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The ethics of being ethical come into question as our urban fabric crumbles

As greed casts a shadow over society’s urban fabric, Austin Williams weighs up the ethics of being ethical

In 2008, Daniel Libeskind said: ‘I won’t work for totalitarian regimes… I think architects should take a more ethical stance.’ Libeskind was referring to China but if Noam Chomsky had been asked, he might have chosen Israel as the regime to be avoided. When it comes to those people and places we dislike, there are lots to choose from.

The point is that Libeskind wasn’t just making a (perfectly legitimate) statement about his personal likes and dislikes. He was providing a moral indictment of those who don’t do likewise. Effectively Libeskind was saying that he refuses to work with bad people… and you should too.

A recent debate sponsored by the British Council (a quango that thinks that ‘engagement is better than isolation’), reflected on this assertion and identified two things wrong with this kind of ethical approach to architecture. Firstly, the idea of absenting yourself from places you disapprove of actually represents a collapse of constructive engagement - moral or otherwise - rather than an assertion of one. And secondly, suggesting that there is a politically acceptable client state and an unacceptable one, without ever feeling the need to politically convince others of the validity of your views is fundamentally patronising. Taken together, such ethical grandstanding is an example of self-indulgent, moral blackmail.

American architect Lebbeus Woods stated that he would ‘not accept another project in China until Ai Weiwei (was) released’. By so doing, he achieved absolutely nothing, while simultaneously adopting the moral high ground. This kind of schoolboy protest in defence of celebrity, actually demeans the plight of thousands of (less artistic) political prisoners. But it also displays an inability to understand that China is not interested in Western democracy, and it wilfully refuses to acknowledge China’s impressive record in lifting 250 million people out of poverty.

In the same way that Western powers seem to have lost their vision at home and are seeking moral clarity abroad, ethical architecture is simply a replay of paternalistic geopolitics. It is a mirror of ethical foreign policy. Ex-Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook famously said Britain had a ‘moral responsibility to make itself a force for good in the world’, and admitted it was a way of asserting moral authority over international affairs.

Some 15 years later, and architects have emerged as the most fervent supporters of such an approach. Reducing carbon, saving the planet, recycling waste, responsibly sourcing materials, building communities, improving our health and encouraging well-being: ethical architects have not left one stone unturned in their desire to prove themselves at the forefront of social policy and practice. Every architectural scheme contains a reference to ‘behaviour change’, and reflects a missionary desire to alter the world from its profligate, unethical ways (as it sees it). Carrying out governmental social policy agendas, like this, is a long way from the central task of architecture. Indeed, architects should perceive their role as maximising benefit, rather than minimising harm.

It was all so much easier back in the days when Libya was building an eco-city - a development that promised to follow the Western ethical environmental canon. In 2007, The Economist welcomed Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s son, an ex-student of architecture, as a ‘Saif pair of hands’. Only last year, Building Design noted that Libya gave ‘smaller and younger firms unprecedented opportunities to show what they are capable of’. Now, Libya is a pariah state once again and we are all meant to show our moral outrage by distancing ourselves from the regime, regardless of the fact that the country needs infrastructure, now more than ever. As the mains water networks fall apart, ethical architects are fantasising about the opportunities for morally superior green roofs contracts.

The son of a Libyan dissident, novelist Hisham Matar has become the poster boy of the dissident architecture world by attempting to dissuade UK architects from working in Libya. However, in an interview with Words Without Borders, he said: ‘I refuse for my work to serve anything or anyone but itself.’ Maybe architects should develop a similar mindset. In other words, stop shoe-horning ethical agendas onto architecture and start building with simple integrity. Maybe then we could influence the world by example, rather than by sanction.

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