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.

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