On Ethics and Fair Labor in Architecture: The Example of Theaster Gates’ Serpentine Pavilion Design

When he was invited to design the 21st Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens public park, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates envisioned a calm space to offer respite and a subtle exploration into the power of sound and music in architecture. Created out of lightweight stained wood, the “Black Chapel” demonstrates more than just artistic and architectural sensibilities. In addition to the use of sustainable materials, the project also pays close attention to how the building materials are sourced, bringing visibility to the problem of modern slavery in the construction materials supply chain.

To ensure fair labor conditions not just on-site, but throughout the entire production process, the Serpentine Pavilion collaborated with Grace Farms, a US-based non-profit foundation helping designers and industry leaders to eliminate forced labor in the building materials supply chain, thus establishing more ethical practices and a more humane future.

The concept behind the pavilion has its roots in a 2017 commission from the Walker Art Center for Theaster Gates to build the “Black Vessel for a Saint,” now installed as a permanent structure in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The installation, which reuses found materials, houses one of the sculptures salvaged from the now-demolished Saint Laurence Church in Chicago. The pavilion in London was initially conceived as the ‘vessel’ for more materials brought from Chicago, but the plan changed when the ecological footprint of such a move became apparent.

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I had to think, OK, how can I make a vessel with materials already here. That in its emptiness feels great, but it’s also a space where you could imagine it with others. That it holds people well was what was on my mind. – Theaster Gates, in an interview for Dazed

Coming from an artistic practice that regularly employs found materials to expose hidden stories, Gates’ attention to the origin of materials extended to the new building elements. To a surprising extent, raw and composite materials across the building industry are produced using forced labor, modern forms of slavery, and illegally sourced goods, according to a recent report. In order to limit the use of such materials, the team behind the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion collaborated with Design for Freedom, an initiative of Grace Farms aiming to identify and disrupt the forced labor in the building materials supply chain and to reimagine the architecture sector as a more humane industry.

‘Black Chapel’ thus became the first international Pilot Program to take shape as part of the Design for Freedom initiative. Grace Farms, the non-profit behind this program, served as Responsible Materials Advisors for the project, collaborating with AECOM and the Pavilion design team to trace the supply chain for the plywood, timber, steel, concrete, and waterproofing membrane. Investigating the 16 main suppliers and manufacturers, the project team determined the material sourcing as far back as possible, to Tier 4 suppliers and, in some cases, to the point of raw material extraction. This allowed the team to create transparency and to choose products with a reduced risk of forced labor and child labor.

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Working on a tight six-month timeline for material selection, construction, installation, and completion, one of the main focus points for the team was the sourcing of timber. As the pavilion has a paired-back expression, this lightweight low-carbon material was essential for achieving the goal of an expressive yet constrained architecture that could be fully demountable. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the team chose not to procure materials from Russia, a major timber exporter, to avoid financing the conflict. Although official sanctions were not in effect until July 2022, the team proactively aligned with the evolving geopolitical situation. While many architecture practices withdrew from active projects in the conflict zones, the unethical production of materials for export is often an invisible but impactful aspect.

The procurement of wood thus became one of the most important efforts and lessons in understanding international material sourcing related to conflict zones. While environmental factors rarely cause conflicts, the exploitation of natural resources like timber can drive violence. Timber, along with minerals like tin, tantalum, tungsten, diamonds, and gold, is a significant conflict resource, but certifications such as the FSC attempt to showcase and enforce ethical and sustainable standards. The Design for Freedom Pilot Project procured FSC-certified timber from Sweden and plywood from Finland, emphasizing ethical sourcing.

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There is life inside these materials that people don’t see, and it’s my job to make that life evident. – Theaster Gates

As the first Responsible Materials Advisor in the history of the Serpentine Pavilion, Design for Freedom also highlighted the need for transparency in order to minimize the risk of financing materials related to modern slavery. In 2015, the United Kingdom enacted the Modern Slavery Act, mandating that businesses with profits over £36 million publish annual statements detailing actions to prevent slavery and trafficking in their operations. The Black Chapel project was the first Design for Freedom pilot in a country with such legislation, aiding supplier engagement and awareness. The legislature act has also influenced similar laws across Europe.

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Through its shape and scale, the pavilion draws attention to the interior space, conceived as a space for gathering, meditation, and participation. The pavilion also became a platform for bringing visibility to this humanitarian crisis. On-site signage informed visitors of the role of modern slavery in the supply chain and offered insight into the efforts to limit the proliferation of such practices. Several meetings and artistic events further highlighted the process of tracking materials in the 21st Serpentine Pavilion.

The Black Chapel project had been designed to be a fully demountable structure, counting on the reusability of its elements. Now the Pavilion is closed and disassembled, with an intention to be re-sited to a new permanent location.

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Recently, Grace Farms has opened a new long-term exhibition focused on the same theme: offering insights into the methods of producing and distributing building materials, as well as the pervasive practices of forced labor happening in the materials supply chain worldwide. The exhibition presents the “Design for Freedom” initiative, along with its completed and ongoing pilot programs.

This feature is part of an ArchDaily series titled AD Narratives, where we share the story behind a selected project, diving into its particularities. Every month, we explore new constructions from around the world, highlighting their story and how they came to be. We also talk to the architects, builders, and community, seeking to underline their personal experiences. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Doing More With Less. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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