Michael Gleenwood

Last February, The Guardian’s Owen Gibson reported on hundreds of migrant worker deaths in Qatar owing to preparations for the FIFA World Cup 2022. Al Wakrah’s Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium in southern Qatar, designed by Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, which had not yet started construction at the time, is among the World Cup’s most prominent projects. When asked at a London event about conditions for construction workers there, The Guardian’s James Riach reported in a follow-up story Hadid’s now-famous reply: “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.”

That dustup came on the heels of two other critical debates, one over the aesthetics of the stadium that Hadid had designed, and the other surrounding general concerns about the World Cup—as well as major global sporting events like the Olympics—in displacing people and abusing power within host countries. Hadid said that she did not take the Qatar situation lightly, but that ultimately worker safety was “not my duty as an architect to look at.”

Her comments drew fire from architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, among others, who wrote in Vanity Fair last August that Hadid’s fame alone was fuel enough to drive significant attention toward the Qatari problem. “No one forces an architect to accept a job that carries with it a serious ethical compromise,” he wrote.

Goldberger wasn’t the only one to evoke the “E” word. The Al Wakrah stadium is, in many respects, a case study for ethical quandary. Safety, aesthetics, politics, economics, globalization, client relations, and environmental and public good all come into play in this multibillion-dollar structure. But while critiques of Hadid made salient headlines for several months, it didn’t exactly galvanize the profession as a whole around issues of morality.

And this speaks to a broader truth: Ethical discourse within architecture is tepid at best, even with a new generation of architects who believe that social responsibility should drive the profession. What, exactly, are architectural ethics and what do they entail?

Parsing Ethics
Architects share a series of ethical obligations with other professionals, like lawyers, doctors, or engineers: Do no harm, pursue fairness in every engagement, behave appropriately, and so on. Some would argue that architects have a second set of professionally specific ethics that are rooted in aesthetics and culture. Yes, architects must design buildings that stand up and do right by a client. But, they must also contribute to the surrounding context where these buildings reside as well as honor the ecology, make a positive impact on the lives of the people who live and work in these buildings, and, at the highest level, accomplish something that points more towards “Architecture” with a capital “A” rather than mere “building.”

This broader definition of ethics is so fundamental to an architect’s pursuits that it becomes an explicit part of everyday decisions. Yet the topic remains largely invisible within the profession.

Tom Spector, AIA, is a professor at the Oklahoma State University School of Architecture, where he focuses on questions of architectural design ethics. “When someone asks my specialty, their eyebrows always go up when I say ‘Ethics,’ ” Spector says. “Professional ethics is an established discipline in other fields, like medicine and law, but it’s in its infancy in architecture, even though we make decisions that profoundly affect people’s lives for a long period of time.”

Spector theorizes that two things have kept this topic in the background. First, he says, architects have a sense of powerlessness about their overall role within the hierarchy of lenders, clients, and contractors. That’s evident enough in Hadid’s assertion that she had no control over how her stadium was constructed. “We have to disabuse ourselves of that powerlessness,” Spector says.

Second, Spector says, is a concern that aesthetics and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows. “Art and morality have a famous antipathy to each other,” Spector says. Yet, if there is an area of cultural production that combines aesthetics and ethics, it’s architecture.

It is this intersection of aesthetics and ethics that is of particular interest to Victoria Beach, AIA. (See this month’s AIA Voices.) Beach, who served for six years on the AIA National Ethics Council and has taught ethics at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), says that it is the obligation of all professions to define shared values. Yet in architecture, she warns, the primary ethical focus falls more on professionalism and less on design.

“Almost everything that’s written or discussed, or that’s written into the AIA Code of Ethics, has to do with building ethics, which translates effectively into: ‘Treat your clients well and keep the public safe,’ ” Beach says. “Do no harm is important, but that’s not all that architecture is.”

Mack Scogin, AIA, principal of Atlanta’s Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, says that the gap between just doing a building and doing true architecture is the central ethical question for the profession. “In a way, it’s not hard to do a building,” Scogin says. “If it was that hard, almost every building would [have to] be done by architects, and that’s far from the truth. Lots of people do buildings. It is, then, the ethical responsibility of the architect with the big ‘A’ to give clients something beyond a building. That is at the heart and soul of the issue. How can you get beyond the practical constraints that everyone has to deal with and give clients more?”

Belief in the significance of architecture requires, then, a more refined ethical definition beyond merely designing something safe. Beach laments the oft-heard argument “that the public needs us because if you don’t hire us, your buildings will fall down.”

“The fact is,” she says “that lie is not persuasive. A computer can do that.”

By emphasizing public safety over the unique public value of design, architects risk losing their exclusive moral imperative. “When we say to the public that we know what it takes to be an architect—that it will require schooling, tests, and an internship—and that when you get that stamp you will be making architecture, well, that’s not really true,” she says.

“The training that we get prepares us to be a whole-building engineer, but that’s still not architecture. To attempt a work of architecture, you need to also embed the building in the culture in a meaningful way.”

In other words, it’s not about the hard-earned license. It’s what one does with the opportunity a license affords.

Michael Gleenwood

School Is in Session, Always
So where might architects grapple with the issues surrounding their moral imperative? Increasingly, the conversation is happening in schools of design. Scogin, who has taught for over 30 years in places like the Harvard GSD, says that students are much more apt to raise questions about the architect’s larger responsibility in society today than when he began teaching. “I think it’s gone from practically zero concern to one of the primary pedagogical norms, frankly, in the school.”

The challenge for architecture instructors, whether they run a design studio, teach building technology, or lead a business course, is moving the ethical conversation from the theoretical to the concrete.

That’s easier said than done. Architects rarely share details of a project, for important legal reasons or in the interests of protecting intellectual property. Realistic ethical debate becomes difficult. This is why, while at Harvard, Beach and Scogin along with Carl Sapers, Hon. AIA, worked to bring real-world case studies directly from architects into the classroom. “It’s very hard to talk about ethics because we’re talking about truly subjective issues, and so you have to get the conversation grounded in real-world situations,” Scogin says.

At Oklahoma State, Spector sees his students enter architecture school interested in the creative aspects of the career, but soon begin to recognize how creativity bumps up against the realities of working in collaboration with other disciplines and the public. Spector asks his students to read case studies of contemporary ethical challenges and write position papers.

“I’ve added in this controversy over Zaha Hadid and working abroad,” Spector says. “It is really interesting because you get an even split between those who believe that she abrogated professional duty and those who say that she is in no way responsible. That just shows you how complex and challenging these questions are. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about them.”

Conversations may be progressively robust in the classroom, but professional practice offers few, if any, opportunities to address ethics directly. The AIA Ethics Council routinely discusses the nuts and bolts of a particular case, Beach reports, but as an adjudicating body, its official purview is relatively narrow.

To broaden the discussion, Spector recently launched a new journal, Architecture Philosophy, with the editorial goal of attracting some articles on architectural ethics. “I’ve been trying to come at it from the scholarly side,” Spector says. “I titled the journal Architecture Philosophy, because I didn’t quite think that there would be enough readership for just an ethics publication.”

Another challenge, according to Scogin, is the complexity of understanding ethical issues, owing to the increasing complexity of contemporary practice. New technologies, more nuanced intellectual property issues, economic globalization, and an increased number of specialists working on the average project: all factor into ethical debates and make it harder for an architect to, well, be an architect.

“The range of practices, which seem to now involve every culture on Earth in every way imaginable, and the range of projects and how they are structured make it more difficult now than it ever has been to be an architect,” Scogin says. “That’s why it’s more important than ever to discuss and understand these complexities in order to establish grounded and clear definitions to the present-day ethical practice in architecture.”