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Help us fill the ethics void

Rory Olcayto
  • 1 Comment

What are the moral duties of the architect in today’s chaotic, globalised marketplace? asks Rory Olcayto

Last week was typical: on the one hand we have Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne asking the Chinese to build the UK’s HS2 rail network and nuclear power stations and getting a pat on the back from their establishment to boot for ‘not raising the human rights issue’. On the other, we have our high-brow media slamming Zaha Hadid for working in Qatar, where human rights are abused on construction sites, and not raising this very point.

‘Better to be a dog in peacetime, than to be a man in a time of chaos.’ So wrote Feng Menglong, in his 1627 collection of tales, Stories to Awaken the World. Haven’t you read it? Me neither. But you have probably heard a misappropriation of this one line at least, because it is, according to Wikipedia, the source of the oft-repeated Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’. It’s worth mentioning now because, well, we live in interesting times.

It’s all a bit confusing. Why are we courting a government that stifled calls for democracy in Hong Kong as recently as last year? And why is Zaha Hadid targeted for daring to work in Qatar? In the government document Doing business in Qatar: Qatar trade and export guide under the heading ‘Challenges’, the requirement to have a local sponsor or business partner with a 51-49 per cent split in favour of the Qatari partner is cited as the chief burden. Other challenges, it says, include: high levels of bureaucracy; procurement on price, rather than quality; a market not well regulated, especially on environmental matters; a highly competitive and in some sectors saturated market; and so on …

Nothing about the poor health and safety record, then. Nor about the kafala (sponsorship) system, which is easily manipulated to restrict workers’ rights. Both have played a part in the 1,200 deaths of construction workers estimated by the International Trade Union Confederation.

But it’s not simply a matter of who we choose to work with overseas. The profession’s propensity for designing not-very-good ‘luxury’ housing for the international investment market when housing provision at the other end of the market is close to nil suggests its ethics might have been left outside of that particular tent as well.

Then there are architects who find themselves working simultaneously on ‘good’ regeneration projects (where residents have a strong role in the outcomes) and ‘bad’ regeneration projects (where residents are relocated away from their homes, which are subsequently demolished and redeveloped at a much higher market price). Is that OK? Does hypocrisy matter? Should it?

The government promotes work in China, Qatar, and many other places that seem to be at odds with our democratic outlook. The RIBA, too, is less focused on international business guidance than you might expect it to be, given that so much of the profession’s revenue flows from overseas today.  Yet there is a growing sense that the time has come to take a more principled stance.

The AJ wants to work with you to fill this void. We want to help define a set of ethics that can reasonably be applied to contemporary architectural practice. The question is: are you up for it? Or is it better to be a dog?


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    It is clear from RIBA's consultation that its members place significant value on the role of the profession in supporting the broader public interest.

    World and national leaders continue to call for better value (in the case of the UK's Construction Strategy, reducing the cost by 30%), higher quality and more sustainable design in the built environment. And society has set apart 1% of the cohort of students in tertiary education expressly to be trained to meet this objective - as Architects. And yet the profession of Architecture continues to decline in its influence and its fortunes.

    The RIBA should review, clarify and reinforce the covenant between architects and society and do whatever possible to remove the confusion that exists in this area. Roger Shrimplin, The Institute's Honorary Secretary, referred in a June Council debate to the particular importance of defining and upholding standards of professional conduct. I'm assuming its implicit in awarding Zaha Hadid its Royal Gold Medal that no-one at the Institute is suggesting any ethical shortcomings in her practice. I agree we must act to clear up any ambiguity.

    Of course, there are inevitable questions of definition and clarification that precede any useful discussion: How do you define the public interest? Is it against the public interest to attempt to do so or would this simply lead to inevitable unintended consequences? To what extent can different political viewpoints be accommodated within the same ethical code? Is it relevant or right to attempt to impose behaviours based on an ethical position in circumstances that are beyond the political or practical reach of the institutions concerned? What do you do when your principles point one way and a client's needs or wants point another? Has any member of a professional institution ever been sanctioned for failing to put the public interest above their own needs or those of their clients? And so on.

    I have noted that the confusion existing in this area is not helped by the by the overlapping roles of ARB and RIBA. One or other should have the role of setting, monitoring and policing a code of conduct, not both, and not differently! I believe that the RIBA's purpose is to advance a diverse Architecture and profession of all kinds and callings - provided practice follows an overarching code. Particular issues requiring clarification are our duty to the environment, to act with probity (especially in foreign markets) and not to infringe human rights in the way we design and deliver services (Our proficiency in CDM here in the UK can show the world the way in construction worker's health and safety).

    The Edge Commission recommendations on ethics and the public interest should be followed, namely to:

    • Develop and standardise a national code of conduct/ethics across the built environment professions, building on shared experience in the UK and internationally.
    • Make public and clear the procedures for complaint and the institution’s sanctioning process, details of members who have been sanctioned, and the grounds for doing so.
    In response to my questioning on this in Council, I'm told RIBA has responded in a spirit of collaboration, and is committed to working with The Edge and the key leading professional institutions on appropriate joint action. I hope so.

    Undoubtedly, architects need to offer more than simply professional propriety masquerading as an ethical position, which, to quote professor Jeremy Till 'even my hairdresser could meet'. Future requirements might include:
    • Engagement with the public in their work - both on project and to communicate benefits and value in lay terms.
    • Integration with the means of production - design that starts with an understanding of construction process.
    • Commitment to measurable building performance - both prediction and post occupancy evaluation.
    • Involvement in education - recognising life-long learning and the dearth of 'learn as you earn' opportunities.
    • Sustainability - an obligation to point out the relative costs and benefits of appropriate measures to clients.
    • Collaborative research - working with others and communicating new ways of practice and means of production.
    • A declaration of high level principles - recognising the diversity of roles, forms of practice and political affiliations that legitimately co-exist within any ethical framework.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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