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Thoughts on the ethical dimension of architecture: The good, the bad, the ugly

by Simon Longstaff
01 November 1999
In the latter part of 1998, the ABC's Radio National program, The Comfort Zone, broadcast excerpts from Robin Boyd's Boyer Lectures of 1967. Boyd canvassed many important issues. However, his principal arguments rested on the claim that, at a most fundamental level, architecture develops (or should develop) in response to 'ideas'.

Boyd was not just making the obvious point that architects need to be able to think towards solutions to the practical problems that they encounter. Nor was he limiting his notion to the generation of a “concrete idea ... which will be his [the architect's] guide vision through the long processes of preparation and construction”. At a more basic level, he was talking of the critical need for an idea/theory that will guide the architect's whole approach to the profession of architecture. Boyd's guiding ideas were 'honesty' and 'integrity'. Indeed, he passionately claimed this as the ground for his adherence to the tenets of functionalism1.

"The principal claim now is that building is too important as a social activity, and too conspicuous and influential on the whole culture of society, to allow room for tricks disguising the truth. Nevertheless, the passion remains under the reasoning. Falsity seems in almost every respect as distasteful as dishonesty in a person."
Boyd effectively argued that an explicit ethical framework of core values and principles should inform the practice of architecture. This claim will be unsettling for those who believe that good architecture can be designed without any particular concern for ethics.

Despite his evident commitment, Boyd does not advocate a slavish adherence to principle. Instead he seeks to ground his whole approach in an assertion that “the art of architecture is serving people”. That is, to the extent that any theory leads to a result that is inconsistent with this aim, then it needs either to be modified or rejected.

Now, I do not want to enter the debate between various architectural theorists – functionalists, post-modernists, neo-classicists, cyberdesigners and so on. Rather, I would like to consider the possible relationship between ideas, performing a function of the kind posited by Boyd, and the practice (praxis) of architecture as a profession. That is, I propose to explore the 'internal' expression of 'ideas'. This will lead us to consider some fairly obvious questions, such as:
  •     How does the ethical dimension relate to other dimensions of architecture, such as the aesthetic?
  •     Should (can) an architect committed to the principles of truth and integrity (as expressed in design) lie to a client, colleague, competitor, etc. in the pursuit of her end?
  •     Does the character of the architect matter at all, or is their level of knowledge, skill and understanding the only relevant consideration?
  •     Can a computer do 'architecture' – as opposed to design a structure?

An adequate appreciation of the relationship between ethics and architecture depends on a proper understanding of what constitutes the fundamental question at the heart of all ethical deliberation: “What ought one to do?” The first thing to notice about this question is its practical nature. It directs our attention to the fact that the ethical landscape is one made up of choices, decisions and the practical application of core values and principles. The second thing to notice is that the question can only be avoided by those who live an unreflective life of unthinking custom and practice. The number of people who lead such a life should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is quite common to enter an organisation and on asking why certain things are done be told, "everybody does it, don't they" or "that's just the way we do things around here".

People are frequently proud of the virtuous habits that they have developed. For example, some organisations are made up of people who are habitually truthful, courteous, courageous and so on. Although such an approach to life would be considered, in general, to be commendable, it is in fact somewhat less than should be expected in cases where there is a genuine commitment to ethics. What one seeks, ideally, are people who are truthful, courteous and courageous because of a conscious commitment to the aim of living such a life. To do less is to operate as if on 'automatic pilot' – quite possibly living out the core values and principles of another person – a parent, a teacher, and a mentor. No matter how worthy an example set such people, there comes a point when each person must make their life their own. It is with this in mind that Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

So, to engage with ethical questions is to confront practical questions concerning how we should act. This, in turn, requires us to identify an ethical framework of core values and principles that can help to shape our choices. For example, an individual person or organisation might espouse the values of trust, harmony and courage and operate according to principles such as, 'treat others as you would like to be treated' or 'only do things that you would be prepared to do out in the open'. Espoused values and principles may differ across individuals and organisations. In relation to this, it is a common perception that there are radical differences between cultures. In fact, the nature of such differences is greatly exaggerated. While the priority given to different values and principles may vary (as will their form of expression), the overall list tends to be held in common.

The link between Boyd's notion of 'ideas' and ethics should now be clear. Boyd effectively argued that an explicit ethical framework of core values and principles should inform the practice of architecture. This claim will be unsettling for those who believe that good architecture can be designed without any particular concern for ethics. For example, it is not especially controversial to believe that 'bad' people can produce ‘good’ art. Hitler's painting was pedestrian and lacked refinement. However, what if it had been sublime? Could it possibly have been so, if Hitler was its author?

At this point, it may be interesting to note a curious fact about the language of ethics (at least as developed in the Western world). In its earliest recorded form, the discussion of ethics was conducted in ancient Greek. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their contemporaries typically made use of words like aischron and kalos. Aischron is usually translated as meaning 'shameful', kalos as 'honourable'. Yet each word had an additional meaning. Aischron also meant 'ugly' and kalos, 'beautiful'. I mention this because it suggests that there was a time when the link between ethics and aesthetics was somewhat closer than might be recognised, at least at a formal level, today. Furthermore, it makes clear that there was a time when 'dishonourable' deeds were also considered 'ugly". All of which again leads us to consider the link between the character of the architect, the means employed to design and build a structure and the quality of the structure itself.

It should be noted that there is an intermediate step that lies between an explicit concern for the individual character of the architect and the suggestion that this is totally irrelevant in the assessment of architecture and its processes. This middle ground is not found by considering the position of the architect as an individual person, but as a member of a class; the members of which claim the right to be recognised as a profession.

The claim to be a profession is easily made and for the most part, easily accepted without people fully understanding the significance of the claim. In particular, many people fail to understand what it is that distinguishes a profession from a trade union, a guild or voluntary association. The nature of this difference has been clearly identified by the Australian Council of the Professions2. As opposed to others, such as the more commercially minded occupational associations, professional practitioners:

"... must at all times place the responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the community before their responsibility to the profession, to sectional or private interests, or to other members of the profession."

If the idea of a profession is to have any significance, then it must hinge on this notion that professionals make a bargain with society in which they promise conscientiously to serve the public interest - even if to do so may, at times, be at their own expense. In return, society allocates certain privileges. These might include one or more of the following:
  •     the right to engage in self regulation
  •     the exclusive right to perform particular functions
  •     special status

At all times it should be remembered that what society gives, it can take away. It only accords privileges on the condition that members of the profession work to improve the common good. That is one reason why the broader community's relative silence in the face of competition reforms is so disturbing.

One senses that people no longer believe that their interests are best served by reserving, to architects, important work that demands the distinctive approach of the true professional. It is not that work of such importance is not to be found. Rather, there would seem to be a growing sense that architecture is just another form of business, and not really a profession at all. If architecture is to rescue this position, then it will have to take real and sensible steps to demonstrate that this growing perception is false; if, indeed, it is.

Deciding to take up the full and proper responsibilities of a professional career is akin to the old idea of finding a vocation. In most cases, the actual rewards on offer hardly seem to cancel out the sacrifice that is made when the narrower pursuit of self-interest (common in the market) is eschewed in favour of the public interest. Instead of relying on the operation of the ‘invisible hand’, the professional must choose - and choose well!

Perhaps the idea of 'vocation' has become foreign to most of those who make up the contemporary professions. Perhaps the belief in intrinsic goods has faded. But even if a spirit of public service motivates a person, how is one to determine what the public interest requires? One answer, from as far back as the ancient Greeks, is to try to identify certain core goods. Some of these immediately come to mind. For example, a good society is likely to be one in which people are treated with justice, in which good health is commonplace, in which the environment is rich, rewarding and safe.

The introduction to Ethics & the Legal Profession, edited by Michael Davis and Frederick Elliston3 builds on this idea:

"One of the tasks of the professional is to seek the social good. It follows from this that one cannot be a professional unless one has some sense of what the social good is. Accordingly, one's very status as a professional requires that one possess this moral truth. But it requires more, for each profession seeks the social good in a different form, according to its particular expertise: doctors seek it in the form of health; engineers in the form of safe efficient buildings; and lawyers seek it in the form of justice. Each profession must seek its own form of the social good. Without such knowledge professionals cannot perform their social roles."

An old idea is at work here. It suggests that professionals might need to develop a particular appreciation and understanding of some defining end, such as truth and integrity. It is as much for this and the disinterested pursuit of these ends that the community looks to the professions for assistance.

Which, again, brings us back to Boyd. For example, would the quest to design a truly exceptional building justify the decision by an architect to plagiarise the work of a colleague? Should it matter if an otherwise brilliant architect is also a brute of a bully who makes life miserable for all of those with whom he works? Would the fact that an architect motivated by greed or selfishness make that person any less admirable than another by a genuine concern for the standards of the profession or the public interest?

As noted above, the answer that one gives to such questions will depend, to a considerable degree, on the type of response given to Boyd's suggestion that architects be informed by a guiding set of 'ideas'. For example, it is difficult to see how an architect, committed to the task of expressing the idea of honesty in her work, could countenance any type of dishonesty in its production. At the very least, this would imply either conscious 'bad faith' or unconscious indifference (which is nearly as bad from the point of view of an ethical approach to architecture). Thus, even if one is inclined to deny that the quality of an artifact is affected by the nature of its creator, it may still be important to accept that the means employed in creating that artifact not contradict its underlying purpose.

I want to conclude this discussion by briefly discussing an issue arising at the leading edge of developments in architecture. The July/August 1998 issue of Lingua Franca includes an article, by Alexander Stille, in which he describes and discusses the work of a number of 'cyberarchitects'. While 'traditional' architects like Peter Eisenman have used the computer as a tool to help realise their concepts, others led by Greg Lynn have adopted a more radical stance in which they leave much of the design process to the computer itself4. The 'radicals' are prepared to allow the computer to play with various mathematical relationships such as might:

"relate to a proposed site – average wind speeds coming in from the ocean or the flow of traffic from a nearby highway. Then he watches the computer translate these numbers into a series of algorithmic curves. Using animation software, Lynn allows the curves to unfold themselves and interact in order to suggest the design for the building; when they take on an interesting configuration, he freezes the computer frame."

One must wonder whether or not there is much room for an ethical approach to architecture in this approach to design. It is difficult to see how one might program a computer to design with a regard for truth, integrity or the public interest. There are similar difficulties with the notion of a computer with a well-informed conscience able to regulate its plans for a public or private space. Thus, the kind of approach advocated by cyberarchitects like Greg Lynn would seem to be a limiting case for architecture if it is to be conceived as a true profession explicitly concerned with the ethical dimension of its practice.

Cyberarchitects may recoil from this conclusion and argue that, to the extent that they are involved in the process of design, then they are fully engaged with the ethical dimension of their work – such as when deciding whether to suspend the machine's calculations and 'freeze the computer frame'. They might even argue that it is an ethically superior position for the practice of architecture to minimise human involvement (with its capacity for egoism, self-interest and even corruption) in the design process. If this is so, then the development of cyberarchitecture will have moved the profession to an important point of realisation that a concern for ethics is an indispensable element in its practice.

Alternatively, it could be argued that since computers can design beautiful and functional buildings, the character of the designer has been shown to be unrelated to the quality of the thing created. After all, computers are neither ‘good’ nor 'bad'.

But is this to miss the point? After all, computers cannot be either good or bad. They have no capacity to 'choose' or be responsible for their choices. As far as we know, these states are reserved for human beings. It seems to me that this is the point where a concern for ethics and architecture must rest. For as long as people become architects, we must be concerned with the ethical landscape that they traverse. This is not merely because their decisions affect our welfare, nor merely because we might think our society better served by professions rather than solely by business. Rather, it is the fact of our shared humanity that requires each of us to take an interest in ideas as we struggle, as we all must do, to make meaning in this world.


1. Boyd, R (1967) The Boyer Lectures, Australian Broadcasting Commission, p. 19

2. Australian Council of Professions, (1993) Professional Services, Responsibility and Competition Policy: A discussion paper prepared for the Permanent Advisory Committee, August 1993, p. 1

3. Davis, M & Elliston, FA (Eds) (1986), Ethics & the Legal Profession, New York, Prometheus Books, p.1

4. Stille, A (1998), “Invisible Cities”, Lingua Franca, July/August 1998, p. 44

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre.