Saturday, January 22, 2011

Breaking Interview Rules

The selection committee for a major museum commission required that the architects come to the interview to talk about their relevant experience and qualifications for the project, without any design. All of the architects did as required, except one, who hand-carried into the interview a model of his design, and who subsequently received the commission and did an exceptional building.

In an interview, when is it acceptable to break the rules of a selection process and when is it not? On one hand, ethics tells us that being good and doing what is right usually means following the rules. On the other hand, aesthetics suggests that creativity often entails breaking the rules in order to achieve something new. So how do we balance ethics and aesthetics, cooperation and creativity? The answer to such a question depends, in part, in how we think about ethics.

Those who measure the ethics of an action according to its consequences might say that this architect did the right thing. His decision to break the rules and bring a model to the interview was a good one – at least for him. And, since he did an exceptional building, it proved to be a good one for the client and the people who use the facility. Utilitarian ethics asks that we consider the greatest good for the greatest number, and in that sense, the greatest number – the many users of the building – did receive the greatest benefit with the selection of this architect.

That brings us to another way of thinking about ethics: Kant’s categorical imperative that we judge the rightness of an action according to whether or not we would want it to be universal. If we let one person break a rule, Kant would argue, then we have to let everyone break that rule. You could argue that every competitor, in this case, was equally free to ignore the request of the selection committee, although that committee did not say that its interview requirements were just a suggestion or that respecting them was voluntary. Which raises the question of where responsibility in this case lies. In society at large, we not only hold people responsible for obeying the law, we also hold officials responsible for enforcing it, and so, by awarding the commission to the architect who ignored their requirement, the selection committee ended up rewarding the very behavior they did not want, which is not a good signal to send at the beginning of an architect-client relationship.

Clearly, this architect so impressed the selection committee that they overlooked the very requirements they had imposed. And, because the architect produced a brilliant building, you could argue that it doesn’t matter what happened during the interview. If something ends in great architecture, do the means of getting there really matter? That question echoes the disconnection between aesthetics and ethics that has existed in Western countries for at least a century. Good art comes from good artists, who may or may not be good people, and history offers us plenty of examples of this, of despicable behavior on the part of those who created delightful masterpieces.

It matters, of course, what rules get broken. Ignoring a request by a selection committee does not compare with, say, violating a law or telling a lie. Ethics demands that we make distinctions between unwise actions and illegal or unethical ones. In this case, no one other than the architect himself would have been harmed had his decision to bring a model to the interview backfired on him and led to his disqualification. Which also helps explain why we accept a degree of separation between aesthetics and ethics. A painter who takes an aesthetic risk in a painting does no harm except perhaps to his or her own reputation, and so healthy societies accept and even encourage such violations of the rules in order to realize something new and important.  

So we can laud the architect for taking a calculated risk that paid off and the selection committee for picking a talented architect who produced a noteworthy building that many people enjoy. Consequentially, this all was to the good. But situations like this raise the question of what kind of rules we impose upon creative people. Suggestions and even requests seem reasonable, especially given the limited space and time of interview processes, but prohibitions may become a prescription for some to purposefully ignore them, for good or bad.

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