The Human Cost of Modern Architectural Megaprojects

By Dylan Freestone

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa currently stands as the world’s tallest building at 828 metres tall, which is roughly three times the size of the Eiffel tower. Its design saw many breakthroughs in architectural engineering allowing it to withstand extremes of heat, wind and sandstorms and soar to such a height that it is possible to watch the sun set twice if one takes the rapid elevators to the top. 

Unfortunately there is a darker side to this record-breaking skyscraper. 

During its 6 year construction, only one death was officially reported, when a man fell in 2007. However, a Human Rights Watch study concluded that there were many deaths which were omitted relating to “heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide.” Furthermore, 95% of the workforce in the United Arab Emirates are migrants who are exploited and many of the workers involved in the Burj Khalifa earned the equivalent of under $10 a day. The Human Rights Watch report made reference to a psychiatrist in Dubai, Dr Shiv Prakash who explained the rise in suicides of construction workers was related to the fact that the workers were essentially involved in bonded labour, a situation in which they risked everything and left their homes, and then were terribly exploited and could not leave. 

A more recent and increasingly infamous example is Qatar’s Al Janoub stadium, one of the 8 stadia built in anticipation of the 2022 World Cup. Designed by the late Dame Zaha Hadid, it is a strikingly beautiful curvilinear building which has been designed both to provide optimal shade and to use aerodynamics to control the temperature, reducing the workload of its enormous cooling systems. A recent Guardian study found that there have been 6,750 deaths of South Asian migrants involved in the Qatar World Cup project and like the Burj Khalifa, these were not unavoidable. Unbearable working conditions and temperatures of 45ºC has resulted in ‘significant heat stress’ leading to respiratory failure as well as “multiple blunt injuries due to a fall from height; asphyxia due to hanging; undetermined cause of death due to decomposition.” 

I want to mention that in many cases, large scale architectural projects result in very few or even no deaths, for example it is notable that there were no fatalities during the construction of London’s Shard and even the Chrysler Building in New York which topped out in 1930. Other skyscrapers have resulted in the deaths of workers around the world due to accidents or poor safety and by no means is this limited to the Persian Gulf. However the scale of negligence and death involved in constructing Qatar’s stadia is way out of proportion. It is also completely avoidable, especially when these deaths were clearly not accidents. 

Perhaps the cruel irony is that both the Burj Khalifa and the Qatar stadium are works of Neo-futuristic architecture. This not only refers to their ‘futuristic’ aesthetic but it relates to an architectural movement which evolved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries which adapts to use new technology, construction materials and crucially considers ethical values. Neo-futurist architecture aims to be in touch with human emotions and sustainability. Zaha Hadid Architects considered sustainability in the design of the Al Janoub stadium and hoped to “better serve the community” by allowing 20,000 of the 40,000 seats in the stadium to be removable so they can be transported to a developing country in need of sporting infrastructure. However this could never repay the debt owed to the families of the migrants who have died as a result of the working conditions. The Neo-futurist manifesto talks about a “cross-pollination of art, cutting edge technologies and ethical values combined to create a pervasively higher quality of life”, but clearly in these cases, there is a glowing contradiction. A step forward in design does not justify a step backwards in working conditions and basic human rights. It raises the issue of how far an artist’s vision becomes lost along the process of construction when money is prioritised over people. Architectural firms now have a choice when commissioned to design large-scale projects by certain countries with shockingly bad human rights records. This phenomenon is not new and architects, investors and construction firms will face a moral challenge, aware that certain countries will bring them massive wealth but at a shocking human cost. 

We often ask the question: can the art be separated from the artist? I think it is equally important to ask can the building be separated from the bloodshed? The final issue involved in this is how we approach these buildings once we know the price that has been paid. I would argue that we can still marvel at these achievements in design and construction but we have to know the full story. Is there a plaque commemorating the deaths at the base of the Burj Khalifa? No. Will there be a ceremony at the World Cup for those who have suffered? Seems unlikely. 

And the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia is set to be the new tallest building in the world at over a kilometre in height. The construction broke ground but has been on hold since 2018 for unclear reasons. Saudi Arabian expert at Human Rights Watch, Adam Coogle suggested that “every major construction project in Saudi Arabia uses migrant workers,” and it does not seem like a stretch to speculate that more suffering will ensue when work resumes. 


Burj Khalifa

Human Rights Watch Report 

The Guardian 23/02/2020

Timeline of Construction deaths

Qatar Stadium Sustainability

Neo-Futurist Manifesto

Jeddah Tower and Saudi Arabia

Image Credit


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