Ethics, Indeed

Ethics, Indeed


This week, AAU Architecture will be hosting another in its “Ethics and Leadership Panel” series. I will write more about this particular panel in the next post, as its guests, Deanna Van Buren and Kyle Rawlins, are an amazing firm who deserve pages and pages devoted to the power of their work. For now, however, I would like to address the word, “ethics.”

“Ethics” is currently a hot topic in architecture, as it is probably a hot topic throughout the United States, for various reasons, some more obvious and presidential than others. In a time of great cultural and societal arrogance, an examination of ethics is a crucial moral wayfinder. Without religion to act as an absolute moral guide, we modern humans are left to our own devices – and as such, we must constantly navigate between the poles of extreme subjectivity and flagrant disregard. To focus on a much narrower segment, we architects serve in a public and/or transactional capacity. We can’t do nothing – and so, we establish ethics, and hope that our cultural, environmental, political, economic, legal and societal sensitivity is well-calibrated.

In fact, our profession is so devoted to ethics that it is a REQUIRED course for architecture students under American architectural accreditation standards. And, ethics is not just a part of a course on professional practice, but it’s own stand-alone student performance criteria category. We value, literally value, ethics. Students pay for instruction in ethics, professionals pay for their membership to the AIA which comes with a Code of Ethics, ethics are a part of the licensing exam, and ethics are part of the very real business of continuing education for architects. I admire our profession for its devotion to ethics.

However, given our devotion to, and valuing of, ethics, I am surprised that there is virtually no theoretical discourse surrounding its definition. Architects are a funny group, as we all know, willing to create discourse over almost anything, …and yet, ethics are largely untouched. Ethics are a part of critical theoretical discourse, yes, but almost always as ethical imperatives to do good in the world. “Don’t design Auschwitz” pretty much sums it up. Perhaps, we don’t have a theoretical discourse around ethics because only a visibly-awful sub-human would disagree with that statement.

But, what if we came at the definition of ethics in a different way? Let’s say, for the sake of a little bit of an argument, that there are two consecutive paths to architectural ethics. One path, the first and primary path, is in the service of the greater good – and I hope to that service, we can all agree fairly readily that we are not going to do Auschwitz, or Three-Mile Island, or anything overtly or covertly illegal or dangerous. The other path, the second path, to architectural ethics is paved by the discipline of architecture. The second path is the path we learn in architecture school – the one where we present our schemes to a body of experts in the field – who, as a jury (very aptly named here), confer on, judge and offer guidance on the goodness of the architecture. The jury uses historical references and debate to create a flowing culture of consensus. A good jury can tell the student what they have right and where they went wrong, and a great jury can make lasting assertions and observations that stimulate the studio, the school, and architecture itself.

If there is a second path, that path may be described, and should be described in ethical terms. It is the exercise of judgment in architecture – and we are training future architects in the practice of it, every semester, at least twice, if not more, per semester. The second path of ethics may not have the overt value of professional ethics, but this does not mean it is less valuable to us, in architecture. And, yet despite, this rehearsal of judgment happening on an almost weekly basis all over the country, there is no code of judgment, no rules of the engagement of judgment, and certainly, very little follow-through of this judgment after graduation and out in the “real world” of architectural practice and profession. So, to return to my earlier statement, I am surprised at our lack of theoretical discourse about disciplinary ethics.

At this point, I can hear the objection. The objection would characterize my discussion of the second path as the “normative judgment” of architecture as “good or bad.” And, the objection would speak carefully, well aware of the stumbling blocks of 20+ years of critical discourse on the hegemonies of making normative judgments. I can hear the objector speaking as if they were a car on a road that turned into dirt and gravel under their tires. It’s a troubling and exhausting road, and at least since Venturi, we’ve all been down it before.

To be clear then: I am not speaking about “good” and “bad” architecture as aesthetic or even cultural categories. I am speaking about ethics as a responsibility that we have to the discipline of architecture – that what we make and design in the world has a responsibility to understanding the canons that have come before it, the discourses, the precedents, the conventions and the traditions. A “good” architecture can be iconoclastic, boring, ugly – but what it should not be is ignorant.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the great tales of ethics and morality. The story is rife with references to the human aspiration to act as god, as well as the potentially awful ramifications of doing so. The text could also perhaps be described as an early allegory of research ethics in the sciences – how far is too far for the laboratory scientist, for example. And yet, what propels the story, and truly its sense of horror, is that the problem of right and wrong is set against an absolute backdrop of (what should be) Classical truth. For Shelley, and other writers of her era, the “truth” is that ugly things, born from ugly circumstances, do ugly things like kill, hurt and threaten others. Frankenstein’s monster is unmistakable – a giant with translucent skin pulled over a grisly rictus – a face only a blind man can love – and therefore, the rightness and wrongness of the tale should emanate naturally from the hideousness of the creation. The horror is that hideousness doesn’t seem to have the impact that it should for Dr. Frankenstein. He’s still caught in a moral and ethical dilemma even when all (up to that time) conventional signs point to the “badness” of the unnamed creature.

What Shelley’s Frankenstein tells us therefore is that ethics are not superficially evident. Things and creatures can be hideous or beautiful, and while it sounds nice to only make beautiful things and creatures, the act of doing so has very little to do with ethics. Ethics, in the architectural discipline, or at least, the second path to ethics, similarly has nothing to do with formal beauty. I’m all for ugly buildings, and boring buildings, and revolutionary thingamajigs that are not yet buildings, but I am dead-set against the proliferation of buildings and proto-buildings that are so unschooled as to not actually qualify as “architecture.” There are “tells” to unethical not-architectures: stupid massing choices, brazen and yet ineffectually applied quoting, spaces with zero affect, sloppy tectonics, and facade fu-fu for the sake of facade fu-fu, to name but a few. In the context of a school, we can say to a young student, “your project makes no sense,” …but try to call up a leading firm with a giant sports stadium and tell them that, and uh, that’s “just criticism.”

In a now rather (in)famous, AIA panel on ethics, featuring Henry Cobb and Mack Scogin, two distinct conversations emerged – one was a series of questions posed by the AIA panelists concerning professional ethics (the first path). The other was a set of assertions offered by Cobb and Scogin that fell largely on deaf ears, even when re-printed as articles and reviews by the AIA and in Architect magazine. In a paragraph all alone and isolated from the flow of the discussion was this statement, a statement that should matter greatly to to the ways in which we define architecture, otherwise known as “theory”:
“In a way, it’s not hard to do a building,” Scogin says. “If it was that hard, almost every building would [have to] be done by architects, and that’s far from the truth. Lots of people do buildings. It is, then, the ethical responsibility of the architect with the big ‘A’ to give clients something beyond a building. That is at the heart and soul of the issue. How can you get beyond the practical constraints that everyone has to deal with and give clients more?” (AIA Architect, “Architecture: Big A, Little a,” March 5 2015).

In my ideal world, architecture review boards would not be composed of entitled citizens out to make sure that the paint colors match, but rather a group of architects who “review” an architectural design before it can get built, you know, just to make sure that it is actually architecture. My colleague, Eric Lum, after hearing me go on and on about this idea (a behavior of mine that should also possess a more ethical dimension), suggested that “this sounds more like something they would do in Rome or Florence” than in the US, which is a very important point. Places exist in the world that maintain scholarly standards of practice, and these are maintained in lieu of, or in addition to, the standards of legality, human and societal responsibility. In the US, we continuously show our architects, through our laborious code and permit approval processes, that we don’t trust them to make sole decisions. Here’s my crazy suggestion: let’s trust the architects a little more with egress and handrails, and maybe a little less with making architecture.

Continuing education, anyone?…

All my best,
Dora Epstein Jones