A Pervasive and Often-Overlooked Presence in Architecture Education
The study of architecture raises many ethical questions around the four dominant approaches to the subject: virtue ethics, social contract ethics, duty ethics, and utilitarian ethics.1 The design studio, for instance, has served as an ideal venue for imparting virtue. While less-than-virtuous behavior can occur in studio—as students of the lazy, greedy architect Mr. Pecksniff in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit witnessed—studio education has proven remarkably effective in instilling in students classic virtues such as good judgment, self-control, honesty, and courage.
Social contract ethics play an equally fundamental role in architecture education. The question of what constitutes a good society and how architecture can aid in—or interfere with—the achievement of social virtues such as justice and fairness has underpinned such areas of study as urban design and environmental behavior. The fact that architects so often find themselves aiding and abetting unjust allocations of resources or unfair presumptions of privilege, however, suggests that this approach needs better integration into the wider curriculum.
The third branch of normative ethics, duty ethics, also figures in architecture education. Students frequently learn in design studio to do “what is right” regardless of the consequences. While that has kept alive a sense of architecture as a calling—something easily sacrificed in a primarily utilitarian culture—the focus on good intentions has also had negative consequences, among them the scant attention paid in most schools to the evaluation of buildings after their occupation.
Utilitarian ethics too have a role to play in architecture education. Courses in technology and sustainability, with their emphasis on functionality and effectiveness, address the consequences of design decisions on the physical or environmental performance of buildings. While scarce funding for architectural research has limited the ability of architects and others to assess building performance broadly and systematically, the public still largely judges the ethics of what architects do according to the utility of their designs and the practical consequences of their decisions. An increase in financial support for architectural research, both within academia and outside it, thus remains one of the major ethical challenges the field faces.
The silent presence of ethics
Despite the pervasiveness of ethics, the subject had a mostly silent presence in the schools for the first century of architecture education in North America; it was rarely written about and not formally required as part of the curriculum. One reason may have been its very ubiquity. The discipline of architecture had for so long aspired to improve the quality of the built environment, and with it the quality of people’s lives, that the ethics of doing so may have gone without saying.
Another reason for the absence of an explicit study of ethics may have had to do with the aesthetic orientation of many architects. Throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the proponents of the art of architecture often felt the need to defend it against ethical criticism, leading to an estrangement between ethics and aesthetics that largely coincided with the rise of architecture education in North America.
The Beaux-Arts pedagogy that William Robert Ware embraced when he established the first North American architecture program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1868 institutionalized this estrangement in the schools. While providing an effective way of teaching architecture, the Beaux-Arts system also inculcated in students a genteel aestheticism that avoided troubling problems: the unquestioning papering over of the pollution and poverty of industrial cities, for example, with neoclassical facades. Nor, from a broader philosophical perspective, did the writings of ethically driven nineteenth-century thinkers such as Nietzsche, who saw architecture as “the will to power by means of form,” have much impact on North American architecture schools until late in the twentieth century, when institutional critiques began to become prevalent in architectural discourse.
Changes in ethics itself may also have contributed generally to the silence on the subject in architecture schools.2 Arguing that the good is indefinable and so un-analyzable, G. E. Moore’s famous Principia Ethica, published in 1903, reflected a growing skepticism in philosophy about the very possibility of ethical debate. Meanwhile William James’s popular book Pragmatism, which appeared in 1908, aligned the good with “what works,” lending support to those in architecture who wished to sidestep ethical questions in favor of aesthetic or technical ones. The first AIA code of ethics, promulgated in 1909, reflected that pragmatist approach in focusing almost exclusively on the profession’s relationship to clients and contractors and on the regulation of design competitions.3
Ethics became a somewhat more visible presence with the arrival in North America in the 1930s of former Bauhaus educators such as Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. While still not a required part of the curriculum, ethics infused the programs that they established at Harvard and the New Bauhaus, which schools across North America widely followed. The utilitarian aesthetic and socially relevant projects that emerged from the Bauhaus-inspired studios of that era reflected the growing recognition by modern architects of their ethical responsibilities.
At the same time, the Bauhaus pedagogy inculcated an idealistic, neo-Hegelian ethic. Hegel’s belief in the inevitability of personal freedom, in the centrality of visionary individuals, and in the uniqueness of every historical period greatly influenced North American architecture education after the 1930s. Architecture students learned to emulate the work of “great masters” such as Le Corbusier, Aalto, and Mies, whose use of the “free plan” seemed to embody the Hegelian ideal of maximum freedom and whose use of new technology captured the Hegelian spirit of the modern age.
An Anglo-American skepticism of ethics remained dominant in North American culture in the mid-twentieth century, however, and may have hampered a fuller and more explicit discussion of the subject in architecture schools. Many North American philosophers agreed with their English colleagues that ethics involved the subjective or “emotive” expression of personal preferences, and so lacked the clarity or objectivity of linguistic or logical analysis. The Anglo-American bias also had certain positive consequences for North American higher education. For example, C. L. Stevenson’s distinction in his 1944 book Ethics and Language between beliefs based on facts, which can be mandated, and attitudes toward behaviors, which should remain advisory, echoed the division of architecture curriculums around this time into required courses and elective ones.
Not all American philosophers dismissed ethics as subjective. The ethics of John Dewey, for example, had an enormous influence on education in North America, above all his “laboratory method” of experimentation as a way of resolving moral as well as social and political dilemmas. Dewey’s ethics, at once progressive and pragmatic, contributed to the belief of many design educators that the studio should be less a place of pupilage and more a laboratory for the exploration of new ideas.
By the 1960s the belief in the value of experimentation took more radical forms. Just as Marx’s ethical materialism had turned Hegel’s ethical idealism on its head, so a growing number of architecture students and faculty in the 1960s overturned the Hegelian idealization of the modern masters and modern technology to embrace a more Marxian interest in the needs of the working class and the poor. Meanwhile, the emerging youth culture of the era reflected an ethics that was at once nihilistic and idealistic: Nietzschean in its confrontation with power and Rousseauian in its yearning to return to a state of nature.
Ethics as an explicit curricular requirement
In the mid-1970s, ethics finally became a required subject for architecture school accreditation in North America.4 The formalized coverage of ethics typically occurred in the mandatory professional practice course, although ethics sometimes also got discussed in other classes where individual faculty members had a particular interest or expertise in the subject. At the same time, the rise of postmodernism saw ethics permeate architectural thinking, as it did in other academic fields, from the humanities to the social sciences. Postmodernism in architecture represented not just a historicist approach to style; it ushered in an “ethical turn” in higher education that represented a reconciliation of aesthetics and ethics in an effort to reunite art and life.5
This ethical turn did not entirely reverse what had come before. The formalism and aestheticism that characterized midcentury modernism continued to thrive in the 1970s, but it no longer held the same privileged position. If anything, postmodernism embraced a diversity of approaches, including ones that rejected its very premises. But across the ideological spectrum, ethics played a more central role, making its requirement for accreditation not just professionally useful but symbolically important.
The resurgence of interest among educators and practitioners in architectural history at this time paralleled a revived interest among philosophers in historical approaches to ethics. John Rawls, in his seminal book A Theory of Justice (1971), made a compelling argument about the need to attend to the needs of the least advantaged members of society, prompting a revival among philosophers of the social contract ethics that had last flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Similarly, in architecture, the rise of participatory planning and protests by historic preservationists against urban renewal had strong repercussions in architecture schools during the 1970s, and reflected a like commitment to questions related to the architect’s “social contract” with the public.
A revival of other philosophical traditions with ethical implications also emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, two of which had great influence on architecture education. The first, phenomenology, derived from the work of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who linked both architecture and ethics back to the latter’s Greek root word, ethos, meaning “accustomed place.” The embrace of phenomenology also reflected a revival of the pre-Socratic philosophers’ focus on the existential meanings of the material world. A new focus on experiential qualities and particularities of places, which became a central focus of architectural and urban design education in many schools after the 1970s, showed the influence of phenomenology and existential ethics that continues to this day.
A second philosophy with roots in an ancient tradition of moral analysis, virtue ethics, also witnessed a revival in the work of a number of philosophers, many of them women—Elizabeth Anscombe, Susan Wolf, Iris Murdoch, and Philippa Foot, among others. Their questioning of the rigidity and absolutism of modern utilitarian duty ethics led to a more modest, contextual, and character-based approach to morality. Within architecture schools of the 1970s, such an approach translated into a new interest in the context and character of buildings. This sensibility too remains in force today.
Postmodernism led to new understandings of architects’ ethical responsibilities as well. The ethics of care that emerged in the 1980s in the work of feminist philosophers like Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings resonated with the thinking of many architecture educators who had become increasingly critical of the repressive qualities of the built environment and the need for more diverse and flexible ways of accommodating people’s lives. The incursion of feminist ethics in a once male-dominated field like architecture also had consequences for the quality of life in many schools, making them less like fraternity houses and more open to a plurality of student backgrounds and values.
Finally, postmodernist revisions of ethical philosophy contributed to architecture’s expansion of its purview beyond its traditional subject—human beings—to embrace the good of other species and the planet as a whole. Thinkers such as Arne Naess, Peter Singer, and Bill McKibben enlarged architects’ sense of obligation to ecosystems and the deep interconnections existing among the parts of “one world,” to use Singer’s term. The growing number of sustainability programs in architecture schools and the addition of an environmental canon to the AIA’s code of ethics give evidence of the widening influence of environmental ethics.
As architecture educators look ahead to the next century, ethics will likely become an even more essential subject of instruction.6 Faced with ongoing environmental damage, an exponential increase in human population, rapid depletion of finite resources, and extinction of irreplaceable species, architects may find less of a call for one-off custom design solutions and more demand for conserving energy and stewarding natural resources, for serving the needs of billions of ill-housed people, and for preserving the habitat of other species upon whose survival humankind depends. A deep understanding of ethics can help architects make decisions about how to address such challenges in as fair and effective a way as possible, and there may be few forms of knowledge more important for architecture students in the future to have.
1. Books that cover the range of ethical issues encountered in architectural practice include Ethics and the Practice of Architecture by Barry Wasserman, Patrick Sullivan, and Gregory Palermo (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice by Tom Spector (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), and Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice by this author (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
2. Works that cover the history of ethics clearly and succinctly include A History of Western Ethics edited by Lawrence and Charlotte Becker (Routledge, 2003) and A Short History of Ethics, A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the 20th Century, Second Edition by Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame, 2002).
3. Code of Ethics & Profession Conduct, The American Institute of Architects.
4. From a conversation with Andrea Rutledge, Executive Director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board.
5. A good overview of recent ethics occurs in Postmodern Ethics by Zygmunt Bauman (Wiley - Blackwell, 1993).
6. Ethics and the Built Environment edited by Warwick Fox (Routledge, 2000) and Architectural Design and Ethics, Tools for Survival by this author (The Architectural Press/Elsevier, 2008) both deal with the ethical implications for architects of our environmental challenges.