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Beware the ARB's interest in education

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paul hyett

When Charles Wilson examined the prime minister at the White House in December 1941 he was in no doubt that his patient had suffered a mild heart attack. But to tell him would have potentially disastrous effects: America had just entered the Second World War and nothing should affect the close working relationship already established between Churchill and President Roosevelt. If Wilson prescribed hospitalisation for electro cardiograph analysis, and the inevitable six weeks in bed for coronary insufficiency, he would effectively be advertising to the world that the British pm was an invalid with a crippled heart and a doubtful future.

The effect, only 20 days after Pearl Harbour, would hugely benefit German propaganda, devastate British morale, damage Churchill's confidence, and undermine his authority.

'Is my heart all right?' asked the pm. In the interests of the war, and his country, Churchill's physician advised the patient, with total disregard to professional duty, that there was nothing serious. The American visit continued uninterrupted.

Two days later, when the worried pm, expressing discomfort again, asked for his pulse to be taken, Dr Wilson retorted: 'You're alright, forget your dammed heart!' Happily, Churchill survived such rough treatment.

Good professional judgement? In any other situation the doctor's position would have been indefensible - he clearly failed to act in his patient's best interests, breached his professional duty and disregarded the Hippocratic oath - but this was war. Yet in normal peacetime circumstances a doctor's duty is clear and relates solely to the well being of the patient.

Similarly, the lawyer must abide by strict ethical codes: his professional duty again relates directly to the client's interests. Where crimes are admitted the lawyer argues for leniency; where not, complete vindication and release from custody without any regard to the consequences for the community: the lawyer is not responsible for the future actions of his client - even if he offends again.

But for architects, despite the existence of a clear professional duty to clients (see this column aj 30.7.98), there are always wider considerations which we recognise from our first days in college.

We know that some developers, in exploiting the last ounce of profit, will disregard any longer-term interests of the building's users or the public. They may also ignore issues of maintenance and durability merely to save on construction costs, or ecology when pursuing enhanced sale values. They may neglect the quality of design at the cost of user comfort or public satisfaction - think of those mean housebuilders' plans, or overdeveloped town centre office sites.

So, while the architect of course has a professional duty to his client, his responsibilities cannot be limited in the same way as those of doctors or lawyers.

Ours is a difficult path and it is important that those directing the new Architects' Registration Board understand that the architect should always consider the interests of the broader community when responding to the demands of individual clients. Should the role of schools of architecture ever be limited to preparing students to blindly service customer needs then future architects will be reduced to robots and the voice of architecture will be muted. This is the vision that haunts those who fear the arb's unchecked interest in education.

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