Is it "ethical" for architects to build towers like the Burj Khalifa


Not too long back, I had gotten into a discussion with a principal at one of the large architectural firms, who mentioned that some of the projects I had worked on were "unethical", because they were in developing countries, where, typically there is a very loose framework, if any of developmental regulations and planning policies. His take was that one should not even consider working on projects like those.

Now, on the other hand, his firm was responsible for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which, as most of us know is, at best, nothing but an unnecessary tower built with the sole purpose of being the highest in the world. Not only that, even the sewage collection from the Burj is done by trucks as there is no sewage infrastructure in Dubai.

Without trucks, the tallest building in the world will be the tallest mountain of poop

If working on certain projects in developing economics is unethical, is this not as well? I hate it when corporate architects start alluding that they are serving a greater purpose than making money.

Nov 18, 11 3:13 pm

"GROSS: Right. So you know, you write that in Dubai they don't have like, a sewage infrastructure to support high-rises like this one. So what do they do with the sewage?

ASCHER: A variety of buildings there; some can access a municipal system, but many of them actually use trucks to take the sewage out of individual buildings. And then they wait on a queue to put it into a wastewater treatment plant. So it's a fairly primitive system."

Nov 18, 11 3:14 pm

So, what you're really saying is that it is unethical for architects to have large erections. Because that is what it sounds like to me.


Nov 18, 11 5:03 pm

I wanted to write up a big long post, but it would boil down to this: There is so much irony in that principle's statement vs. his work that I don't even know what to say. Good for you for not bursting out laughing in his face; you are a stronger person than me.

Nov 18, 11 6:06 pm

We don't have to go overseas for ethical dilemmas!  How about the shiny new project on these shores...

  • whose architect uses unpaid intern labor?
  • with the bold, avante garde design that is opposed by all the neighbors?
  • whose objective is to make more profit for an already-wealthy developer?
  • which requires demolition of old apartment housing, where low rents are absolutely critical to seniors and other low-income folks?
  • whose owner manages to skirt environmental review, or get a big code variance, thanks to political connections?
  • whose owner is an oil company or other global corporation out for profit?  Or an institution whose mission you oppose?

We face these kinds of ethical questions every day (if we choose to acknowledge them), right here in the first world.

Nov 18, 11 6:58 pm

I should actually have burst out laughing in his face, but was introduced by an employee that I did not want to screw over. It seems that the type of projects they want to take over are based on the ratio of fees/unethical. When the fees are high, like at the Burj, it is perfectly alright to take on any project.

Nov 18, 11 8:05 pm
chatter of clouds

it proved to be rather stupid and pointless perhaps, what with the crisis. but i did read somewhere that superlative structures are inversely measured on an economic chart: at the economy's peak, the tower was kickstarted...when it reached completion, the economy was collapsing. but thats not the point...

dubai, especially near sheikh zayed motorway is rife with towers. to answer your question - of you had one-, dubai tower isn't so out of context. for all its height, one doesnt feel it as being invasive. its probably more than twice the height of towers in its vicinity, but at some point, height becomes its own parody and it stop carrying  the expected, for me, impression. from far away (when there is no dust to obscure sight) , it looks a bit funny, a peak scherzo of sorts. of course after being given to sheikh khalifa, its no longer part of dubai, its part of abu dhabi (1.30 hr drive away if you abide by speed limits) 

i do not think you should immediately dismiss the principal's point of view without evaluating whether your towers, in some way, belong to their surroundings. sewage is pumped out here, correct. that was the case in saudi arabia as well.  i don't see the point of no trucks = mountain of poop. you can subtract any support system in a western city and then find that the resultant is useless residue.

for me, the issue of ethics is both on a larger and smaller scale than this medium singular excercise of the tallest tower on earth (is it still?). it has to do with with the labour force, class-ethnic differentiation, appropriation of human rights...etc. but, unlike the dubai bashers aplenty, i will say that these sentiments firstly do not reside in solely in this region of the world, secondly they are equally perpetrated by the westerners who came or come looking for an overpaying job because they're westeners (to be blunt, no shame in that..who doesnt want to be overpaid)....etc.

anyway, an architect is just a very modest cog in the economy. architecture is ugly, its beautiful impassivity. construction industry's blood diamond.

Nov 19, 11 12:12 am

No there's nothing unethical.  If they want to pay for that shit, we'll do it!  And we will expect to be well-paid.

Nov 19, 11 9:29 am

Business is business, as usual

Nov 19, 11 9:57 am

Is it any more ethical to design those condo towers on the Chicago lakefront that contributed so much to the mortgage/bubble there? How about City Center in Las Vegas or a zillion suburban sprawl suburbs throughout the land? Anything in NOLA 'cause the city's protections against flood are so clearly inadequate? Anything in TX, AZ, GA, CA or NV at all since there's no water? Any building in a 100 year floodplain anywhere? If we were to impose such strict standards on who deserves to use our services, there wouldn't be any projects anywhere, and hence places like Dubai would never have a reason to build (or retrofit) that infrastructure in the first place! To my mind, a legitimate ethical question is, does the project do harm, in a direct sense? Are you contributing to corruption or illegality? Have you designed it to sufficient standard that it or it's systems won't endanger the life or health of its users or neighbors? Are you directly contributing to gross injustice (such as working tor a genocidal or apartheid regime, or contributing to a severe social wrong, as designing prisons in America would arguably be doing)?

Nov 19, 11 12:51 pm

Exactly. Business is  Business, and we need buildings, at the end of the day (and we need jobs as well!). The point is that its is highly irritating and even wrong when the principals in such firms can pick on smaller firms (like us) and give us a rant on what is ethical and what is not.

Nov 19, 11 3:08 pm

i do not think you should immediately dismiss the principal's point of view without evaluating whether your towers, in some way, belong to their surroundings. sewage is pumped out here, correct. that was the case in saudi arabia as well.  i don't see the point of no trucks = mountain of poop. you can subtract any support system in a western city and then find that the resultant is useless residue.


Oh please. If an area can't afford to lay down a mile of, what, 24" sewer pipe from a main to the tower, you really have to question the motivation of a city who then chooses to surround such towers with 6-10 lane roads, 15' sidewalks and palm tree every space every 10' apart. Dubai didn't start building sewage infrastructure for vast parts of the city until after people had criticized it starting around 2005-2007. The power players of Dubai are certainly wealthy but it would be a stretch to call them anything other than imposters as it is clear they are attempting to the grandest things on the most hollow of foundations.


Architects, outside of design-build, have little will of their own over the placement, operation and approval of their work.

So, you really have to separate ethical questions down to investor-owner, planning board, architect and construction company.


Nov 19, 11 3:58 pm

In regard to ethics, here is a simple test my father taught me.

Given the choice, would you rather sleep or would you rather eat? 


Nov 19, 11 4:57 pm

Then Emirates goes and buys 50 Boeing 777s in it's bid the to be the worlds biggest airline and wants to buy Boeing F/A 18s WTF 4?

Nov 19, 11 10:43 pm

I guess Burj Khalifa wasn't tall enough, so Adrian will do one one taller yet:

Nov 19, 11 11:10 pm
chatter of clouds

how long did it take for  london to smell its own butt and take action?

if dubai is to be accused of being unethical, then most of the western world should be deemed criminal. don't oh please me, you sleevless stud boy; you don't have an argument.. unfortunately, i don't have the will to answer pompous opionated sperm banks here anymore, i'd rather kiss them on their lush lips to shut them up. bon courage

Nov 21, 11 12:35 am

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