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Royal Academy architectural ethics debate

Rory Olcayto
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Architects have the power to directly promote the public interest when cities embrace ethical governance, says Rory Olcayto

‘Ethics and architecture should not inhabit the same sentence,’ said Jonathan Meades at the Royal Academy’s Architectural Ethics debate earlier this week, so my apologies to Jonathan for doing just that. Soz! Still, Meades is wrong, and his ensuing argument - ‘We never hear about ethical novelists or ethical dancers, so why should we expect architects to be ethical?’ - while funny, doesn’t really add up.

As Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, a study of the privatisation of public space in Britain and another speaker at the RA event, put it: ‘Unlike novelists, architects are seen as directly influential.’ You can stop reading a crappy novel, after all. On the other hand, a bad building in your neighbourhood, one perceived as ethically unsound for any number of reasons - dodgy supply chain, anti-sustainable make-up, status as a financial instrument rather than community asset - will haunt you for as long as it’s there.

Yet Meades is kind of right, as well. The debate didn’t really get anywhere, veering from the rights and wrongs of luxury housing in London to the building of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine and, when a member of the audience, as a closing comment, said: ‘Architects don’t make the decisions, they don’t have any power,’ her point about the ethical dimension was much the same as that made by Meades. ‘Forget it’, in other words.

Minton’s view on the matter again proved useful. The reason that the idea of ethical architecture has currency today, she said, is because ‘the triumph of the private sector has led to an erosion of the public interest’. The inference is that the mental and physical space that ‘public interest’ once occupied needs to be reclaimed.

Minton’s observation was my cue to make a point from the floor: how can architects make a positive contribution to, or even take the lead in redefining this site of ‘public interest’, now that global, rather than local, forces are shaping the places we live in?

For an answer, look to Norway. The City of Oslo has set in place a programme to monitor the ethical standards in its supply chain and 68 government entities have joined the initiative. It’s a clear signal to the supplier market that the municipality is committed to its ethical and social responsibilities.

As cities grow more powerful in terms of the influence they wield, it seems right that they should use their powers to promote ethical business practices within their boundaries. London, one could even argue, has more clout today in the interconnected world of business, technology, politics and lifestyle than does the nation state of the UK.

Could British cities follow Oslo’s lead and sign up to a similar initiative, so that their local economies might flourish within a framework promoting the common good? Yes, if architects and other leading public service professionals are willing to push for it. Londoners: your chance is coming. Lobby your mayoral candidate. It would be the first step towards ensuring we create a more equitable built environment for Britain’s capital city.

Wait a minute: ‘equitable’ and ‘London’ in the same sentence? Yup.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • What is so sad about this is the delusional nature of the architect's influence in 2016. I recently heard that a prominent Manchester region residential developer won't allow architects to even influence the choice of structure and materials...they are basically turned into flunkies that get planning permission with a 'grabby' Local Authority seeing big investment - and who can blame them? The one thing the architect community and architectural press/institutions can do is ensure architects don't get the blame for this re-run of the late60's early 70's. This one is down to the lack of vision and disregard for legacy that is endemic. Name and shame, name and shame - and soon!

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