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,
  • [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,
  • [5] Singer, P, 2011, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, New York, USA
Life & much, much more

Architecture’s existential crisis pt 2: The foundations of architecture

In part 1, I outlined architecture’s distraction with competitive theories rather than acting as a professional discipline and serving society. In this part, I will talk a bit about the categories of architectural theories and styles, and how we can unify these.

Why theories and styles are inappropriate

Goals and foundation are equally important to a functioning profession. However, although we have plenty of candidates for goals as offered by theories over the years, we only have a few candidates for architecture’s foundation. As of now, we seem to mainly compete over architectural theories and architectural styles. These become our two initial foundational candidates.

An architectural style describes the physical characteristics of an era. This may be as specific as pointed arches in Gothic architecture, or as vague as chaotic forms in Deconstructivist architecture.

An architectural theory is a set of ideas that outline an approach towards architecture. These ideas are non-arbitrary, which may be implemented in one or more architectural styles. For example, modernism’s “form follows function” is a theoretical approach towards architecture, and one stylistic implementation is by removing ornamentation from a building.

Creating this distinction between style and theory is important as it reveals that styles are insignificant. They are merely a single manifestation of an idea that people copied. They are fleeting, superficial, and aesthetically subjective–but more importantly, they represent a lack of understanding of the discipline behind a building (This has been identified in the second group of the architectural schism.). These are not hallmarks of a good foundation to base the architectural profession upon.

In contrast, an architectural theory is normally based on the religious, political, social, technological and ethical ideas of the time. This encompasses more aspects of our total experience of the world and thus makes it a better candidate for an architectural foundation.

Theories have been described as that which identifies the practices, production and related challenges of architecture. They re-evaluate architecture’s intentions and relevance\cite{newagenda_. Although it shares the same intentions as a foundation, the fact remains that theories die and have a short-lived existence compared to architecture’s full lifespan.

If theories and styles are both inappropriate, a third route is to consider that theories are simply strategies executed underneath a global and timeless architectural framework. The theory is not the foundation of architecture, but an instance which tackles the issues that the framework proposes. This is in the same way that a style is an instance which tackles the issues that a theory proposes. Identifying this global and timeless architectural framework, and in turn, foundation, is the first step to resolving architecture’s crisis.

Characteristics of a framework

A framework is a basic structure underlying a system or concept. Rather than attempt to elaborate on this phrase, I will instead immediately present an architectural framework:

[in Architecture, an operative art] the end must direct the operation. The end is to build well.

Well [an ideal] building hath three conditions: firmness [sturdy], commodity [useful], and delight [beautiful].


For a quote which has survived more than 2000 years, it seems to remain relevant and encompasses all architectural theories. No matter how different each theory is, each theory first prioritises these three elements, and then prescribes a strategy to showcase their prioritisation. For example, Gothic architecture may be seen as prioritising firmness and delight, or Modernism may prioritise firmness (technology) and commodity. Some believe all are equal (Vitruvius), but all theories form a stance in relation to these three.

We also notice that the framework’s elements are neither prescriptive, proscriptive, affirmative or critical of anything. It is a listing of attributes which must be considered for a building, but offers no more guidance. It is a description, not an arguing point.

These elements are also agnostic. They do not rely on a culture, religion or belief. All physical forms have an element of structure (firmness). All living beings all have an intent (commodity). And when living beings are put together with structure, we give an aesthetic judgement (delight). This characteristic has given it a timeless nature.

These three characteristics (encompassing, descriptive, and agnostic) upheld by three elements (firmness, commodity, and delight) form an unquestionable architectural framework. Architects are now free to juggle different theories as strategies governed by the framework, but must consider all elements of the framework. They are also still free to implement a theory as an architectural style. Each style considers a theory, and each theory considers the framework.

A new hierarchy of Framework > Theory > Style shifts the focus of architecture away from the details of theories towards a set of commonalities. This allows us to treat theories as just another item in our toolkit towards solving bigger problems. It’s no longer about getting caught up in the details and their changing natures, it’s about selecting the right tool for the job.

This means that theories can be marketed as what they truly are: an approach towards a defined society, not a law unto itself. This helps prevent arguments about details and encourages speculation over the elements in the architectural framework as a root for theoretical strategies.

A resulting increased emphasis on society as a specific audience per theory allows us to be more aware of society’s needs. This allows us to tackle multiple types of societies simultaneously with each theoretical solution tailored towards their interests. This satisfies the professional requirement of working for the benefit of society.

Because of the framework’s characteristics, it may always be applied in all situations at all times without prescribing goals–a simple, agreeable outline that has always affected what we had done in the past, without restricting what we do in the future.

In part 3, I will explain how this architectural framework is incomplete without a compass to guide its application, and introduce the question of architectural ethics.

  • [1] Wotton, H, 1651, The elements of architecture (translated from De Architectura, Vitruvius), Thomas Maxey, London, UK