A few years ago, our firm was offered a commission to design a conference facility for a religious retreat. What could be better? A great client, a great site, and God’s work! But with its beauty and potential, the site also posed ethical as well as moral questions. The project was along the Texas coast on a barrier island. Should anything at all be built on these fragile, shifting sands? Our clients shared the same concern, yet they had the gift of the land and a mission. Could these be reconciled?
Making the right decision called for research and long hours spent analyzing and discussing our findings. We studied precedents, of course, but no source was more important than the site itself. We walked the island, often stopping to sit and hear what the dunes, the vegetation, and even the light and wind were telling us about what makes this place special. As we looked and listened, the dialogue among firm members, the client, and the site became increasingly rich through a process of discovery.
Yes, Mustang Island could embrace the client’s mission. More than that, this beautiful place could be a teaching resource. The conference center would introduce and educate visitors to the extraordinary variety of life supported by the rich ecologies that ribbon through the island. In our eyes, the project was also an opportunity to share with our profession a new precedent for barrier island development.
The facility that today welcomes those who seek a peaceful space touches the ground lightly and quietly, far behind the beach and the critical dune lines. Visitors tell us they have indeed come away with a greater appreciation for the ecology of the island, from the vines running through the sand to the natural grasses, wetlands, sand dunes, and ultimately the beach itself. Client constituents most concerned with the ethics of barrier island development became ardent advocates.
Grappling with questions of right and wrong is an integral part of what it means to be a professional. This essential element of how an architect works is a part that the public too seldom sees. This is unfortunate. Our commitment to ethical and moral behavior is as much a part of our profession’s reputation as our skill in the making of solid forms out of ideas.
The ever-growing list of new technologies provides wonderful tools to enhance the flesh and bone of our work. The soul of this process, however, is the values—both ethically and morally—that we bring when we use these technologies. Chief among these is a sense of responsibility in how we use the resources of this planet. It’s a responsibility for the legacy we will leave to future generations, who will use our buildings and, if need-be, determine new uses for the buildings we leave behind.
The best architecture, whether humble or spectacular, does more than accommodate the needs of people and the planet. It nourishes them by probing questions of right and wrong, of what we owe our clients, and what, by our actions, we owe ourselves. Whether or not this responds to a higher authority, it is our work and the bedrock of our reputation.
Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA