Life & much, much more

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
Life & much, much more

Say no to selfish architecture

Oh dear, it’s been quite some time! Things have been astoundingly busy I’ve not had the time to touch the computer. However before we return to regular programming, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest.

Architecture is Selfish.

Architecture is an extremely old profession. However despite having such a long ancestry, it is still difficult to define exactly what architecture is.

In this regard, it is similar to the art industry, whose primary focus was initially representation and communication, but has long since devolved into abstractions that have left people similarly confused as to what art is. But that is another story, and is a challenge I will leave for another time.

I come today with the claim that architecture has and is growing towards a generation of selfish vanities, but before I do that, I need to attempt to answer the age old question of what architecture is.

Architecture is a justified solution to a predefined problem using the world as its medium. To be a master architect it is your job to be intimately familiar with the world in all of its nuances, and to be able to put it together into a solution which can be communicated and executed with results. This is not easy – the world is infinitely complex and to say its interactions are unpredictable is a vast understatement. To be able to master it completely is probably impossible, but it doesn’t mean you can’t win as many battles as you can on the way.

Having the world as its medium means three things:

  • Architecture extends across many, if not all industries. It is a saying that an architect needs to know a little about a lot – a form of a jack of all trades whose real ability is in the selection of trades. Architects need to be trained from the beginning to be exposed to other industries.
  • We cannot predict the world. We have to train ourselves to be sensitive towards behaviors and interactions. We won’t be perfect, but it’s better than not trying.
  • There are plenty of audiences to cater to. A well justified architecture needs to first filter what choices are relevant and prioritise the many interdependent aspects that make up the world. Justification has an audience, and knowing the audience is half the battle.

I hope, then, that I am alone in my experience of [undergrad] architectural education, which apparently doesn’t recognise the world as its medium.

Architecture in Education

In the undergraduate university, design is shifted into a dull detail whereas form, theorising and philosophy have been granted the “big picture” pedestal and requirement towards architectural fame: ie. you can’t be famous if you don’t have a charismatic philosophy.

Philosophy, or at least western ones, has the trait of “construction” – of adding a layer of imbued meaning or interpretation with increasing layers of complexity until it is taken as a truth, and then subsequently built upon again with another layer until it moves back into a subjective phase. Bonus points if your new layer is a reinterpretation or a controversial new direction.

For architecture, this means we are taking the already infinitely complex world scenario previously described and adding even more complexity on top – and the further up the abstraction tree you climb, the more you worry yourselves with incredibly irrelevant and in some cases, plain wrong, ideologies. Even worse, it is encouraged to add our own to the pile of abstractions rather than the opposite – stripping away constructions to get closer to what is -dare I use a dangerous phrase – an absolute truth. Architecture already presents itself with a fiendish problem without us having to add imaginary ones of our own.

Abstractions are a waste of time

Architecture has enough problems: a complex medium – to understand the world as its medium, unpredictability – problems revolve around people, and justification – how to confirm solutions. The only way to solve these issues is to look away from yourself and start learning about the worlds of other people. Architecture is not designed for the architect and never should be! Architects should design for the smile on other people’s faces, not their own.

It was worrying, then, the focus in my education on ideas like “what I thought”, or “what I felt” and then having it passed through the roulette board of critics. This is not what architecture should be – it should be a caring, empathising industry whose professionals aren’t those who are worshiped for their ideas but instead those who are able to appreciate the ideas of others. The real questions should be “who feels what, who thinks like this, and why are we listening to this who?”. With all the focus on “I”, we train ourselves to treat the architectural problem as an enemy with which we are at a constant war, whereas we should treat that world, our world, as our friend and ally. A proposal which doesn’t account for those most affected by it is a bad proposal.

This is why it is so important to be trained from the beginning to listen to others and to experience the worlds of other people. Not to make funky shapes or listen to arrogant philosophies and definitely not to make your own. Forms are getting easier to imagine with technology helping us, structural solutions are speeding ahead, and theories are a dime a dozen nowadays – the real issue is knowing how to empathise. It’s only from a young training that we can bridge the chasm between ourselves and the people around us.

I’ve come up with a few simple tests as to whether or not your architecture is selfish. Most architectural proposals have a concept – an overarching objective which governs all the decisions in the design process and the benchmark. This is the design equivalent of business’ mission statement. There is a lot of work put towards accurately defining this concept and then communicating it to others. A good concept is normally one which is loaded with meaning which can be extracted throughout the project. The tests are as follows:

  • Have you understood the complex medium of the world? If you have, you should be able to tell your concept to a bricklayer and they would understand the importance of why they are laying bricks. If you understand it well enough, you can present it simply enough.
  • Are you catering to unpredictability? How good can you predict a rant about a bad day in the life of your audience, and does your concept solves at least half of those issues?
  • Is your concept justified? Justified concepts can be re-communicated: somebody else should be able to present the concept on your behalf without any loss in key information.

And finally, to combat the common denominator – does your architecture care? Can you confidently say that introducing this building into the lives of the people who would be most affected by it improve their lives and make them happier?

The actual implementation is a separate issue – it turns into a benchmarking game whose expertise still extends beyond the role of the architect but is relatively straightforward to orientating your conceptual goals.

The TL;DR

Architecture’s solution defines a world for other people. If we can’t be bothered to understand how others see the world first, our solutions will never be more than a hit and miss. This is not opinion – this is an ethical responsibility of a professional.

I don’t want to be a selfish architect.

Uncategorized

I find life hilarious, really.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made that outrageous claim but I really, really do. I do so much that I want to write about it.

A random stroll down the street at 6AM each morning reveals yet another lovely little detail that our crazy synergy has produced. The reason that detail exists? Because we’re often too caught up with trying to comply with these imaginary rules that so-called society has imposed on us. Completely forgetting we’re what defines society we act certain ways around people, do little things for love and big things for money, and often forget who paid for the ticket to the joyride in the first place.

Taking a step back and realising just how comical it is for all these people to comply really opens up a lovely new perspective on things.

To use an example I’d like to talk about a daily (well, weekdays) activity – walking to school. I’m awake sharp at 6AM each day and up even sharper at 6:07AM. I leave at 6:40AM and begin the walk at 6:45AM most of the time. That’s about the point when I stop measuring things in terms of time (yes, it’s amazing not having a watch) and start measuring things in accomplishments and experiences.

It usually begins with trying to get my headphones out and plugging them into my phone. Occasionally I listen to a talk or music but most of the time it’s so that people don’t stare when I start playing the air-drum/guitar/trumpet in the middle of the street. Salute the guards at the guardhouse, tell them my schedule for the morning (you know, they’re paid to just sit there), and wink at the drivers having a chat downstairs. Pass the Japanese mothers and their little children confused between hyperactivity and morning sleepiness and then remember something I forgot to put in my bag.

Screw what I forgot, take a run down the road as a warmup and play chicken with the cars at the first junction (quite an easy feat, not many cars at that time). Exchange nods (and the occasional high five) with Azif the street cleaner and watch the stream of workers miling down the path. Try only to step on the red bricks and check how late (or even early, occasionally!) the bus driver is this morning – use the time until the streetlights extinguish since I don’t have a watch. By this time I’m about the chorus section in the piece of variable genre I’ve made up since winking at the drivers. By that time I’m also by the stretch of road that leads to the Plaza, an area with a few shops and a ridiculous architect who decided spurting water from a leak in the ground was somehow better than a magestic fountain and pond. More about that later, perhaps.

This stretch of road is great – it has everything. It’s got the sleepy 7/11 workers who accidentally set off their own motorcycle alarms, the rhythmic beat of the beginnings of a construction day (say, they have a legal start time don’t they?), the stray dog, the forest (well, close enough if you squint) to the right (lovely split image of nature/urban), the clouds saying hello to a new day, the taxi driver whom I’ve never seen in a taxi, the guard having a smoke behind the voltage box, and the cars realising they no longer need their headlamps. Oh, and the birds too, but they’re more noise than anything. and it’s a bahdum-tsh! Baam bah bah aahhhhh – it’s the climax of the song by the end of it.

Unless of course I see my business teacher walking to school too just ahead of me with his children. Then I just scare them silly by stalking them.

By this time we’re at the Plaza. Now we’re around people we can really have a laugh. You’d find at least a couple people sitting in the most unimaginably uncomfortable positions (well, they look uncomfortable, but you never know) in deep, deep sleep. You should walk through the McDonalds without fail each morning, not to buy anything, but simply because it’s half a minute faster walking through than around (I know, I timed it long ago). You want to know why the first hash brown of the day tastes like the sort of deep-friend chicken skin somebody’s left overnight? Want to know why the free newspapers pile is always empty? Want to know why McDonalds switched from ketchup packets to a self-service watchamathing? It’s hilarious.

Then you leap down the wrong escalator (they haven’t been started yet) and meet that security guard I’m almost sure is gay. It’s hard to tell because they don’t speak English very well (neither do I, apparently I’m told), and like most guards he spends most of his time loitering. Loitering with a purpose. However when you shake hands each day and he holds your hand for a bit too long and a bit too close you worry sometimes. But it’s ok because he knows my schedule better than I do at times and a walking agenda is a great tradeoff.

At this stage you get to the set of traffic lights where all the cars who realise that going around the back of the Plaza gets you to where you want at least 3 times faster than the only route that existed before which went for a lovely 3KM loop-the-loop just to get 500 meters away. Not to mention 2 more traffic lights. (honestly, what were they thinking?) Funnily enough you get parents dropping off children here because then you can skip another loop-the-loop when driving back. You also get your physics teacher’s retired husband taking his brisk walk around here. He talks to anybody else who’s white and about his age, and I don’t exactly fit that as far as I know.

The next stretch of road is great, because it features the 13 years consecutive winner of worst-traffic-jam award of the year. It’s great because you’re walking. It also means that in about 2-3 minutes you’ve got to end your piece because you’re about to arrive. In fact, now is the perfect time for an impulse run, to make people think you’ve actually run all the way from home in formal office-wear (and sometimes a green bow-tie, for that matter). (Note: this run may happen for any duration, and may start as early as 6:45) That doesn’t mean the fun’s over though, in fact it’s just begun. Stuffing 1000 adolescents with a P.E. teacher at the head in a school is a recipe for the perfect all-night comedy show.

Guys (and girls), keep ’em coming. You make my day, every day.