Designs of the Year prize "about architecture
rather than politics" says Design Museum director


Heydar Aliyev Centre by Zaha Hadid

News: the Design Museum in London has defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds.

"It's a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding," Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.

"The jury made a decision on what they thought was the best project. I support that decision but I played no part in making it."

Sudjic also defended the apparent London bias of the prize, which this year saw an all-London jury give the prize to a London-based architect - the fifth consecutive year that a Londoner has won the award.

"If you look at the whole range of what's in the [Designs of the Year exhibition] it's a fascinating overview of international architecture and design," said Sudjic. "[Designs of the Year] is a very international project. It's the one place where you can see that range of projects."

But he added: "We listen and we want to improve."

Sudjic's comments follow a backlash on Twitter and in the international media, after the prize for the best international design of the year went to Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital.

Human rights groups claim that residents forcefully evicted to clear the site for Hadid's cultural centre, and point to wider human rights abuses in the country including election rigging and torture of prisoners.

Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright tweeted: "Zaha Hadid wins award for supporting forced evictions, illegal demolition and bonded labour- well done @DesignMuseum"

Journalist and critic Tom Dyckhoff of The Culture Show tweeted: "Baffling that Zaha can't see that architecture's inherently political".

Architecture critic Owen Hatherley added: "good thing people are angry architect doesn't care about slaves making their buildings".

Former Azerbaijani human rights worker Rebecca Vincent told The Independent that the situation in the country  "is getting worse not better".

She added: "It would be really helpful if a well-known figure like Dame Zaha Hadid could raise these issues while working in the country."

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid

The Design Museum responded to the backlash in a statement issued this morning. "There always has and probably always will be a huge amount of debate around the ethical implications of large scale architectural projects," the statement said. "Designs of the Year always provokes a strong reaction, and the conversation around the realities of contemporary architecture is one that the Design Museum wants to be a part of."

It added: "There is no doubt that Zaha Hadid is a hugely talented architect, and this is what the Design of the Year award recognises."

The Iraqi-born British architect previously faced criticism for saying that architects have "nothing to do with the workers" who have died on construction sites in Qatar, where her stadium design is being constructed for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Hadid's building is named after the former ruler of Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev, previously a senior figure in the KGB, ruled the country during the Soviet era and became its first president following independence in 1991.

The building, which sits on Heydar Aliyev Boulevard and is located between Heydar Aliyev International Airport and the city centre, was commissioned by the former leader's son and the current president, Ilham Aliyev, who took power following his father's death in 2003.

Saffet Kaya Bekiroglu, project architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, said that the Heydar Aliyev Center represented a break with the country's Soviet past.

"They wanted to have something unique, something which is looking at the future, somehow showing their soft, romantic side but at the same time their optimistic side," Bekiroglu told Dezeen at the prize-giving ceremony on Tuesday night.

"When you look at Soviet era [architecture in Azerbaijan], it's more like monumental internalised authoritarian buildings. So, this, we wanted to use this building as an opportunity to soften it up and totally depart from that."

The 2014 Designs of the Year jury was chaired by writer Ekow Eshun and consisted of architect Piers Gough, industrial designer Kim Colin, journalist Tina Gaudoin and last year's winner, web designer Ben Terrett. All five are based in London.

Last year the top prize was won by UK government website In 2012 it went to the London 2012 Olympic torch, designed by Barber and Osgerby. Design of the Year in 2011 was the Plumen lightbulb while the 2010 winner was a folding plug designed by Royal College of Art graduate Min-Kyu Choi.

Zaha Hadid Architects commented: "The Heydar Aliyev Center is an important educational and cultural building and we are delighted it has won the Design of the Year award.

"The contractor that built the centre won a design-build competition employing ZHA as their architect. This contractor, DiA Holding, are assessed and certified by SGS as complying with OHSAS 18001: 2007, an internationally applied British Standard for best practice in occupational health, safety, and management. The Swiss accrediting authority SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance) is the world’s leading inspection, verification and certification company."

Photography is by Iwan Baan.

  • Well

    If human rights aren’t political then this world is seriously sick.

  • Soupdragon

    How can they say it’s about ‘architecture’ when only one of the jurors has even visited the building?

    Architecture is about judgements based in reality, not photography.

    • Tony

      How could YOU say otherwise, if you’ve never been there?!

  • Tom Hughes

    This is a vanity tribute project, named after Azerbaijan’s corrupt president’s father who studied architecture.

    Design Museum’s attitude, which conveniently aligns with Hadid’s own “not my problem SOZ” attitude, represents a serious setback in the values we’re showing the next generation of architects (and the wider design community) to strive for.

    The statement issued by DM in response to the widespread criticism exposes their uncertainty, and failure to understand the impact of their decisions. They’ve positioned themselves as a curious but ultimately disengaged observer.

    Public architecture exists in service to society (as opposed to the architect’s or commissioning body’s ego), and society inherently finds itself embroiled in political complexities.

    To claim that a piece of public architecture is exempt from political discourse means admitting that the work is fundamentally flawed as it fails to take responsibility for it’s own place in society.

  • Bruno de Paris

    Criticism regarding human rights is definitely justified here. Such a whimsical piece of work with no existential meaning is definitely a crime against humanity. Why is Zaha’s architecture praised? Architecture is not fashion, it’s a responsibility towards society and culture.

    • miles jaffe

      Oh come on, you pathological altruists are so freaking annoying trying to crucify everything to put yourselves on moral pedestals. Architecture CANNOT substitute itself for social justice. If you dig enough on any project you will find skeletons. Avoid going for the low-lying fruits already, it’s pathetic.

  • tommasio

    “When you look at Soviet-era architecture in Azerbaijan, it’s more like monumental internalised authoritarian buildings. So, this, we wanted to use this building as an opportunity to soften it up and totally depart from that.”

    The architecture might be wanting to show the romantic and soft side, but in reality the authoritarian aspect of the country is definitely there.

  • Didier

    In agreement with everything here but it is also, as a cynic, worth noting that Hadid owns the Design Museum building. It’s hard to see beyond that cosiness.

  • Detractors ride the bandwagon driven by the grim context of this building, spamming blogs with liberal rhetoric. It is undeniable the unsubtle propaganda associated with the commissioning of this centre. One day the despotic regime in Azerbaijan will be toppled, but this building will remain a keeper, minus it’s title of course.

  • nig

    I agree. If you want to save the world, go work in policy or for an NGO or peace corps. Seriously, if you are worried about unfair labor practices, fight them. Don’t bitch about architects designing in those countries on a blog.

    • Discussion builds consensus.

  • mitate

    I can say, unequivocally, that it’s better than the 2011 light bulb.

  • Cruz Tom

    Architecture is vanity, if it wasn’t we would all be engineers.

  • maarten

    The design museum should be ashamed, Zaha should be ashamed! Architecture is ALWAYS about politics. Just look at what’s happening in Qatar etc.

    Zaha should return the prize and reflect on what happened here, and the Design Museum should make a statement, rather than look the other way and keep repeating the same mistakes. Unfortunately this won’t be happening.

  • Mr Walnut Grey

    This reinforces the fact that I’m not a fan of Zaha Hadid or her work. And I believe the Design Museum should be thinking about the context surrounding a prize, in this case politics and human rights. Design is more than aesthetics alone.

  • Sweeties, architecture is all about making the clients with money look good. Don’t you get it yet?

    • tommasio

      Yes, everybody does get it. As we get that military army has always been assuring the elite classes and keeping them safe from lower classes when necessary, even with use of violence. Nonetheless, when it happens the international community gets outraged. Okay, maybe not you.

  • kibera

    It’s like giving an architectural prize to Auschwitz.

    How can anyone say that you can divide architecture and politics?

    That’s the type of comment that makes people think architects are shallow and egotistical.

    • maj

      Wow! What a hateful antisemitic comment to make about an architectural award winning work! How low one can go!

  • Ori

    No relation to human rights.

    If someone relates this project to human rights I think they are going against human rights. It is a building, it’s art, it’s architecture, it’s Azerbaijan’s natural right to construct any building to anyones name. How can it be against human rights?

  • Architected

    Architecture IS politics, IS engineering, IS social awareness, IS psychology. It is the order and the organisation of human space and how we communicate and interact with each other. This is why architecture is a joke now. It’s now all based on image and judged by product designers and fashion experts who think architecture is solely based on design and aesthetics.

  • david cormalake

    I’m really tired of zahia’s architecture. J’en peux plus!

  • Or how about that Pharaoh’s tomb!

  • Giulio

    It’s the end of architecture as we know it

  • SCAQTony

    Put some railings around it and it would make a great skateboard park.

  • Apparently good clients with no money are much less attractive than bad ones with lots and lots of it.

  • ren

    This is a familiar discussion. The people who loved the work of, for instance, Terragni, had to come to terms with the fact that he was an enthousiastic supporter of the Italian Fascist regime. Terragni’s buildings are now generally acclaimed, irrespective of their murky origins: his buildings aren’t perceived as Fascist. It seems that the ideological content of architecture doesn’t exist. I’m quite sure that Terragni himself regretted that, but there you have it.
    So if a dictator wants a self glorifying prop and it wins the Design Museum’s prize: nothing new here. Zaha Hadid might loose some sleep over the way her building was made but the building won’t comment on it. The prize is justly awarded to this building, not because it is non-authoritarian or soft, but because with architecture such categories don’t matter any more. You might regret that, but there you have it.

  • Early bird

    Yeah, maybe architecture is just a picture of our society, not better and not worse, but I don’t like what I am seeing.

  • Eo267

    “Architecture is for the people and it’s an architect
    journey.” I like the way Zaha believes in her journey! Because her architecture invites us to many kinds of discussion. I think the new museum and traditional surroundings do not hurt each other. People will find their answers and at the same time it will connect people in a way of sharing beliefs and
    thoughts. This will improve and motivate people. So yeah, I like!

  • maj

    Architecture is the art and science of designing a space for collective human interactions. By definition, human interactions can be political, sociological, environmental and psychological. However, it is irrational to criticise Zaha’s work on the basis of its financial sponsors’ political affiliations alone. We should never let the latter influence our judgment about the merits of Zaha’s work. It’s a beautiful masterpiece which shall remain an asset for the people of Azerbaijan long after the dictators are gone. As we have seen often, the historic and iconic architectural treasures will remain for the people, albeit with a new name, as a testament to their will and courage to change the system not to their deposed authoritarian leader.

  • Peter