Gregory Cowley

Victoria Beach, AIA, is vice mayor of Carmel, Calif., and a noted ethicist whose research formed the foundation for the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s first ethics course, now required for its architecture students. Beach is the first (and, to date, only) architect admitted into fellowship at the Harvard University Center for Ethics. “There’s a real difference between business ethics and architectural ethics,” she says, “and it’s an important difference.”

Architects should care about ethics, but architecture has an unusual relationship to ethics. Ethics are about obligation and duty, which covers a great deal of what any professional does in service to society; and, in the case of building, ethics poses pressing questions such as, “Will the buildings stand?” or “Will they be healthy for their inhabitants?” So there’s a high ethical standard attached to what architects do in regard to building. However, there is a great difference between the science of building and the art of architecture, and perhaps an even greater difference between building’s profound duty to ethics and art’s complete freedom from ethics.

As to the broader topic of ethics, people have some misconceptions about what that means. It’s common to think that ethics is about right and wrong, a moral compass, or whether or not your conscience is guiding you in the right way. However, the ancient roots of the word “ethics” have to do with customs, or group tradition—the value system that defines a group of people. The mistake is thinking that one can have ethics by oneself. In fact, ethics is about a covenant you share with others.

As someone very new to politics, I used to think—as many people do—that politics is hindered by disagreement. But architects embrace conflict. They shape it into something creative and good. In doing my job every day on behalf of Carmel, I have seen first-hand that design thinking can be transformative to gridlocked debates. In fact, my architectural training has helped solve some wicked problems in the political arena.

So it turns out that “design thinking” is not just an interesting exercise that is particular to architects. There is transferable power within design to influence other disciplines. I’ve learned that while ethics seeks reconciliation of group conflicts, design makes creative use of group conflicts. This means that the design thinking that architects embody is not a luxury for society—it’s a necessity. —As told to William Richards