The value of ethics lies in its asking uncomfortable questions about our often-unchallenged assumptions about power and privilege and about our often-unexamined responsibilities to others who have neither. This is particularly an issue in architecture, which Nietzsche called “the will to power by means of form,” a field that because of its difficulty and expense often finds itself complicit in accommodating and reinforcing the power and privilege of those who have the money to commission it.
Because of the questions it asks, ethics can seem like a threat to architecture and so ethics has largely had a marginal role in architectural education. The rise of architectural education in the second half of the 19th Century coincided with an effort, led by the critic Oscar Wilde, to separate the realm of aesthetics from that of ethics. We see that separation in the formalism and aestheticism of 19th and early 20th century Beaux Arts architecture, in which the focus on the creation of classical facades and idealized interior and exterior environments papered over the industrial pollution, environmental destruction, and social inequality that enriched the public and private clients of those buildings.
Architects themselves played a somewhat paradoxical role in this. On one hand, the profession had become complicit in enabling those in power to feel good about themselves, with the discourse in schools of architecture largely focused on the skill with which students could learn this classical disguise. One the other hand, the profession itself found itself increasingly exploited by those in power, which led, in 1909, to the AIA’s first code of ethics. The prohibitions in that first code against the exploitative practices of clients wanting architects, for example, to give away their design ideas in unpaid competitions or to compete for work based on who had the lowest fees, shows how much the unfair treatment that had enriched those who commissioned buildings had gotten applied to those who designed them.
The rise of modern architecture in the schools in the 1920s and 30s might seem like a ripping away of the Beaux Arts façade and the recognition of the needs of the working class. Certainly modern architects’ admiration of industrial architecture, emphasis on transparency, and attention to new kinds of programs, like worker housing, all reinforce that appearance. But modern architecture actually represented a new kind of ethical slight of hand, based on what the philosopher William Barrett has called “the illusion of technique.” While modern architecture seemed more sympathetic to the plight of the working class through the use of industrial materials and methods, the profession and the schools did little to challenge the social, economic or political power of clients. In addition, the “international style” ignored differences of culture or climate, turning the idea of universal rights into a form of repression.
Ethics finally emerged in the late 1960s as an explicit area of study in architecture education, becoming part of the accreditation process in the 1970s. And since then, we have seen a flourishing of ethical questioning in the schools, be it challenges to the dominance of men and male ways of thinking on the part of feminist ethics or challenges to the dominance of humans over other species on the part of environmental ethics, challenges to the dominance of capitalism and its exploitation of workers on the part of Marxist ethics, or challenges to the dominance of reason and abstract rationality on the part of phenomenological ethics.
This “ethical turn” in architecture education has greatly enriched the intellectual life in our schools, although it has had relatively little impact on a profession still dependent on those individuals, organizations and communities with enough wealth and power to commission architects. And that has washed back over the schools of late, as architectural education has seen the resurgence in aestheticism and the illusion of technique as a result of the digital revolution, in which computer-generated form-making and digital fabrication methods have become an end in themselves, with the needs of the global population, future generations, and other species on the planet largely overlooked.
So pay attention to what issues are not addressed in a design, to what questions don’t get asked in a review, and what goes unsaid in the stories we tell about ourselves as a profession and a discipline. That is where you will find the “will to power” in our field and where you will discover the real power of ethics.