What Drives Architects to Design Saudi Megaprojects?

Kate Wagner


Paris Marx is joined by Kate Wagner to discuss the goals behind Saudi Arabia’s architectural megaprojects, the incentives for major architects to work on projects for despotic regimes, and how architecture’s relationship to tech is driven by profits and PR.


Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and journalist. She’s also the creator of McMansion Hell. Follow Kate on Twitter at @mcmansionhell.

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Paris Marx: Kate, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us!

Kate Wagner: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

PM: Very excited to chat. I’ve been following your blog, “McMansion Hell,” for a while and your work more generally. I went back to read some of your pieces while I was preparing for this and pull up your PR Architecture piece and was shocked that it was in 2020. How was that so long ago? The pandemic has just warped time; I don’t understand [laughs]. But anyway, very excited to chat with you. Generally, I want to explore what’s going on in architecture, how this is relating to a lot of these big projects that we often see, and how that makes me feel a lot like similar things that we see in the tech industry, constantly, when it comes to solving problems and things like that. These are all the types of things I want to explore with you.

I do want to start with Saudi Arabia, though. We see a lot of major architectural projects that seems to be emerging in Saudi Arabia in the past few years. Whether it’s NEOM, which is this $500 billion smart city that’s supposed to be 33 times the size of New York City, or The Line which is part of that 170 kilometer, or 110 mile, long city. I guess it’s supposed to house nine million people. These just seemed otherworldly. It doesn’t seem like the type of thing that is ever actually going to get built and just seems like it’s out there to get some attention for Saudi Arabia, making them not seem like murderous despots. What should we make of these projects?

KW: It’s very funny because the PR engine of The Line and of NEOM writ large is calling it a civilizational revolution, which is pretty crazy because some of the things they’re promising are really insane. I think we need to really create a baseline of just how insane this is.

PM: Sure, lay it out for us.

KW: A floating semi-automated port; an innovation hub in the desert; a year round ski resort in the desert; and a manmade freshwater lake also in the desert. Apparently, there’s also going to be an artificial moon, glow in the dark beaches, robotic butlers, holographic teachers, and something akin to Jurassic Park — these are also being considered. Also, the whole thing will be surveilled by a core of drones and facial recognition software, which of course is held accountable only to the Saudi security state, and, of course, MBS. If this sounds like some kind of horrible nightmare that’s because it is. I mean, it’s totally ridiculous.

This is totally one of those things where the powers that be, who have all this money, who are bringing in the soft capital, you could say, of some of architecture’s biggest names to whitewash it. It’s all just a vanity project, essentially. It’s just going to be a giant horizontal mall. Again, you see the same rhetoric in the tech industry all the time, this civilizational revolution. We’re going to create whole worlds from scrap and they’re going to be future forward. All of this stuff. I mean, architecture has been dealing with this for years, we had like the smart cities thing for the last decade. Now you’ve got a bunch of architects who are parroting AI PR releases, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that later. This is a classic “Tech Won’t Save Us” kind of scenario we’re dealing with.

PM: I feel like when you describe the various pieces of NEOM and The Line — and all the big things that they’re promising — the drones and AI surveillance is the piece that actually sounds the most realistic of any of it.

KW: I mean, just for the record, I don’t think that this is going to get built. I think it’s going to generate a lot of make work for people who make renderings for a living. But I highly doubt that this will actually come to fruition. Another thing that’s very funny about it is they claim that it’s going to be a very sustainable project and it’s going to all be powered by renewable energy. But the whole thing is paid for by oil money, so…okay? Just everything about this, to me, is funny in a kind of terrible way. Really, it exemplifies a lot of what’s going on in architecture, what’s going on in politics, what’s going on in tech. It’s the perfect intersection of BS, essentially.

PM: What’s going on in the entire world, unfortunately. So, when they were clearing a 150 kilometer line of dirt in the desert last year, you weren’t taking that as though they’re really going to get this thing off the ground?

KW: That’s another really insane thing is that this was just a huge land grab. They’re basically displacing a bunch of tribesmen and sentencing them to jail in order to get this going. Even if they don’t build the whole thing, at least I got those people out of out of where they live. So of course, very a Manifest Destiny perspective.

PM: It’s going to be a very equitable society, just unless you’ve been displaced in order to build it. Then on top of that, Neom and The Line are part of this huge smart city, but Saudi Arabia is also proposing another major project, which is New Murabba. This will be a downtown revitalization plan for Riyadh, which will include the Mukaab, which is a massive cube the size of twenty Empire State Buildings, filled with hospitality, leisure, and retail. That will put Riyadh on the map as a city of the future or something like that. It’s just another one of these visions that make no sense.

KW: A week after I published this piece, or The Baffler published this piece that I wrote about NEOM, they announced the giant cube thing, and I was like: Well, I already wrote the essay [both laugh]. This is interesting to me because megastructures in architecture have been around for a really long time. You started seeing these ideas even as early as the 19th century when people first started to dwell on creating cities from scratch. But this particular project, including the people involved, have their roots in late modernism, which is the period of architecture that encompassed a bunch of different styles, high-tech. This is from the 60s and 70s, essentially, post-Mid-Century Modernism, but before Postmodernism.

During that time in the 70s, there were a lot of intersecting crises much like we have today — for example, the oil crisis, the environmental crisis, the beginning the computer era, in the era of the personal computer, the space race, all of these different technological and societal clashes, and innovations. It was a time of great upheaval, we started to see ideas that ranged from totally pre-planned cities, that were designed holistically by architects. These are essentially paper architecture — which is a phrase that means architecture that’s not going to get built, or is unlikely to get built — but is really a commentary about the way that we live or the way that we could live.

This happened all over the world. It happened in Japan with this style of architecture called Metabolism, which, essentially, borrowed from biological systems and how they interact in order to create these sprawling web-like interlocking cities that are just floating above the Earth on stilts, and all kinds of other crazy things like that. Peter Cook is an architect who is involved in this project, which is not surprising. He created this idea called Walking Cities with his firm Archigram. The drawings they put together for this are very fun, actually, and various aesthetically pleasing. It’s like science fiction meets the Yellow Submarine. He had this idea of endless, effortless, consumption that was migratory. It said a lot about the ephemerality of this period, in the 60s and 70s where we had reached the height of mass consumption and had started to see more and more critiques of mass consumption.

On the other hand, you have this firm called Superstudio, which is where it gets really funny to me. Because if you look at the renderings for NEOM and for The Cube, they look just like this Italian firm’s drawing, Superstudio, from the 70s. Where they had these ideas of these endless cities that were basically these giant gritted, mirrored, cubes, superimposed on various landscapes. The Italian mountains, San Francisco Bay, but these were, of course, tongue in cheek critiques of that consumption that Peter Cook was all in on. This was a total critique of capitalism. It’s like: Look at this homogenous, hyper-accelerated world of consumption that’s just completely hedonistic and completely just dominates the landscape.

They were doing this as a satire, but when you look at the drawings from NEON and The Line, you just see those drawings. It’s like: Wow, they missed the plot on this one. Of course, I’m not sure they knew about Superstudio, which is kind of the purview of 70s fanatics and architecture critics. But there’s some irony there, of course, that these discussions we’ve had before, these crises have their roots in other crises, because the problem is capitalism [laughs]. Again, this is the dark side, I think, of paper architecture. But it still says, like all paper architecture, a lot about the society we live in.

PM: Absolutely, it’s really funny to see these concepts reemerge, but now they’re taken seriously, instead of a complete joke that people put together to make fun of the industry. What do you think drives these countries, or companies to want to think about putting together these massive projects with these starchitects attached — these people who are stars of the architecture world — that claim to solve all of these issues, but often don’t get built. If we look at many of these smart city projects of the past 10 or 15 years, there were countries all over the world saying: Oh, we’re going to build this massive, beautiful smart city and it’s going to attract all this capital, and it’s going to be great. If they were built, they were shitty and didn’t really reflect at all what was initially promised in many cases. For example, ones in Kenya and stuff like that were just never built at all. What’s the draw to do something like this?

KW: It’s very important to understand that, for Saudi Arabia, especially, this is all about what critics call soft power. So in addition to working as an architecture critic, I moonlight as a sports journalist, and in sports, you see this all the time where Saudi, UAE — these petro-states that are very undemocratic — or big chemical companies, like Ineos in Britain, sponsor sporting teams in order to launder their reputation, and put their name into the public consciousness and associate it with something positive. This is the cultural side of it, though I would argue sports are obviously culture. This is sort of more of the art side of this. It’s just like how the Sacklers sponsored the Guggenheim during the opioid crisis. This is one of the oldest tricks in the books, like GM had a house of the future at mid-century. Architects are all about that.

I think we really need to understand something about architecture, which is really commonly misunderstood. So the people who are involved in these plans — for example, Thom Mayne who is the head designer and the owner so to speak of Morphosis, his firm — people think of architecture as this individualized art, like you would think of sculpture, or you would think of painting, where there’s one guy’s name on the building and he designed the building. This couldn’t be further from the truth, unless you’re talking about a sole proprietor designing like a kitchen renovation or a single family house or something like this.

Architecture firms are essentially corporations. They have strict divisions of labor, where at the top you have these guys like Thom Mayne, who are public figures, but they’re also essentially just petty capitalists. So it makes all the sense in the world that if you think of Thom Mayne not as some artiste, but as a capitalist running a profitable firm. If you get a big paycheck from somebody, you’re going to want to take it. It’s just that simple. Of course, the piece in The Baffler really highlights that this is extremely hypocritical because Thom Mayne and a few others, Tom Wiscombe, Coop Himmelb(l)au, a lot of them are about: Oh, we’re sustainable; we care about the future; we’re going to create a better world. This is the opposite of that — this is not sustainable. This is not a better world. This is completely antithetical to the liberal image that architecture tries very hard to maintain as a part of the arts.

But unlike other arts, architecture is not a sole endeavor. Again, you have this stratification of labor. At the top, you have managers. You have a legal department; you have firm owners; you have publicists; you have PR. You have all of the workers who go to architecture school thinking that they’re going to design really amazing buildings and the cities of the future. They end up sitting at desks all day, drawing wall sections in Autodesk software, for seven hours a day, if not more, usually 10 hours if it’s really near crunch time. The labor conditions are really atrocious in architecture, just like they are in tech. So when you think about it this way, it makes a little bit more sense as to why they would take on a project like this, even if it seems antithetical to their values. It’s all just about making money for the firm. For Saudi Arabia, it’s all about couching their name in this soft power, this cultural power, these positive associations, that explains why this is all being done because it’s not being done for the betterment of the world, obviously.

PM: It is fascinating to hear you describe that though because, of course, we can think about how this happens in the arts, where you have major artists. I remember watching a documentary about like Ai Weiwei or something a few years ago, and sure he was coming up with these ideas, but then he had these massive teams to implement them and put them together, in terms of these artistic creations that he wanted to make. But it also makes you think of tech, where you have people like the Steve Jobs, or the Elon Musks who are treated as the glorious founders who bring great technological ideas to the public. When really, in many cases, they’re taking credit for the work of thousands of people who work below them, who do the real hard work of trying to realize these things.

In some cases, they might even tell them throughout the process: This sucks, don’t keep doing it. And the workers will keep doing it anyway, and then make it better. Then finally, someone like Steve Jobs would be like: Oh, this is great now, I’m just gonna take total credit for it. And not give you credit — not recognize that there’s this whole massive team that does this work. I guess that’s one of the ways where I see this as being similar to the tech industry, in having these relationships and holding up these names as though they’re the great wonderful people who deliver these things down to us lowly, regular folks, or whatever.

KW: I also think architecture and the tech industry both launder the harms that they do. For example, their participation in gentrification or something like this, through this imagery and this rhetoric of changing the world and bringing about a better future. They use very similar techniques of communication and PR, which is important to understand. It’s really important to understand that a lot of these promises are really empty. I mean, you’re not going to create NEOM; you’re not going to create The Line.

Bjarke Ingels had, for example, this floating city, Oceanix, that was going around a few years ago. Where it’s just like: We’re going to have solve climate change by having floating solar cities and, of course, there’s no idea of who makes a city work. It’s a very Atlas Shrugged idea where all of the creators and valuable people are going to go into the floating city, but there has to be some kind of underclass that supports that infrastructure, but that’s you’re just completely left out. They use very similar tactics. I mean, the architecture PR industry really imitates tech because tech makes a lot of money and the people who are PR people for the architecture industry also want to make a lot of money.

You’ll often see architects and their firms, or even just individual artists who are adjacent to architecture, latch on to whatever the term du jour is in tech, whether it’s the Metaverse AI, or effective altruism. It’s just a parasitic relationship they have with with the tech industry because a lot of architects see the tech industry as just making a lot of money. I think some of them even believe what the tech industry sells through their rhetoric, and so wants to kind of capitalize on that in their own genre.

PM: They want to be associated with it and pretend that they are participating in this process of making the world a better place, as the tech industry and some of these PR folks would put it. Even while as you say, they are enabling a ton of terrible governments to continue what they’re doing. Meanwhile, they act as though their architectural projects are alleviating certain problems in society, solving certain problems — whether it’s climate change, or whatever else. Meanwhile, as you say, they’re contributing to things like gentrification, making cities less livable for the people who drive them, basically. So these harms get covered up by the PR that is behind these projects, I guess.

KW: Definitely, gentrification is one example. I think that’s probably the biggest example because that’s the one with the most publicity and the one with the most political pushback. Architects designed the headquarters for ExxonMobil, and the ExxonMobil headquarters is LEED certified, environmentally friendly. There’s all these insane contradictions and bedtime stories that architecture tells itself to feel like they are not complicit in the world going to hell. When it’s just simply sort of not true, obviously. I mean, architecture is also really unique in that it is connected, unlike visual art, to the real estate industry, which is an industry. It is extremely profitable to build things that pleasure rich people, or for corporations.

Our built environment reflects the way of the world — whether it’s in the skyline of Manhattan or whether it’s in the fact that the apartment building next to me, it was a house divided into apartments, was torn down and replaced with a McMansion, but on a small lot. The people who are coming out of there are not my Hispanic neighbors, but there are people wearing Salesforce polos and have a Labradoodle. Architecture reveals something about the way that we live and also the way that we want to live. A lot of things are aspirational, like the McMansion or NEOM. A lot of people want to believe they’re closer to the Louis Vuitton class than they are to the underclass.

A lot of people who are into architecture, of course, can’t afford to live in architecture. Most of us live in the vernacular — we don’t live in architecture at all. So this division between high architecture and the rest of us reflects a certain alienation of the field from the people who utilize the field. Everything has a use and exchange value. Architecture pretends to be really concerned with the use value, but the real-estate industry is only concerned with the exchange value. So these are inherent conflicts that pop up, that make it difficult for an activist architecture to A) thrive and B) be profitable, because it’s an industry. It’s not a feel good kind of thought-experiment. There’s a lot of money on the line.

PM: Absolutely. What you say there also brings to mind one of the issues that I often see where the excitement is around these big projects that have weird, unique designs to them. It doesn’t seem like people are excited about your general apartment building for low-income people where they’re actually going to be able to live. It’s associated with things that have this unique style to them that look like they’re distinct in the skyline. That’s obviously contributing to making cities more expensive, more exclusive — excluding the people who actually make the city run. But as you say, there’s the relationship not only to having the PR function of the architect, but also the kind of people who are paying for these buildings are quite wealthy and they don’t really care what the larger impact of that is.

KW: Definitely. First of all, we live in an attention economy where architects are enticed to create very loud, athletic buildings, because we are competing for attention on, whether it’s architecture websites, like Dezeen or Art Daily or if it’s just Instagram. And so that really drives a lot of what gets published. Because a lot of buildings are built. I mean, for example, the New York Department of Housing has a really wonderful website highlighting new projects that are affordable housing projects, and all of them are really good looking. I think that the aesthetics of gentrification are really commonly misunderstood. A McMansion is one thing — you know that when a McMansion goes up next door, something’s up.

But with apartment buildings, it’s not easy to tell who is living in a rich apartment building and who is living in in an affordable building, because all apartment buildings are kind of these enterprises where they are really restricted by building codes, and that they have to conform to certain lots and all that make them look more similar than different from one another. But the reality is that these problems are political problems. Climate change is a political problem. Gentrification is a political problem. It’s not a design problem. It’s not caused by buildings looking good. It’s caused by speculative developers buying up places on the cheap, displacing residents and raising rents. That’s a political action.

Architecture may be a handmaiden in that but it’s very silly to say that a building causes gentrification. Like I said, buildings have their use and exchange value — the use value of a building is what it is. But what’s related is that how much money can you get for that building as a commodity, how it can intersect with the other adjacent commodities to create this pressure that changes the urban landscape or a neighborhood or demographics. But my point is in saying that is not that architecture isn’t culpable, because obviously they are. But the fact that design is not going to save us. There’s no way to design a building to make it less gentrify-y. That’s not how it works. There’s no way to design a building that stops climate change. It’s not how it works. These are individualist ideas, when the reality is, we’ll fix climate change or prevent climate change or fight against climate change. These are collective struggles and they’re political struggles. They’re not aesthetic struggles. I mean, they are aestheticized, but they’re not aesthetic struggles.

And so the more we realize that and the more architects realize that, the better. A really good example of this is, for example, the carceral state. A lot of architects have the yips about designing prisons — a lot of people refuse to do that. But when you work in a firm that has no workplace democracy, like most architecture firms, despite the fact that they all call each other families, or whatever, the reality is, is until you have some sort of collective leverage over what projects the bosses want you to work on, you’re stuck building prisons! And so unionization is a really important step to the politicization of architecture to the point where the people who build buildings who are actually involved in the labor of architecture, can say: Hey, man, we don’t want to work on NEOM; this is messed up; I refuse! But until you have that collective leverage, there’s not much you can do, because, again, political problems.

PM: And then you’re challenging the bottom line, which, of course, is not something that’s going to be welcomed there. I wanted to talk a bit about Bjarke Ingels in particular because he is this figure who exemplifies this relationship between tech and architecture to me. You know the field much better than I do, so maybe there are people who are better examples of this. I went to an exhibition that was put on for his work in Copenhagen in 2019. It was this big space in the museum and there were all these models of things that he had, or that his firm had put together. I don’t know how many of them were actually built. Of course, all of these big boards with all this nice language — the types of things that you would see in the tech industry.

One of the things I pulled off that made me think about what you were just saying, and that also seems to relate to the tech language that also exists in the architecture world. One of these boards said, “At BIG we have grown organically over the last two decades from a founder, to a family, to a force of 500. For our next transformation, the gradual growth must become a BIG LEAP.” All that is in capitals because it stands for, “Bjarke Ingels Group of Landscape, Engineering, Architecture and Production.” I think it plays into how he’s using these similar languages. This is the family; I’m the founder of this firm. It gives these tech aesthetics to what is going on here. Whereas, I feel like he is also someone who makes himself out to be the Elon Musk of the architecture world. He is putting out all these massive ideas for what buildings could be, and what the future could look like, and how he’s going to solve all these problems through architecture. What do you make of him? How would you describe him?

KW: I think Bjarke is an extremely talented businessman. He’s really known as being the fun architect and the hot architect. He was really leaning in on that. Like, BIG’s website is like, big.dk. You want to talk about masculine tech founder? It’s giving Marc Andreessen.

PM: Very SpaceX vibes.

KW: Exactly. Bjarke is known for his fun solutions to serious problems. He has this super cute power plant that’s also a ski slope which is like: Dude, no one asked for this, who cares? He’s really good at marketing. He was on the Netflix series about design; he’s very public. He dresses in black turtlenecks, like Steve Jobs. He very much is a product of the first generation of architects to really grow up with the tech industry. I believe he’s in his 40s, so he’s from that generation. He was able to really latch on to a lot of architects were into the Y2K era, technological-posturing. For example, Coop Himmelb(l)au which is working on The Line, and Thom Mayne, who was also working on The Line.

These were architects who are really well known in the 2000s, for their adoption of technologies, in the aesthetics of Y2K era-tech industry. But Bjarke was the only one to really understand the capitalistic goings on of the tech industry and the PR operations of the tech industry and applying those to architecture. Even if he wasn’t the first one, I might be missing somebody, he’s obviously the most effective at it. He does this through this kind of cutesy funness. He has this book called “Yes is More,” which is a pun on Mies van der Rohe’s modernists dictum: Less is more. And it’s a comic book. He’s like a millennial architect, essentially.

PM: But he wouldn’t be a maximalist. He still has a very minimalist, clean line design style.

KW: Yes, he’s Danish, his architecture is just very Danish architecture. They’re modernist minimalist, but they’re heavily articulated buildings. A lot of them are pixelated or broken up into several different masses to create almost superstructure-looking buildings. That extends to his projects like Oceanix, which are also modular, at least in appearance. I don’t know about function. They’re very different things, practically speaking.

PM: I don’t think you need to worry about function on that one.

KW: I don’t think it’s going to get built [both laugh]. But, Bjarke is funny because he’s this Danish guy from the Scandinavian country who’s very pro ‘the solution to the climate crisis is to have fun,’ essentially. If we design things people like, then we’ll solve climate change. I cannot stress to you how vapid this is. He was caught palling around with Jair Bolsonaro because Bolsonaro wanted to create a tourism master plan for part of the country of Brazil. So again, these guys, tech founders, talk out of both sides of their mouth, where they’re promoting an image of making a better world while actually doing things that make the world objectively worse. I guess that’s my little explainer on Bjarke, who is no friend of mine. If you’ve read my columns, he’s always the guy I point to as being emblematic of a lot of what’s wrong with architecture.

Part of that is generational because he’s an old millennial, and I am a middle to young millennial. So for me, he’s the architect that was very on the up and coming when I first got into architecture as a high schooler because he’s 10 years older than me or so. He was very, very successful very, very young, which also gives him this founder aesthetic, so to speak. He was a prodigy in terms of how quickly it took him to begin a firm, grow a firm, and become a partner at that firm. All sort of in his 30s, which is really astonishing.

Architecture firms are almost like advertising firms, like if you watch Mad Men, where it takes a really long time to get your name on the building if you are starting at a firm. Then when you die your name becomes an acronym on the building like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill are all dead, but it’s still SLM. They’re not going to get any more letters. But this is a very mid-century capitalist way of doing architecture, like an international firm. Whereas, Bjarke is very much the millennial way of doing it. Which is like: We’re a family, we are growing, we are changing the world. It’s all tech rhetoric and if you realize it’s all tech rhetoric, you realize how hollow it all is, you don’t buy it for a second

PM: Completely. I feel like you say he’s the one that was taking off as you were going through all this, as you were getting into architecture, learning about these things. For me, as someone who is not very well versed in architecture, he’s one of the few names that I know because he also has this profile and relationship to the tech industry. In the piece that you wrote, I believe it was the one for the Baffler, you wrote about how it’s important for these architects to portray a liberal image even as they work with these dictatorial regimes and stuff. In the tech industry, what we’ve seen recently is it was important for them to have this image in the past, but increasingly, they are becoming much more open with having a right-wing politic and championing that. Has something similar occurred in the architecture industry, is it still important for them to have that liberal image?

KW: I definitely think that it is extremely important for them to have that liberal image because of their proximity to the arts, and the arts have this liberal image. It would not be so great if today’s crop of architecture, I can’t speak for the past, got on the anti-transgender train. It would be bad for them because their whole thing is like: We’re artists. We’re collaborators; we’re this, this, this and this. But unlike the tech industry, which obviously it has a similar rhetoric, but it’s not so close to the arts. In fact, they’re very anti-ar, I would say. It allows a little bit more room for right-wing politics to fester. But I think the actual practical reality of architecture is very right-wing.

I mean, there’s a huge culture of overwork and hero worship, and it’s all very masculine. A lot of that is couched in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” type of aesthetics of the architect is some big hero who’s going to change the world. It’s always a man and he’s usually white. The actual lived politics of architecture are not that far off — it’s just typical capitalist operations. But because architecture is about image making, in a way, that I don’t think tech is exactly. I think they’re quite different in that regard. A lot of architectural production is literally image making — things like NEOM, for example, which will never get built. You’re creating this idea of a changed world in a very aesthetisized and illustrated way. If you just keep your politics generally vague and liberal, then you get away with everything.

For example, Zaha Hadid, who was very heavily involved in the World Cup plans for Qatar’s stadium right before she died. She basically said, because she got so much praise forever about being one of the most powerful women in architecture. I mean, I consider her the Hillary Clinton of architecture, where her progressive imagery is definitely more mythologized rather than concretely expressed in actions. She basically said to the press when they asked her about her stadium being built by what are essentially slaves, migrant workers, who are trapped to working for the Qatari government in order to build the World Cup. She was like: That’s not my problem. So actually, sometimes they do go mask off, but she’s still very much lionized.

Also, David Adjaye — who is probably the most famous black architect who has ever lived — designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian Museum. It’s is a really wonderful building and a very sensitively designed building, and one that I think was one of my favorite buildings of the last ten years just because of how it handled such a sensitive topic. You start in the bottom of the building and then you are gradually uplifted and this architectural parti, of course, mimics the journey that Black Americans have had in this country of being completely subjugated. This subaltern population that through great political struggle, gradually moved more and more up towards the light, so to speak, and into public life and into culture and their work in culture. All of these things are now starting to be, finally, really richly acknowledged. To me it is a head scratcher, why someone who designs a building that is that sensitive, goes on to be like: Yeah, I’m going to do The Line.

Again, it all makes sense if you realize that these are petty capitalists. They make money; they run huge businesses. David Adjaye Associates is not just David Adjaye — it’s him and hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s very important to keep up those appearances. When they get masked off, for example, when it was it came out that Bjarke was working with Bolsonaro, he got really pissed off and was basically, like: The world is more complicated than people want it to seem. That’s always what they say, something like that. It’s like: Well, the world is complicated, or it’s beyond my control or something. They don’t like it when the mask comes off. So the more you pull off the masks, I mean, it’s the urgent work of architecture criticism to pull off that mask, at least in my opinion, in my personal practice.

PM: Totally. Something that’s very common in tech criticism as well to show who these people really are, what they’re actually doing, what their impacts on the world really are, with the types of projects that they’re working on, the type of people that they’re working with. Going back to Bjarke Ingels for a second, you talked about the Oceanix City — which is basically an updated version of Seasteading — which is a libertarian ideal anyway, but concerningly, endorsed by the United Nations. He’s also worked on a supposed Mars city that he wanted to be trialed in the Dubai Desert, or at least he said that was the concept behind it. So these things do seem to be playing on ideas that are coming out of the tech industry. Whether it’s the Seasteading Peter Thiel-type vision of society that he was once associated with. Or Elon Musk saying: We’re going to all go live on Mars, and what’s that going to look like? It does seem to be picking up on the tech bullshit as well, for the credibility and PR that comes with it.

KW: Absolutely. I also think some of these things, to me, are just like: Man, we’re never getting free if this is where the UN is putting their — [both laugh].

PM: I believe I spoke to someone who said that there was someone who was associated with Seasteading, who became involved in this particular UN organization and that’s why they started endorsing this idea.

KW: It’s classic!

PM: All these connections, all the way down for the worst things in projects and people. This becomes presented, as you say, as our solution to climate change when it’s going to do nothing of the sort.

KW: No, I mean, you said it best. That’s the reality of the situation.

PM: I wonder, then to start to wrap up this conversation, what you think of the consequences of this approach? Because you’ve talked a lot about how these issues are inherently political, but the tech industry presents its tech as the way that we solve these problems. The architecture industry presents its buildings and major projects as the solution to climate change or whatever else. Do you think that there is a threat or a risk in the way that they approach these things and the way that people buy into it? Because instead of, say, having governments implementing policies that would address these issues, they say: Oh, look, we are building this massive architectural project or real estate development that is going to address this issue. In the same way that they’re saying they’re going to adopt the technology and it’s going to solve things. What do you think about that?

KW: I personally think that this is really the urgent project of criticism. This is why we actually need architecture critics. They do form an important part of busting this bubble because right now we have a media ecosystem that essentially feeds on PR. Basically, architects and designers send their press releases to places like Archdaily or Dezeen and they’re just republished uncritically. As long as that keeps happening, this reputation laundering is going to continue. For me, personally, my whole project as an architecture critic is to pop this bubble and to burst this idea that this is how the world works, that architects can solve these issues through some formal machinations or technology that’s not real, like solar floating cities or whatever.

That becomes a critical project and media does have something to do with it. I don’t think it’s all incumbent on media. In fact, I think it’s mostly not incumbent on media. Actually, the burden lies on architects. Again, like I said earlier, the more architects become politicized — as workers, as activists — the more they become organized as workers and activists, that’s where the fault line lies. I can sit here in my ivory tower and say: Bjarke Ingles is full of crap for his Seasteading thing. I can say that until the cows come home; he doesn’t care. He’s like: Oh, some architecture critic is mad at me, so what? Architecture critics are always mad because that’s their job.

The architecture ecosystem of production is really reliant on Autodesk software — whether it’s Revit, AutoCAD, SketchUp, whatever. One day in November, which was actually my birthday, November 17th, all of that went down for six hours. It went down and millions and millions of dollars were lost. In offices alone, I can’t imagine around the world. People were not working, not producing, not contributing to the value of the company for almost an entire work day. The revenues lost were extremely substantial. People’s projects were pushed back months because they had things that were due, that they couldn’t export files for to show to clients. I mean, it had extremely widespread material impact.

If you think about that, the power that the stoppage of production in the modern architectural environment — which is heavily dependent on technology — imagine what a strike could do! Millions of dollars in six hours, just gone. Imagine if it’s multiple days, weeks. You want to ask how you solve this problem? How you go about creating a different architecture that isn’t so vapid and stupid and the beliefs that the problems of this world that are political problems, part of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, can just be solved by making a cool building? That power lies in the people who make architecture, full stop.

PM: I think we just need to blow up the Autodesk servers and that’ll do it. [both laugh] I appreciate you making that point because I think it’s really insightful as we think about this industry, what it relies on, and how you might seek to change it. I wonder, do you see things moving in that direction? Obviously, if we think publicly, there’s a lot of people who are interested in your work and the critiques that you level at architecture. I think, recently, about the Vessel in Hudson Yards in New York that received a lot of criticism. I think about the criticism that’s a leveled at the Saudi projects. It does seem like there’s a more common criticism of these architectural ideas and what’s behind them. What do you think of that public shift? Is this more common than I’m making out here? What do you see on the other side of things? Do you see more organizing among the architecture workers and more activism on that side of things as well?

KW: Definitely. I think that first of all, to answer your first point about like public perception, I actually think sports play a huge role in this because these powers that be — like oil companies, like the Saudi regime, etc. — first started laundering their reputation through sports. And they were very successful in this, but people have became pretty cynical about it. There’s lots of jokes — people are always making jokes about the Saudi regime assassinating Khashoggi, for example, when it comes up when some journalist in sports makes a daring question, so to speak. You see a lot of these common sentiments on social media. People are not that credulous people don’t buy the idea that because you bought a sports team, you’re suddenly all good now.

I think this is also bleeding into people’s perception of these autocrats’ roles in architecture. There’s also been a lot of pushback. For example, when Putin launched his war in Ukraine, there was a huge push back to abandoning projects in Russia, that a lot of really, really important architects signed onto. Essentially, they withdrew their labor from from Russian projects. So that’s just one example of if something becomes politically untenable to the point where the criticism is not worth the effort, or it’s not worth the money, it’s not worth the popping of that bubble of suppose liberal politics— if they can’t like come back from that, then, they will retreat. As far as unionization goes, it’s probably one of the more optimistic things about architecture is that architects are definitely becoming more politicized.

You see a lot in, for example, the architecture lobby, which is a organization that is fighting and campaigning for a more equitable and more not terrible architecture. They’re really targeting working conditions and things like licensure, which is a racket, targeting student loan debt, overwork, cultural stuff. Of course, also a huge movement has come from grad student unionization of which architects have been a very, pretty significant part. There were firms, for example, SHoP, who attempted to unionize, but it didn’t work for a variety of reasons. But the attempts are starting. In that direction, things are definitely becoming more positive. So it’s not all terrible news in that regard. In fact, I think actually, we are seeing a real turning point in the politicization of architecture.

PM: Fantastic! I think that’s a great place to leave it, on a positive note. We’ve been talking about so much negative in relation to all this. Kate, it is great to speak with you. Thank you so much for your insights on all this stuff. Thanks so much.

KW: Yeah, thank you!