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Dictator Chic: BIG Wins Competition to Build National Library of Kazakhstan

BIG beat out Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid in a competition to architect the National Library of Kazakhstan--which happens to be a notoriously corrupt regime. Should we care?

Library of Kazakhstan

Bjarke Ingels Group has just won a hotly contested competition to design the new national library of Kazakhstan. Just one niggle: The library happens to be sponsored by a brutal and corrupt regime. It's being personally sponsored by the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been roundly criticized for squashing opposition and lining his pockets with billions. Does it matter? Do architects have moral obligations?

BIG's design, on its own merits, is striking. Inspired by the Mobius Strip, the outer skin of the building twists, so that the walls eventually become a ceiling, and outside surfaces curve inside. The actual floor plan isn't quite as wobbly and weird as the exterior suggests. Rather, the rooms are organized in a circle; the gap between that circle and the building's twisting skin creates space for gently sloped walkways, which spiral up the building:

Library of Kazakhstan

BIG calls that a "symbiosis" of nature and city--a "perfect circle" joined with a "public spiral." The basic organization echoes their design for the Denmark pavilion for the 2010 World Expo, in Shanghai.

But there is, of course, a bigger context for the architecture. Kazakhstan is notoriously corrupt; for governmental transparency, it ranks below both Iran and Liberia. Meanwhile, the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who commissioned the library, is infamous for dissolving the parliament and remaking it with cronies. He's a billionaire, thanks to wealth secreted from the state-run oil ministry. One of his critics turned up dead, shot three times in a reported suicide.

None of this is to single out BIG--after all, there were 19 teams in the competition, including luminaries such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. But it's still troubling that so many architects seemed unfazed by the politics involved here. Perhaps one reason that there isn't much uproar over Kazakhstan is that its troubles aren't the stuff of international headlines. If this were North Korea or Iran, you can bet no big-name architects would come anywhere near a state-run competition.

Indeed, the architects who participated in the competition have certainly benefited from two unlikely fig leafs: Borat and Lance Armstrong. Armstrong just finished riding for the Kazakhstan-sponsored Team Astana (Astana being the new state capital, where the library will be sited). And Borat, meanwhile, has made the country into a huge punchline--in fact, the first comment on the designs over at DesignBoom was, "Is nice. I like. Hi five!"

Architects, of course, can choose who they work with; and architects, through the ages, from Mies van der Rohe to Le Corbusier have shown a willingness to work for whoever pays (especially because they're always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy). Their retort has usually been either a coy agnosticism, or something along the lines of, "Architecture supports democratic values of freedom and public discourse." Rings a bit hollow, no?

Library of Kazakhstan

Library of Kazakhstan

Library of Kazakhstan

Library of Kazakhstan

Library of Kazakhstan

Architects, of course, can choose who they work with; and architects, through the ages, from Mies van der Rohe to Le Corbusier have shown a willingness to work for whoever pays (especially because they're always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy). Their retort has usually been either a coy agnosticism, or something along the lines of, "Architecture supports democratic values of freedom and public discourse." Rings a bit hollow, no?

[Images via Arch Daily]

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