British starchitect Zaha Hadid, international purveyor of colorless, sloping futuro-structures, is suing Martin Filler, a critic for the New York Review of Books, for allegedly defamatory statements in his recent piece, called "The Insolence of Architecture." In it, Filler wrote about how Hadid "unabashedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern" for the laborers working in brutal conditions, for $0.75 an hour to realize her Qatar World Cup stadium. She's quoted as saying "I have nothing to do with the workers [...] it is not my duty as an architect to look at it."
A few days after Hadid filed a complaint to the New York State Supreme Court, Filler apologized.
As Quartz wrote this morning, Hadid is far from sheltered from the hard knocks of the architectural world. As the planet's leading female architect, she's dealt with the travails of explosive success, from blatant mimicry to petitions against her work led by fellow starchitects to a sudden, bizarre flood of wise-cracks insisting one of her designs (indeed, her Al Wakrah Stadium) looks like female genitals.
And, yes, there's been a fair amount of stern admonishment. Though her Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, won London Design Museum's Design of the Year award, publications have repeatedly wrote about forced evictions (defined by the Human Rights Watch as "police detaining homeowners and their families without explanation, did not allow them access to legal counsel, and released them without charge hours later") thanks to fancy, petrol-funded projects like Hadid's. There was, according to The Guardian, a "wave of protest" when the Heydar Aliyev Center, described by award jurors as "the pinnacle" of Hadid's work, won the award.
So what's so different now? The answer lies in what exactly makes something defamatory. To be considered as such, a statement must be (1) untrue and (2) damaging to a person's reputation or character, often by diminishing public respect or regard for the person. The greatest defenses for libel are truth and "fair comment," which is basically legalese for "opinion," or, more specifically, statements the writer believes are true despite the fact that they are not facts.
Filler's critique was not architectural in nature. It was a critique of a book by The Guardian's archicritic Rowan Moore. Filler's critique, thus, was not of Hadid's work but of her person, which becomes a lot dicier re: reputation ruining. Hadid's lawyers say Filler's piece was "a personal attack disguised as a book review," writing:
"Mr. Filler wrote a review of a 370-page book on architecture in which Ms. Hadid's name is mentioned in fewer than 20 pages. Mr. Filler's book review, by contrast, mentions Ms. Hadid in nearly two-thirds of its paragraphs [...] Nearly all of those references are used to call our client's success into question or to characterise her personality as difficult. It is a personal attack disguised as a book review and has exposed Ms. Hadid to public ridicule and contempt, depriving her of confidence and injuring her good name and reputation." How was this "attack" phrased? These words come from Filler's critique:
"She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. 'I have nothing to do with the workers,' Hadid has claimed. 'It is not my duty as an architect to look at it.'" He goes on to talk about the "estimated one thousand laborers" that have "perished while constructing her project thus far."
Turns out, that's simply not true—hence the published apology. Yesterday Filler backpedaled on his facts, writing in a correction apology that:
"Work did not begin on the site for the Al Wakrah stadium until two months after Ms. Hadid made those comments; and construction is not scheduled to begin until 2015. There have been no worker deaths on the Al Wakrah project and Ms. Hadid's comments about Qatar that I quoted in the review had nothing to do with the Al Wakrah site or any of her projects. I regret the error." It's unclear how the retraction/apology will change things in court. In fact, the whole court scenario is one giant unknown. Defamation suits often boil down to whether or not the plaintiff (that would be Hadid in this case) is considered a "public figure." If the starchitect is considered a public figure, Hadid must prove the untrue statements were made "with malice" (essentially on purpose to spite her) which is very, very difficult to do. If nothing else, if the case continues, it's a podium well-suited for debating whether and which super famous architects willingly cast themselves into their celebrity status. Stay tuned.
· The Insolence of Architecture [NY Book Review]
· Zaha Hadid Sues Critic Over Book Review [Dezeen]
· Zaha Hadid sued a prominent architecture critic for defamation, and now the critic is apologizing [Quartz]
· All Zaha Hadid coverage [Curbed National]