A client of a high-rise building in a country with hostile neighbors asked the architect to design a disguised anti-missile installation at the top of the tower. While the architect felt obliged to accommodate the client – and the country’s – request, it raised questions about whether or not the inhabitants of the building should know about the installation and about how people would feel working in what would become a possible military target.
Safety ranks, along health and welfare, as one of the primary responsibilities of architects. While design professionals often think of safety in terms of ensuring the stability of a structure, the accessibility of fire exits, and the security of every element in a building, the concept can extend to the protection of a facility from attack.
Since 9/11, the possibility of an air-borne strike at a building has become a definite possibility, particularly if the structure carries symbolic importance to an enemy. As a result, the design of especially high-rise or high-security structures now often includes a simulation of how the building would withstand a direct hit by, say, an airplane fully loaded with fuel.
Installing anti-missile devices in a building that doesn’t otherwise have a military purpose seems to take this to another level, however. The architect here has gone from ensuring the safety of the building’s inhabitants to engaging in defensive tactics, which could possibly increase the security of the occupants should the structure come under attack or just as likely decrease it by making the structure a target.
Such an extreme case highlights a common dilemma in the production of architecture. The architect has a professional duty to accommodate the needs of a client as long as those programmatic requirements lie within the law and do not endanger occupants or passersby. At the same time, the architect has an obligation to protect people’s health, safety, and welfare, even if they never know how the architect has done so.
But does the architect also have an obligation to inform the inhabitants of a building about aspects of it that could endanger them? That certainly happens with signage that, for instance, warns people not to leave fire doors ajar, not to lean over railings in high-up locations, or not to access spaces that contain potentially hazardous materials. Such warnings constitute reasonable safety precautions intended to protect people and most of us no doubt welcome such advice. However, there remain myriad examples of architects protecting people’s safety that go unstated: preventing falls on stair with slip-proof treads and readily accessible handrails, for example, or protecting against electrical shock with grounded outlets and switches.
Should an architect stay equally quite about a less imminent and yet gravely serious threat, such as a missile attack? The client likely does not want to alarm or scare away tenants and the country, just as likely, might not want others to know of the installation, evident in the request that the architect disguised it. But does an architect have a duty to inform people of the potential danger and the precautions taken to protect them?
Utilitarian ethics can help answer such questions. What constitutes the greatest good for the greatest number? The citizens of the country certainly know of their hostile neighbors and of the possibility of missile attacks, so the architect has no need to inform them of that. But the architect does have an obligation to not only do as the client asks, but also to lay out the pros and cons of informing the building’s occupants and to say what he or she would do. Honesty is the safest bet.