Moral Obligation or Economic Stimulation?

by Maggie Flickinger

As World Architecture News recently reported, the Aceh Tsunami Museum recently opened in Indonesia, which was ravaged by the Tsunami and its aftermath in 2004, causing over 160,000 deaths. While in concept, honoring the victims and the tragedy surrounding this incident is honorable, the project met controversy both at its inception and at its dedication. Concern began with the siting of the museum and the demolition of two heritage buildings to accommodate the new structure. Limited communication with the community and the survivors during the design process compounded the situation. The culmination came at the dedication ceremony however, when allegations contended that over 700 families have not yet been rehoused while the museum – now one of Aceh’s most opulent structure – cost over $6.5 million US dollars in funds distributed by the Aceh Reconstruction Fund (ARF).

It is important to point out that the architect, Ridwan Kamil, has publicly stated that he was under the impression the funds were coming from Cultural / Public building funds, and that he certainly would not have participated had funds knowingly come from “more important priorities, such as survivor rehousing.”

Yet I sense an opportunity here for rumination….a more overarching philosophical consideration.

For me, this reality has illuminated a difficult position in the architectural profession. In a situation such as this, does the Architect have a moral obligation – or even a simpler social responsibility – to decline a commission in light of complicating circumstances? Or is simple reliance on the ARF’s methods of funds distribution sufficient? How valid is the argument that the museum will continue to economically benefit the region through increased tourism, therefore offsetting its initial cost? Or is the thought that the ARF conceived of the museum as a tourist-oriented, money-generating opportunity even more reprehensible?

Perhaps it is idealistic, or fundamentalist, but it is my opinion that the basic obligation of an architect is to provide shelter, which then addresses & indeed affects institution, social order, and ecology, and other humanistic endeavors. (For a much more intellectual dissertation on this architectural philosophy, I would recommend reading Dripp’s The First House: Myth, Paradigm, and the Task of Architecture.) Of course, when theory meets practice, this becomes much more convoluted.

What are your thoughts or opinions?

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