design ethic

Design Ethic

How do we decide what’s right?

Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 AIA President

A Washington, D.C., architect who occasionally teaches at the University of Maryland posed this question to his class:

“An energy company has approached the director of Washington’s National Gallery of Art. In front of the historic Classical Revival building designed by John Russell Pope is one of those pie-shaped pieces of land that occur throughout the city where L’Enfant’s diagonals (in this case Pennsylvania Avenue) intersect with the grid (Constitution Avenue). Currently, the site is tree-shaded; at the center is a large fountain. The company has offered to lease the land for a princely annual rent if in return it gets the right to build a gas station.

Recognizing the sensitivity of the site, the company has in effect offered a blank check that, if cashed, will ensure the gallery’s financial health indefinitely. All that the gallery has to do in return is give the company the right to build a gas station on the site of that small parklike space.

The challenge is this: You, the architect, are responding to an RFP for a design appropriate to the site. What would you design?”

The issues raised by the challenge clearly go beyond the art and science of our profession. They engage matters that deal with our responsibility to our clients, our communities, and the environment. How do we decide what ought to be done? What is “best” or “right” in any given situation?

In discussions that revolve around what architects do, we frequently find ourselves pigeonholed as artists—masters of set designs whose primary motivation is the creation of beauty, or at least of something new and interesting to look at. But questions about what we do ought to go deeper into the why of it: What is the purpose of the project? How well does it carry out that purpose for the client and the user? Dig a little deeper and an even larger question comes to light: Was it worth doing in the first place?

During times like we’re experiencing, when the construction industry is hit especially hard, ethics may seem to be something of a luxury. After all, we have an obligation not only to our client, but also to our firms. When the economy tanks, no project is too small if it keeps the lights on. We all know the importance of providing jobs and a path for career aspirations.

But what if the client has a deaf ear to sustainable design or wants to tear down an irreplaceable piece of a community’s historic legacy? What if the project chews up open space, compromises a viewshed, or introduces light pollution into a previously starry night? Doable? Yes. But is it right? And what is right when your decision will affect subcontractors and allied professionals, who are just as eager for work?

These are questions that go beyond talent and technical expertise. What can be done is one thing; what ought to be done may be something quite different. The issues raised involve ethics, a discipline that unlike architecture is not collaborative but very much a personal matter that nevertheless has an impact on the entire profession and how we’re viewed by our clients and the public.

Years ago Philip Johnson made a comment during a symposium at the University of Virginia that has always rankled me: “I am a whore, and I am paid very well for building high-rise buildings.” Of course, that was Philip being a provocateur. On the other hand, if words mean something, we ought to be outraged rather than, as Johnson may have intended, amused.

These are challenging times for the profession, when our values are most severely tested. Our schools do a great job of preparing students for the science and art of our profession. It may be a cliché, but I truly believe that the rising generation of young men and women pursuing a career—not just a job—in architecture are equipped with a more robust toolkit than ever. Yet I wonder how well they are being prepared for the ethical challenges that they will certainly confront. I say this because I believe that ethics is not a way of thinking different from architecture, but at the heart—no, the soul—of what it means to be a professional.

To be a professional means rising above the calculus of ego and fashion to focus on issues of right and wrong.


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