Practice principles

Should you make a stand or keep schtumm? Where do you draw the line?

With government-sponsored trade missions taking architects to Libya only a year or so before Nato intervened against Colonel Gaddafi, how can architects be expected to take an educated view on the moral rectitude of the regime?

The right to conscience is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it is what we do with it that matters. Conscience makes us think of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, emerging from house arrest in Burma, or Edward Snowden, fleeing as he alerted the world’s press to the extent security service surveillance now reaches into everyday lives. However, the Arab Spring or this year’s Turkish protests centred in Gezi Park in Istanbul show how powerful the collective voice of ordinary people can be: if they can find a way to come together and express their views. 

Few architects could, or would, claim parallels with such actions. But the debate around complicity has played out in the past. If you work for a regime surely you endorse it? This has been the tabloid take on international architects with headline grabbing projects, mainly in the Middle East. There is a certain awareness of moral questions and political conscience at stake among architects. The RIBA trade mission to Libya earlier this year was described by one participant who worked there when Gaddafi with in power as dealing with the ‘legacies of dictatorship’. 

But with government-sponsored trade missions taking architects to Libya only a year or so before Nato intervened against Colonel Gaddafi, how can architects be expected to take an educated view on the moral rectitude of the regime?

Israel/Palestine conflict

The Israel-Palestinian conflict throws up many questions of conscience too. Eyal Weizman has written compellingly of how Israel’s state apparatus of control uses architecture and planning as a weapon in the domination of the occupied territories. Few UK architects have to consider whether to refuse a project there but, equally, few go out of their way to help rebuild destroyed areas of Gaza, as the Palestine Regeneration Team does. Led by Golzari (NG) Architects and linking academic (University of Westminster) and professional interest in the region, this team seeks to make practical difference there; the equivalent of speaking out in architectural terms. Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine allows a more comfortable way of pulling together voices, as signatories, on political and environmental issues, most recently campaigning to discourage Eduardo Souta de Moura from accepting an Israeli-funded Wolf Prize in Arts. 

Such campaigning has a strong part to play in setting the stage for individuals to raise their voices. The uncomfortable business of insisting on a timber specification with client, contractor, subcontractor and so on was made easier when Greenpeace started embarrassing public bodies that used tropical hardwoods or untraceable timber. Sustainability, in its various forms, is now embedded in the language of architecture, if not always its thinking. It is part of a wider cultural shift thanks to scientists and campaigners and, particularly in construction, to recognition by the EU, government and professional bodies of the part buildings have to play in reducing emissions. 

Case for space

It has been interesting to see how campaigning from inside the profession can also empower architects. The RIBA’s Case for Space has not only pushed home sizes up the political agenda, it has also reminded architects that it is a subject for discussion with clients. And the confident action of The London Plan which set its own space standards has proved it is possible. Even if the campaign doesn’t bear regulatory fruit it puts a marker in the sand. Those project architects miserably involved in designing unhappy little flats should no longer feel alone; perhaps now they will be able to speak up for more space. 

In this country issues of social justice are often attached to housing. Here, the impact on individuals’ lives is clearest. Last year a group of UCL academics from the Bartlett and beyond spoke out loudly against the college’s own plans for its Newham campus that would replace 700 housing units on Carpenter’s Estate, saying it was an ‘aggressive and unethical’. It hasn’t proceeded, reportedly because talks with Newham Council broke down. A group stand can push an issue of conscience up the agenda – through media coverage as well as direct pressure. 

The cost of housing – a key factor in affordability of homes for both rent and sale – is dealt with schizophrenically by a profession torn between social justice and TV property rhetoric

Good and evil

Architects are intimately involved in both discussions and solutions on the percentage and configuration of social housing on developments, to set the framework for future inhabitation, access and management. And should the homes be tenure blind or blatant? For some it does become an issue of conscience though you don’t hear of many practices resigning over it. The cost of housing – a key factor in affordability of homes for both rent and sale, which as we know is at crisis level – is dealt with schizophrenically by a profession torn between social justice and TV property rhetoric. Should you aim for lower sale prices by reducing costs, event though it might not be reflected in a sales price, or celebrate, as many do, the way good design has raised prices?

So where is the dividing line? When does your conscience tell you that this is good or that is evil? Can knowing about bribery on one of your projects ever be right when it is outlawed though the Bribery Act? And condemning unpaid internships is one thing, but should you deny experience to an architectural student because you can’t afford to pay them? Could you have pushed harder to keep the photovoltaics which would have reduced the emissions of the building for years to come or should you be proud that you still have a south facing roof at the right angle? Visiting buildings and talking to architects for more than a decade I would characterise the profession as morally driven. But I have still heard more complaints about downpipes not lining up than discussions of any of these issues. Perhaps, as Sheppard Robson’s Alan Shingler suggests, the only conscience you can depend on architects to maintain is the one they are trained for, a design conscience. 


 

Alan Shingler, head of sustainability, Sheppard Robson
You’re trained at school to think about place, the architecture of the building. But it is not enough to integrate sustainability... we should be building for the future not perpetuating climate change. Too many architects don’t care about sustainability, concentrating just on design in the built environment. But it has to be fully integrated in design and education, not bolted on. SR has systems and a review scheme to put it at the heart of the process.

Christophe Egret, co-founder, Studio Egret West
In every design, I think first about how people will feel in my buildings. The city is where people choose to come to work, live and bring up their children. If we create an environment that is segregated and ghettoising we fail our cities. Before any form takes place we ask, what will oil the wheels of social cohesion? People think architecture is something that happens to them, yet in Denmark, Barcelona, Turkey or the culture I am from, place is in people’s DNA, they will fight for their street. We need a bit more of that here.

Irena Bauman, Director, Bauman Lyons
Making of architecture and architecture itself are acts of ethics – intentional or not. Who the architecture is for, how it’s used, paid for and affects others, are all underpinned by social values – and ethics. Most architects practise without considering ethics – they don’t see a connection. Yet we can’t even draw a line on a piece of paper without engaging in ethics. The place to start developing Collective Conscience is to recognise and articulate one’s own.

Rory Bergin, Partner, HTA Architects
We design without knowing the people we’re designing for – we know those procuring it, but not the end user. So we have to act as an intermediary for their short-term financial needs and wider societal needs. Our tool is the ability to demonstrate through design how higher ideals have far-reaching benefits. Even those interested in short term gain know that the highest values are gained from places people actually want to occupy. If that fails, regulation and guidance can keep a project on the right side of the ethical tracks. 


 

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