Ethics have a sell-by date

Words:
Maria Smith

Some design principles aren’t fit for the 21st century

Are the design ethics of the 20th century holding us back from operating ethically in the 21st? The likes of John Ruskin, Owen Jones, William Morris, Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Kenneth Frampton – to name a few – have left us with a weighty set of principles under which to create what is deemed good design. These are internalised in each of us, indoctrinated insidiously at architecture school where we are trained like naughty children under Supernanny until we feel that they are inherent truths.

We all know the kind of stuff. Good design is honest design, constructed from rationally chosen materials expressed in tactile, tectonic forms befitting those materials: truth to materials! ‘I like an arch!’ called the brick. Good design is not superficial sceno­graphics deployed for effect; it is never merely visual. Good design is stripped back, where nothing could be taken away to improve it. Degenerate ornamentation glorifying chattelled labour is to be discouraged; less is more! Good design is of its time, exploiting technological progress. It is not nostalgic or pastiche. It is contextual, but intrinsically so; it is of its climate, topography and region. Good design digs deep and honours the essence of place.

It’s very hard to disagree with any of this. Even the architects who do mostly do so knowingly, with irony or poignant flamboyance. But given that these tenets were developed in a time characterised by stupendous technological and social progress, and we don’t live there any more, is it not right to question whether they might be becoming unhelpful? 

We should not be churning out graduates conversant in critical regionalism but ignorant of embodied energy

According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequencies that words or phrases appear in published sources, ‘truth to materials’ rose sharply from the early 1950s to an initial peak in 1968. The global population in 1968 was 3.5 billion; now it is more than double that at 7.6 billion. Today architecture isn’t about honouring the essential properties of materials or pursuing the beauty of as few lines as possible. It is about enabling too many humans to live on this planet together. This is our great problem. It is social, technical and political and I ask, is it served by the aesthetic moralising of a wildly different age?

What harm could these principles be causing? Could our analysis, abstraction and reconfiguring of context in the name of good design be perpetuating outdated and now inappropriate building technologies? Is the contextual congruity of brickwork distracting us from stimulating afforestation? Could we be so afraid of superficiality and skin-deep scenography that we write off the signals of environmental design from trombe walls to straw bales as style choices to be justified and discredited according to pre-climate change design principles? Could our insistence on the distinction between the arts and sciences; our insistence that good design is not technocratic but elevated from mere engineering to an art, be preventing the scientifically rational from running the show? Is carbon sequestering being hampered by perceived creative perversity? Is our history of revered industrial progress encouraging us to explore the design opportunities offered by, say, 3D printed plastics and steels just because we can? 

It’s an upsetting thought that our design inculturation could be a factor in ethical shortcomings but I suspect it’s quite likely. After all, this is a very normal source of inertia that prevents change. I’m probably not advocating that we throw all of the last century’s design discourse out with the bathwater but I do believe we ought to be much tougher on ourselves. We definitely ought to watch out for using old tenets as alibis. And we definitely should not be churning out any more graduates conversant in critical regionalism but ignorant of embodied energy, carbon sequestering, or albedo management. To be intentionally provocative, isn’t the integrity of exposed concrete a bit like the oxymoronic righteousness of humane murder? 


Maria Smith is a director at Interrobang architecture and engineering and Webb Yates Engineers, and is co-chief curator of the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019

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