Sunday, July 31, 2011


A city acquired a vacant industrial building as part of its development of a nature sanctuary, and many nearby residents wanted the city to tear down the graffiti-covered former factory, which they saw as an eyesore. However the four-story brick building remained structurally solid and large enough to accommodate a number of nature-related activities, including a charter school, a natural history center, and offices for nature organizations. The city had to decide whether to bend to the political pressure or find someone to rehabilitate the building.

In a famous article on the ethics of abortion, the philosopher Don Marquis argued that we don’t allow murder because it causes its victims to lose all of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they would have had. “What make killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or her future,” wrote Marquis.

We can extend that same argument to the premature ending of the life of a perfectly good building, as in the case here. While the word “life” has a different meaning when we apply it to a living being as opposed to an inanimate object like a building, the ethics related to terminating a life appear as relevant to buildings as much as bodies. Demolishing something that still has a promising future raises the same kind of objections we have when we see someone negligently or intentionally killing someone else. It deprives people of the “activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments” that they might have had in that building.

Drawing a parallel between killing a person and demolishing a building may seem extreme. Buildings have no political rights, no feeling of pain, no interpersonal relationships or any of the other characteristics of a human life that make murder so immoral. Nor, since the abolition of slavery, do we allow one person to own another, the way we do buildings. The private-property rights that accrue to the owner of a building gives that person relatively free reign to tear it down except in those few instances where historic designations or other contractual agreements prohibit it.

Law and ethics, though, almost never perfectly align. What the law allows us to do does not necessarily make it ethical, which Marquis’s argument highlights. We can legally engage in war, for example, but that does not make the killing of other people ethical because, as Marquis observes, it deprives them of their future, which we have no right to take. At the same time, Marquis argues for the ethics of mercy killing, of ending the life a terminally ill person who wants to die because of the pain and suffering that their foreshortened future holds for them, even though this remains illegal.

This gives us criteria of when to save a building and when not to. If a structure still has “life” in it, with enough structural integrity and physical capacity to accommodate a variety of new uses, we should do all we can to preserve and rehabilitate it. And if not – if its deterioration has so shortened its life and made its reuse almost impossible without a nearly complete rebuilding – we should not hesitate demolishing it unless there is some extraordinary historical value attached to the structure to merit its reconstruction.

In the case of the solid industrial building in that nature preserve, the city needs to do whatever possible to find a new owner or developer willing to rehabilitate the structure. While the city has no political advantage or legal requirement to do so, it does have an ethical responsibility, and for many people, that’s reason enough.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


A university faced with a growing crime problem involving the theft of electronic devices wanted to install a number of surveillance cameras on buildings. Some on campus argued that the university, instead, should design public spaces with enough activity and “eyes on the street” that surveillance cameras would not be necessary, while others objected to the cameras as a violation of their privacy.

The philosopher Peter Singer has written an insightful essay in Harpers* looking at some of the ethical dilemmas raised in our media-saturated world, where between the widespread use of cameras and the apparent urge of people to tell all on their Facebook pages, privacy has almost completely disappeared. Singer makes his point by an architectural analogy: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Imagined by Bentham as the perfect surveillance device, the Panopticon was a radial building in which one person could stand at the center and observe the activities of everyone at the perimeter.

Singer then observes that “The modern Panopticon is not a physical building … With surveillance technology like closed-circuit television cameras and digital cameras now linked to the Internet, we have the means to implement Bentham’s inspection principle on a much vaster scale. What’s more, we have helped construct this new Panopticon, voluntarily giving up troves of personal information. We blog, tweet, and post what we are doing, thinking and feeling.”

Key to the ethics of our “modern Panopticon” is the question of whether we participate in it voluntarily or not. When we choose to go into public places, we give up a degree of privacy in order to be with or interact with other people. In our era, that also means our acceptance of being monitored by surveillance cameras. That fact invalidates the claim by some, in this case, that the additional security cameras on campus would violate their privacy. Their being in public means that they have already relinquished a degree of privacy, whether observed by cameras or by other people.

That claim, though, does reflect a widespread misunderstanding of and indeed an unfortunate decline in public life and the public realm. Busy streets, full of pedestrians able to watch for possible criminal behavior, can make cameras irrelevant, which is what those who argued for an enlivened campus in lieu of cameras had in mind. Meanwhile the lack of such crowds has not only prompted the electronic surveillance of public spaces, but also perhaps the growing use of social media, which in some sense moves “public” visibility to the Internet.

Social contract theory has some relevance here. Thomas Hobbes argued that we need a strong central authority to keep people from harming each other, as he believed we would do without such restraint. He would likely have supported the use of surveillance cameras on campus for that reason. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in contrast, had a suspicion of central authority and believed people to be naturally good apart from the corrupting influence of society. Rousseau would probably have argued: the fewer cameras, the better.

Between those two extreme views stood John Locke, who recognized the value of central authority, but argued that its legitimacy rests with the consent of the governed. Locke might have urged the university to find a balance between deploying cameras where absolutely necessary and doing whatever possible to encourage people to assemble in public. Singer’s essay echoes Locke. Singer observes that electronic devices now allow those surveyed to watch their surveyors as well as the other way around. Such two-way surveillance becomes analogous to democracy, in which we, the governed, watch our representatives – protecting not only our security, but also our liberty.

* Singer, Peter. “Visible Man, Ethics in a World without Secrets,” Harpers, August 2011, p. 32-36.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Altering an Award Winner

An architectural firm received a commission by a university to install new energy efficient lighting in a series of lecture halls, including one in a building that had won a number of design awards. The university had a standard fixture it wanted to use and when the firm raised a question about its appropriateness in the award-winning space, it was told to focus on energy saving and light output, not aesthetics.

In an understandable sense of urgency on the part of many clients to save energy and reduce operating costs, some have acted as if other values, like historic integrity or award-winning design, matter less than the green imperative. That thinking has created problems before. In the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, well-intentioned designs sometimes had decidedly ugly results, which led skeptics to dismiss the energy movement as extremist. The inability of some true believers to balance energy conservation with other factors in a project, like history, context, or aesthetics, ended up working against the energy movement’s goals.

By the 1980s and 1990s, while the need to saving energy in buildings remained as important as ever, the public’s interest in it and the political support for it diminished dramatically. That arose, in part, from the rightward tilt in politics during that period, but it also came from people reacting negatively to inappropriate or unsightly alterations to buildings in name of conservation. Advocates of historic preservation even distanced themselves from energy conservation, even though saving and reusing an old building remains among one of the most energy conserving actions we can take.

In the situation described here, the overly narrow focus on energy conservation came not from the architect, but from the client. The university in this case wanted a standard solution of hanging, indirect fixtures to replace incandescent lighting in several auditoriums, looking to the architect mainly to do the drawings and specifications for the pre-determined solution to the problem. The architects raised the issue of the suitability of that solution in the award-winning building, where entry high up in the space led the original architects to recess the lighting to prevent glare in the eyes of people entering the hall. The client, however, seemed not to care about such niceties and insisted that the architects do what they had been commissioned to do.

The ethics here involves the question: how do we resolve conflicting values that all have validity and often equal importance? If ethics is to be more than just a pastime of the philosophically inclined, it should give us tools to address conflicts like this and to know what course of action to take. At the core of ethics lies conversation, and typically the best way to resolve conflicts of values entails having as many conversations with people of as many different viewpoints as possible in order not only to understand the full extent of the issues involves, but also to listen for possible solutions in the comments of others.

The architects in this case should use their professional prerogative to talk with their peers about the situation as well as with the original architects of the building. Getting as much background on the project, understanding the reasoning behind the design, and seeking out advice on how to achieve the clients’ goals without diminishing the aesthetic qualities of the space all help in making the right decision. A good general rule to follow, as Aristotle said, involves finding the mean between two extremes. The architects should insist on an alternative energy saving scheme that also preserves the integrity of the award-winning hall. Period.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Insider Information

An architect who worked for a governmental agency that reviewed and approved architectural projects left to become a consultant to clients seeking approvals from the very same agency. While the architect violated no policy or law in using his inside information about the agency on behalf of his clients, some of his former colleagues in government thought that his actions violated the confidentiality of his previous employer.

Professional ethics often revolves around the tension between society’s assumption that professionals will keep the public interest uppermost in mind and clients’ expectation that we will look after their needs first. In many cases, these divided loyalties align and professionals meet the desired outcomes of both their clients and the community. However, when a conflict arises, professionals have to decide where to draw the line and to seek a reasonable resolution.

An example of that occurs in this case, where an architect with inside knowledge of how a public agency works uses that information to benefit clients seeking the agency’s approval. On the positive side, the architect’s knowledge can make the approval process go more smoothly for both sides, making sure that the agency has the information they need in order to make a timely decision, which of course also benefits the client. However, there also exists the possibility that the architect will use that knowledge to help clients push to the limit what the agency will accept and even skirt requirements for which there remains room for interpretation.

The AIA’s code of ethics alludes to this possibility with rules such as: “A Member shall not render professional services if the Member's professional judgment could be affected by responsibilities to another project or person, or by the Member's own interests, unless all those who rely on the Member's judgment consent after full disclosure.” In this case, the architect has fully disclosed his former government employment to clients, who no doubt commissioned him in part because of it. But this situation does raise questions about the architect’s divided loyalties. Does he retain a sense of responsibility to his former employer, which might disadvantage his clients, or feel responsible to his clients and so possibly do a disservice to the public interest that the governmental agency seeks to protect?

A related rule in the AIA Code of Ethics suggests another potential problem with this situation. “Members shall not knowingly disclose information that would adversely affect their client or that they have been asked to maintain in confidence.” Here, the architect has confidential information about how the agency works and makes decisions as well as confidential information about what his clients intend in terms of meeting – or not meeting – the requirements the agency tries to enforce. The non-disclosure rule in the AIA Code of Ethics, however, expects architects to reveal something held in confidence that might be unlawful or a violation of a legislated policy or judicial ruling. Knowing what the law allows or doesn’t allow remains the competitive advantage of this architect, although he treads a fine line between the government seeking to enforce the law and clients who might try to shirk it.

The American Bar Association specifically prohibits attorneys from “represent(ing) a client in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a public officer or employee, unless the appropriate government agency gives its informed consent, confirmed in writing, to the representation.” The architectural profession would do well to institute a similar rule. At stake is the public’s faith in our ability to keep the public interest in mind, without which we cease being a profession.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ethics and Politics

An architect from a wealthy suburb got elected to the state legislature, eventually letting his architectural license lapse as he rose in the ranks of conservative politics. This led some to wonder if architecture has bipartisan appeal or if the issues that seem to matter most to architects invariably lean the profession toward the political left.

The design of buildings, landscapes, and communities remains, fundamentally, an apolitical activity. All people need shelter – places in which to live, work, shop, study, and play – and it should not matter where one stands on a range of other political issues. Seen in that way, architecture represents a technical field, more involved in keeping the rain out than in worrying about which political party reigns.

Still, the design and construction industry involves large investments, both public and private, and it invariably gets entangled in politics. Politicians make decisions that directly affect the amount of construction that occurs, either through appropriations of public money or through monetary and tax policies that influence private investments in buildings. And the industry, like all major sectors of the economy, has lobbyists who try to sway the opinions of politicians, left and right, about issues of concern.

Politics, though, remains as fluid a field as design and in recent decades, the political spectrum has become more like a barbell, with two opposing sides and almost no one in the middle. Many analysts have tried to explain this political polarization, attributing it to everything from radio talk shows and factional media to the growing disparity between a super-rich minority and everyone else. Whatever the cause, however, the implications for architects have become clear.

Architects, as individuals, no doubt have a wide range of political opinions. But architecture, as a discipline, does have commitments to improving the quality of life and enhancing the public realm that, at least in our current climate, seems to place the field, politically, toward one end of the barbell and not the other.

That may say more about the changing nature of politics than it does about architecture. The political left and right used to debate how best to finance public education, public healthcare, public transportation, and the like. However, the debate has become more about whether we should have a public realm at all. The skepticism – and in some quarters, outright hatred – of the government has led some conservatives to call for the drastic shrinkage of the public sector in order to grow private sector jobs.

This, in turn, has led to efforts to “privatize” a lot of what people formerly assumed to be the government’s role, with public funds providing vouchers for people to go to private schools, with public healthcare viewed as a government takeover of the private market, and with public transportation seen as an unnecessary expenditure that benefits only a few.

Architects, of course, work for both public and private clients and so benefit regardless of whether public or private investments dominate. But the discipline’s long tradition of advocacy of the public realm does place the field at odds with political conservative and does suggest that we have a duty, ethically, to oppose extreme efforts to privatize everything we once thought of as public.

Just as doctors advocate for health and lawyers, for justice, architects need to advocate for that which improves people’s lives, their physical surroundings, and the public realm generally. Some, like that architect-turned-legislator, may not agree. But our ethical duty as a discipline trumps our political self-interest as individuals, and for those who don’t see it that way, they can always let their licenses lapse.