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Why is ethics such an important issue for architects?

The RA’s Architecture and Freedom season tackles the question of architectural ethics - but where do such debates leave us?

For any follower of architectural debate – whether in print or online – it would be hard not to be conscious of the crescendo of articles over recent months and years dealing with the question of architecture’s political and social role, and, more broadly the ‘agency’ of architects. The conventional narrative sees the architectural profession essentially under attack, constantly being eroded by the ever-increasing specialisation of roles within building design and construction. The architect is but one more small, and but no means, integral cog, in the building industry’s vast and complex development machine. Driven by the imperative to ‘de-risk’, the space for chance and the unexpected – surely fundamental to any creative process – is shrinking in favour of the tried-and-tested and commercial expediency. Architecture – and the public that many still feel it is ultimately here to serve – is being sidelined by the inherent conservatism of much of the building industry, whether large-scale city developers putting up yet another city tower block or the volume house-builders, many of whom barely involve an architect at all. Architects are useful only when their name or signature style can be used to create ‘value’. Thus while the ‘star-architect’ system is, on the one hand, a production of the architectural world and media, it is heavily bolstered – made possible even – by the needs of commerce.

The result of all this, as many have observed, is a gradual hollowing out of the architectural profession, with architects merely players in someone else’s game. Yet, despite this, it’s the architect who is still held up as culpable, sometimes wholly responsible, when something goes wrong, aesthetically, structurally, even commercially. We could certainly add morally too. When there are questions over workers’ rights, for example, it’s the architect who very often has to answer them, and, in the case of Zaha Hadid Architects’ work in Qatar, repeatedly. When another luxury residential development pops up with flats for sale at millions of pounds, it’s the architect who takes the criticism, not the building’s owner, even if the architect’s design succeeds on its own terms as an impeccable response to the brief. While the activities of developers are allowed to be led by the market (and certain regulatory parameters, of course) architects are somehow seen to be different, subject to a quite different set of standards of ‘morality’, the ‘public interest’ and of ‘ethics’. In short, architecture is seen as ‘exceptional’.

There are, of course, important historical reasons for architecture’s ‘exceptionalism’. Looking back to the late 19th century, we can see how the moralism of figures like John Ruskin and William Morris helped to pave the way for Modernism’s social agenda. While much of the 19th-century moralism arose, on one level, as a reaction to the social upheavals brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Modernism, in contrast, actively embraced the new possibilities of modernity. For many Modernists, architecture was an agent of social progress, while after the Second World War, now aligned to the ideals of the welfare state, it became an actual instrument of social emancipation. Even after Postmodernism and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism, which largely stripped architecture of moral force, the legacy remains, leaving many architects with a powerful sense that architecture has a purpose beyond a client’s brief, if not, it must be said, the opportunities to realise it.

‘Jonathan Meades kicked off proceedings by claiming that ethics and architecture should not inhabit the same sentence’

All this is why ‘ethics’ – which we might define as the application or practice of a moral position – has become such an important and recurring issue for architects. And at the ‘Architectural Ethics’ debate at the Royal Academy, part of a season on ‘Architecture and Freedom’, it was pretty clear that the architects in the audience wanted some answers.

The writer and broadcaster, Jonathan Meades, kicked off proceedings by claiming that ‘Ethics and architecture should not inhabit the same sentence’, taking aim, essentially, at the claims for architecture’s exceptionalism. Why, he asked, should architecture be different from other professions or creative pursuits that are apparently unconcerned with questions of ethics? It is a reductive argument, perhaps, but one with some validity. Having ethics implies architects have a power that extends well beyond the confines of their brief. What, Meades’ argument goes, gives architects the right to say that their concern or influence should extend beyond that which they are contracted to do? The answer is to do with architecture’s ‘public-ness’. And it was along those lines that the writer and researcher, Anna Minton, cleverly reframed the question and spoke very convincingly about how the ‘public interest’ has disappeared from the lexicon of planning and policy in favour of the broader ‘economic interest’, as if the latter is automatically coterminous with the former. Approaching a project from the question of its public interest offers, Minton argued, far greater focus and more positive results than testing it against some kind of inevitably abstract and potentially nebulous ethical code.

The agency of the architect was the subject for Francesco Sebregondi of Forensic Architecture, a group which explores the use of architectural tools and strategies to document the spatial implications of human rights abuses. As Sebregondi explained, this re-conceiving and extending of the architect’s traditional role and remit into societal, moral and legal issues was in part a response to its aforementioned curtailment. If, as a question from the floor pointed out, there is a clear distinction between architecture – the few buildings which have the involvement of architects – and the built environment – the vast majority of buildings that don’t – then one can see the model of Forensic Architecture as offering a very clear way for architects to reclaim agency over the urban condition.

‘Ethics are, after all, a relative concept – the manifestation of a moral ideal – and one person’s morality is another’s immorality’

In a way the debate didn’t really go anywhere – as has been noted already elsewhere by Rory Olcayto of the Architects’ Journal. Speaking from the floor Olcayto noted how the municipal authorities of Oslo had recently imposed an ‘ethical’ supply chain on all city-procured buildings and services. This, he argued, was a real world example of what could be achieved with political will, which architects could then take advantage of. But, just as in the more explicitly architectural aspects of the debate, one is forced to grapple with the inevitable question of what ‘ethical’ actually means in practice. Ethics are, after all, a relative concept – the manifestation of a moral ideal – and one need not have to delve too far into the annals of human history to discover that one person’s morality is another’s immorality, and vice versa.

So where does this leave us? A clue, I think, was in the contribution of Jane Hall of Assemble, the 18-person collective who have made a name for themselves for their collaborative and interdependent practice that sees them work in close dialogue with client and public in both the designing and making of their projects. In Assemble’s work, it is the ‘process’ that emerges as the architectural object, rather than the building. Similarly, what, I would argue, is important in the ethics debate is not the end product – perhaps a set of regulated ethical codes that an architect must abide by or risk being struck off the register – but the debate itself. Why, despite Meades’ protestations, are architecture and ethics discussed together? Because architects think they should be. There is no more compelling reason. The question now is how to keep the debate moving forward and ensure that architects are equipped to make ethical judgements that they feel they can defend and hold to. There is usually no right answer to an ethical dilemma, but there are certainly right ways of dealing with them.

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