A prospective client has several architects interview for a project with the presentation materials of all of the architects on display in the room and visible to each other during the interviews. The client also has the other architects wait in an adjacent space within earshot of the interviews, so that each can hear what the others say. What should the competing architects do in such a situation?
Among the many functions of architecture, one of the most important involves the creation of visual and auditory privacy. Architects create discreet spaces for people so that they can go about their daily activities without worrying about unwanted eavesdropping or undesired snooping on the part of others. This ranks as one of the signature failures of modern architecture, with its open spaces that flow into each other, often with little or no visual or auditory separation. While that served, in some respects, as a critique of Western notions of privacy and perhaps a reminder of how some traditional societies teach their member not to hear or see what they are not supposed to, even if plainly visible or audible, the lack of such separation in especially the modern workplace has caused more harm than good.
The lack of privacy for modern architects competing for a commission becomes particularly ironic in that regard. While most architects’ offices have relatively open floor plans because of the need for collaborative studio space, there remains a need in even the most-participatory workplace for some visual and auditory separation. So why did the client in this case not grant that to the architects interviewing for the commission? It is possible that the client wanted to make a point: either that privacy didn’t matter to him or that it did and he wanted to drive that point home by making the architects experience the lack of it. At the same time, this particular client, from a non-Western culture, might have had different view of privacy. In cultures where people often live in cramped quarters or in settings without separate rooms for sleeping, for example, people can have an extraordinary ability to block out what they should not see or hear. They have psychological walls and doors equivalent to the physical ones so necessary in most Western countries.
Which brings us to the ethical dilemma of the Western architects competing for this commission. Should they have excused themselves from listening to their competitors and left the room to give their colleagues the privacy that they might have wanted themselves? Should they have accepted the situation and stayed, but actively not listened to their competitors’ presentations and not looked at their competitors’ boards? Or should they have taken full advantage of the circumstances and altered their presentations to have a competitive edge over their colleagues? Western ethics offers a clear answer to this with the golden rule of doing unto others what you would want others do unto you. If you wouldn’t want others to take advantage of you, you should not do so to them, and so the third option, while possibly economically advantageous, is ethically wrong. More to the point, it is self-defeating, for once architects get known for taking advantage of colleagues, the most valuable asset they have – their reputation – can quickly become a liability.
Of the other two options – leaving the room or consciously not listening to the other presentations – the right thing to do depends upon the collegiality of the competitors. They could agree, as a group, to stay and carry on their own conversations among themselves, drowning out the sound of each other’s presentations and so creating auditory privacy where it didn’t exist in fact. Or, if they could not agree, the right thing – the ethical thing – for each architect to do if feeling ill-at-ease with the situation would be to leave the room until one’s time to present. That, of course, might put the architects who leave the room at a competitive disadvantage over those who stay and listen, but maybe not. Often in a competitive situation, the advantage lies with those who do not do what others do. And, given the lack of sensitivity of this client to the comfort level of his prospective architects, not getting this commission might be the best result of all.