price turning down a commission to design a house for a married couple, on the grounds that a divorce would be more useful. As the Design Museum describes Price, he "redefined the role of the architect as an agent of change, whose main responsibility was to anticipate that, and offer new possibilities for society as a whole." Yes, as contemporary designers we act as agents of change. We do offer new possibilities for society as a whole. With that comes a responsibility to choose our projects wisely and to take responsibility for the potential society we help make possible.