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Architecture’s existential crisis pt 3: Goals, ethics, and the people element

In part 1: Architecture is not a Profession, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society.

In part 2: The Foundations of Architecture, I talked about what architecture is currently based upon, and how to unify these into a governing framework that encompasses all architectural ideologies based off Vitruvius.

In this part, I will extend the framework to hint at the goals and responsibilities of a professional discipline.

The role of a framework in determining goals

Whilst outlining the framework gives us a foundation as a profession, it says nothing about the precedence of welfare, health and safety of the community as needed in a profession. To do this, we need to refine the architectural framework to pinpoint goals in society.

I use the phrase “pinpoint in society” because a framework does not prescribe goals. It is descriptive. It doesn’t claim that the profession knows everything about the world and is authorised to make decisions for it. However, by outlining elemental considerations when people decide on a goal, it is able to influence these goals (This is still the case even if an element is marked as unimportant.).

The current framework has three elements: structure/firmness, commodity/function, and delight/design/beauty. The first tackles built form itself whereas the latter two tackles community reactions towards built form. Whilst these latter two elements may tackle some aspects of the welfare, health and safety of the community, I believe the addition (Unlike previous attempts to extend Vitruvius’ statement[1], this adds a new element rather than providing detail about existing elements. This is because providing detail converts the framework into a theory.) of a fourth community element may pinpoint this.

A new element: People are as important as built form

Architecture is a discipline where it is impossible to escape values. It’s radically value-laden. I think it’s possible that you can become an architect and see it as somewhat autonomous and not as a political act, which is incredibly naive. I try to make students aware of the radical, political, cultural, social nature of our work and how it’s impossible to escape those responsibilities.

-Thom Mayne, Morphosis

The element outlined above comes in the form of values and responsibilities. What governs our values and how to respond to these responsibilities are ethics (Ethics, morality and ethos (original Greek) can be used interchangeably.). As ethics also fits the requirements of a framework, I propose for ethics to be added as a fourth element:

  • It is encompassing. It is based upon people, which is a universal constant for all built forms. Whilst Vitruvius already targets the aesthetic judgement (when people react to firmness), the moral judgement (when people react to commodity) is left unconsidered. Whether or not we are consciously making decisions based on ethics, it will have effects nonetheless.
  • It is descriptive. It does not dictate the alignment of the moral compass but instead just highlights its presence as a quality of an architecture.
  • It is agnostic. All cultures have a moral compass, and as such, applies to all cultures. Ethics also covers the relation between groups and individuals, which won’t exclude individualistic cultures or the third architectural body who does what they please.

To further prove ethics as an element, we can list some theories who highlight their consideration to ethics: sustainability, where the primary value is that our decisions should not inhibit the opportunities of the future, modernism, where the moral value of truth was translated into an aesthetic quality, and then post-modernism, where the populist ethic was rejected[2]. As for older examples of theories, any theory governed by religious or political ideas has by definition shown consideration of ethics.

Ethics is also a useful addition as it fills a gap left by the original three elements (Vitruvius did mention aspects of ethics[3], such as relationships between men, politics, and precepts, but treats it in the form of a prescribed theory, not a framework). The original three elements either consider the built form itself or the relations between people and built form. Noticeably missing is people themselves. A recognition of people themselves is needed to highlight the distinction between the roles buildings play and the roles people play. Ethics covers both people themselves and the relationships to built form.

This coverage of people themselves and relationships to architecture cover societal aspects: aspects such as politics, environment / sustainability, humanitarian needs, urban planning, right down to individual clients. Including ethics as an element clearly strengthens the link to the welfare, health and safety of the community – one step closer to an architectural profession.

All architects have two clients whenever they work – one is the person that actually pays the bills, and the other is society in general. I think an architect that doesn’t see they are working for society in general doesn’t know his job.

-Joseph Rykwert, Architectural Historian[4]

Understanding of the interests of society is a prerequisite for ethics to be considered. This means that adding ethics as an element helps encourage consideration of our actions in the interests of others.

Although it is not the job of a framework to govern the application of its elements, it’s important to make sure that it can be applied in the first place. ie. to ensure that ethics is not “good in theory but not in practice”. This allows the element to be carried into architectural theories, and then implemented in architectural styles. We can prove this by citing religion, as well as agnostic hierarchies of ethical systems[5]. This practical side of the element means not only can it seed theories, it can fulfil the frameworks goals as a measurement tool.

Ethics is also complex. The inability to create a set of non-conflicting simple rules to govern ethics[5] over humanity’s history suggests a NP-complete nature. This means not only can it be applied in practice, it can also take many different forms that will continue to change over time.

This consideration of the interests of others, nature, welfare, health, and safety changes Vitruvius’ framework into a professional framework, ie. a framework pinpointed in society. We now have a framework consisting of firmness, commodity, delight, and ethics.

  • [1] Watkin, D, 2005, A History of Western Architecture, Laurence King Publishing, London, UK
  • [2] Boje, D. M., Toward a Narrative Ethics for Modern and Postmodern Organization Science, viewed 10 October 2012, http://business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/papers/toward_a_narrative_ethics_for_mo.htm
  • [3] Wotton, H, 1651, The elements of architecture (translated from De Architectura, Vitruvius), Thomas Maxey, London, UK
  • [4] Barbican Five Points for An Ethical Architecture, Architecture Foundation London, viewed 4 October 2012, http://vimeo.com/29281095
  • [5] Singer, P, 2011, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, New York, USA
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