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What are architects responsible for?

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Difficult messages for architects were voiced as professional ethics came under scrutiny at a Bartlett/UCL debate in London last week

Are architects ignoring big ethical questions about their work and diminishing themselves in the process?

That was one of the fundamental questions raised at Practising Ethics, a timely debate about ethics in practice and academia last Monday. Held at UCL and organised by the Bartlett, speakers included Jonathan Porritt, Paul Morrell, Yara Sharif, Murray Fraser and Alan Penn.

The sold-out symposium – attended by the AJ on account of the title’s current #architectureontrial theme, which focuses on the moral and social responsibilities of architects today – was hosted by the Bartlett’s Jane Rendell and examined subjects ranging from housing and regeneration to big data and from fossil fuels to the use of professional codes of ethics.

Architecture on Trial - ethical business

Academics talking to other academics often makes for a dry affair but the Bartlett has identified a topic of the moment. Many of the speakers were given just 10 minutes to make their case and the typically provocative Jeremy Till, head of Central St Martins, pulled no punches. Till said architects and architectural journalists often confused aesthetics with morality and pointed scathingly to the reaction to David Chipperfield’s luxury Fayland House in rural Buckinghamshire, recently named winner of the Architectural Review (AR) House 2015 Award.

Till showed a beautifully produced video of this elegant white brick house, complete with the owner’s elegant greyhound leaping up steps and trotting through rooms, provoking laughter among the audience. Till mocked AR House Awards judge Adam Caruso’s comment that Chipperfield had made ‘a luxury home that isn’t pompous or a projection of the vanity of its inhabitants’.

Fayland House by David Chipperfield Architects

Fayland House by David Chipperfield Architects

‘The staff bedroom doesn’t have any windows,’ Till exclaimed. ‘I’m not saying this is a crime against humanity but I am saying these people are living in a parallel universe. Some architects and some architectural journalists somehow associate morality with aesthetics.’

This was entertaining, polemical stuff; but surely what Till was really identifying here was an unease about celebrating the architecture of the super-rich in these times of growing inequality. He was on stronger ground when he – like several other speakers – hit out at the ethical codes of the RIBA and the ARB.

Till claimed the 12-point ARB Architects’ code ‘gets architects off the hook’, saying most of the points had nothing to do with ethics but were instead about serving clients. ‘These are the ethics of the marketplace – simply about how one subscribes to the value system and phoney ethics of the marketplace. And yet we are told by ARB that this is a source of ethical guidance,’ he said.

He finished with some striking quotes about real professional ethics, such as the late American architect Sam Mockbee’s ‘Help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so even if nobody is watching’.

Gaza explosion

Devastation in Gaza in the wake of an explosion

Another speaker, Yeoryia Manolopoulou of AY Architects and the Bartlett, took issue with Till’s argument and claimed that aesthetics was indeed part of ethical architecture.

Pointing to her own firm’s award-winning Montpelier Nursery in Camden and other schemes such as its self-initiated public space work in Kentish Town, it was difficult not to agree with her that the creation of beauty in itself can be seen as a moral good, particularly when the beneficiary is the general public rather than a wealthy client owning a field or two in Buckinghamshire.

‘Often we find it necessary to initiate projects – that’s necessary for the survival of the practice but it’s also beneficial for the community,’ she said.

Manolopoulou was among the more positive speakers. Leading environmentalist Jonathan Porritt had another difficult message for architects to digest, this time on the ethics of climate change.

‘When I look at the combined contribution of architects in the UK to addressing climate change – doing something to influence policy makers, doing something to get a handle on what it means to live with climate change, I’m a bit questioning,’ he said.

‘There are, of course, brilliant individuals talking about how important it is to engage morally with this question but for the profession in the round, you’d have to ask the question of whether anyone would associate it with tackling climate change in our troubled world.’ Ouch.

I had expected the rights of migrant construction workers in Qatar to be a major talking point but both Yara Sharif and Adrian Lahoud addressed another global ethical issue and one which last year became such a farce for the RIBA – the Israel/Palestine dispute.

Sharif, a partner in Golzari-NGArchitects and a lecturer at Oxford Brookes’ school of architecture, criticised the Institute’s U-turn on censuring the Israeli Association of United Architects and questioned whether different countries have different understandings of ethics and whether the language and definitions of ethics are changed when this is politically convenient.

The Bridge of Strings, Jerusalem, by Santiago Calatrava

The Bridge of Strings, Jerusalem, by Santiago Calatrava

She also highlighted what she said was a lack of debate about architectural projects which ‘divide’ Israeli and Palestinian communities, such as Santiago Calatrava’s 2008 Bridge of Strings in Jerusalem.

Lahoud – recently appointed to become the Royal College of Art’s new head of architecture – took the discussion away from architects’ own work and presented a collaboration between his Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths College, Amnesty International, and Bartlett urban design students.  The aim of this project is to piece together the events of two days in Gaza last year ‘to determine whether either side is guilty of war crimes’ in a conflict which resulted in the deaths of more than 2,200 people, the vast majority of them Gazan civilians, according to the UN.

The project – which he said was likely to lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court – involved a painstaking sifting through of fragments of digital information, such as satellite images, thousands of miles from the conflict zone.

‘The very place we wanted to investigate would not allow us to visit, so we had to construct a virtual Gaza in London,’ he said.

‘We are definitely not the National Security Agency.  We have no money and we are in a position of technical inferiority. But we have the knowledge and the skillset as architects to investigate things like this, which are very complex.’

All in all this was a vital debate heard by too few ears. Given that ethics is so much more than an academic subject and actually goes to the heart of what it is to be a professional.  A more practical examination of ethics is sorely needed. How long will it be before the architectural profession itself holds such a discussion?

Practising Ethics in Built Environment Research, hosted by Jane Rendell of the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, 29 June 2015, Pearson Lecture Theatre, UCL

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Patrik Schumacher

    The AJ article asks "Are architects ignoring big ethical questions about their work and diminishing themselves in the process?"
    The issues raised were the predictable ones including climate change, growing income inequality ("architects only work for the rich"), and also the devastation of Gaza. Criticism was levelled at RIBA and ARB for promoting a "phoney ethics of the marketplace".

    So are architects responsible for a supposedly immoral capitalism, poverty, climate change, Gaza? Should it be a part of their professional ethic to take a stance on these issues? (Which stance??)
    No, this would be unprofessional over-reach. The false assumption here is that with respect to such issues the correct moral stance is obvious and non-controversial. The expression of indignant outrage is one thing, concrete decisions addressing such issues are something else altogether.
    On what grounds and by who’s empowerment should the architect’s stance and intervention be legitimate? Since this question cannot be answered, the supposed “architect’s responsibility” is an empty, self-engrandizing sham, that only serves to distract the discipline from investing its discursive and research resources to competently address the responsibility it has actually been entrusted with, by the legitimized social actors that are its public and private clients.

    To challenge a e.g. public sector client and intervene on the basis of taking a stance on a controversial moral issues, turns this issue into a political issue which can neither be resolved, nor even effectively debated within the confines of the professional relationship. It can only imply stepping back from the job. That is of course always possible.
    But should these issues really preoccupy the discourse of the discipline?
    No, the discipline is ill equipped to take this on. There are other, better suited, specialized arenas and players to advance these discourses. To miss this crucial point can lead to a rather questionable and bizarre use of academic resources and teaching time: The AJ article mentions a Bartlett/Goldsmith project where students were supposedly led to painstakingly “piece together the events of two days in Gaza last year to determine whether either side is guilty of war crimes”. Aj reports the teacher’s claim that the project is “likely to lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court.” Really? And if so: Whats next? Academics into the country side?
    The urge to do good indiscriminately cannot be the way forward to lift architecture’s deflated self-image. Only the theoretical grasp of architecture’s special societal function and core competency can achieve this. For this you might consult my writings.

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