People will be getting killed until it’s all fun and games.
This is the upside-down world of the late 2010s. A time where we have become experts at compartmentalization. What we should see, we choose not to see, and what should not monopolize our attention, does just that. We love our silos, we love hot takes, and we are absolutely transfixed by spectacle.
The spectacle that sadly commandeers our architectural discourse may give us the what, why, who, and the technical how of things, but only when a key player dies do we actually learn about the human how. For Qatar’s Al Janoub Stadium, the game plan is for the human how to be forgotten altogether, buried under layers of positive press regarding its retractable roof and large attendance capacity. And while it may be the home of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, are we really so willing to get lost in the spectacle that we lose sight of the human how?
Al Janoub Stadium was commissioned specifically for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, with a design by the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects. It officially opened in May 2019. Today, it stands as a 40,000-seat stadium, with plans to become a 20,000-seat venue after a tournament that some critics are predicting will be the worst ever. As a matter of fact, all the stadium’s seats and facades are temporary, but they still have to be built for the sake of the event.
From the outside, Al Janoub looks like any other modern marvel of world football. Its swooping facade and roof recall the maritime traditions and decorative patterns of the area. The inside is decidedly more run-of-the-mill, even with the roof pulled back during scorching afternoons, or in the middle of the Qatar winter.
It feels wrong to celebrate the design of Al Janoub Stadium without acknowledging all that was lost leading up to its opening. Not the technical how that makes us marvel, but the human how that should make us uncomfortable.
The human how is how many of the stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup are actually being built. It is the migrant workers from South Asia and other countries being forced to work long hours and live in squalor as they cobble together subsistence for their families back home. The human how is the claustrophobia those workers experience after being lured by the chance to support their families, which they can never leave to visit because their passports have been confiscated by their employers.
Somewhere within the facts about the number of trusses in these venues and the ingenuity of their architecture is the close to 4,000 migrant workers that will be killed to build them in time for the event. Then there are the tears of family members whose loved one sacrificed for them. When people laud or like the designs of these stadiums on social media, or even stand to celebrate a goal scored in the quarter-finals, it will be because of this human how.
Should the architects care? And what about us, the public who supports and lives for such events?
Construction is dangerous, and one or two workers dying on a large site is unfortunate, but not abnormal. 4,000 workers dying to build soccer stadiums for a one-month tournament, however, is way beyond that. It’s a massive cause for concern.
As a soccer fan, I enjoy watching the sport and the thrill that accompanies big matches, both at the club and international levels. However, knowing what I know about the human cost of building glittering architectural baubles like the Al Janoub Stadium, I simply cannot watch it anymore without remembering all those lost. For now, we can only hope FIFA finally gets its act together and starts being more mindful of that human how.