You don’t have to live on Capitol Hill, like I do, to have caught wind of the antics that occurred there in the hours before Congress passed the healthcare reform bill. The media was all over the situation, and I’m not talking about the legislative process. I’m talking about reports of protestors spitting on one congressman, lobbing racist and homophobic slurs at several, and—now that President Obama has signed the bill into law—making death threats against its supporters.
On second thought, “antics” is far too gentle a word for such behavior. I’m all for peaceful protest, passive resistance, and civil disobedience, à la Gandhi, but disobedience loses any claim on civility when the perpetrators shout the N-word at a leader of the civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis, who, as a young man, was beaten and suffered a skull fracture at the hands of state police during a 1965 march in Selma, Ala. Why would anyone want to repeat that particular moment in history?
The day before the healthcare vote, I moderated a symposium in Richmond, Va., called “The Architecture of Necessity.” The event was organized by the Virginia Society AIA, but even Oliver Stone couldn’t have scripted a more extreme contrast with the next day’s Tea Party on the Hill, 100 miles north and worlds apart.
Compare the ugly slur against Lewis with Phil Freelon’s presentation of the design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Teddy Cruz’s analysis of social and spatial tensions on the San Diego–Tijuana border, Julie Eizenberg’s strategies for affordable housing, and Andrew Freear and the Rural Studio’s latest works in impoverished Hale County, Ala. Architects can take pride in having such caring, committed people in their ranks.
Another thing architects can be proud of—all AIA members, at least—is the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, architecture’s version of the Hippocratic Oath. In view of the healthcare demonstrations and the symposium in Richmond, I think it’s worth recalling a few of the obligations (the AIA’s word, not mine) stated therein:
Ethical Standard 1.4 Human Rights: Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.
Rule 1.401 Members shall not discriminate in their professional activities on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation.
Ethical Standard 2.2 Public Interest Services: Members should render public interest professional services, including pro bono services, and encourage their employees to render such services. Pro bono services are those rendered without expecting compensation, including those rendered for indigent persons, after disasters, or in other emergencies.
In other words, regardless of their personal politics, all architects have a concrete professional responsibility to serve the less fortunate and to uphold their basic human rights. This spirit of altruism runs even more deeply than the AIA Code of Ethics. It is embedded in the profession’s DNA.
Our system of architectural education is still based in large part on the Bauhaus model. We learn in architecture school that the early Modernists were reformers, intent on rationalizing architectural form and construction to reflect the latest technological advances. And as the Great War made possible, in fits and starts, the democratization of Europe, giants of the field such as Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier made no distinction between architectural reform and social reform. They wrote manifestos, they designed workers’ housing, they founded schools—all to improve the lot of the individual and build a more egalitarian society.
Today’s profession is the inheritor of this legacy. Programs like the Rural Studio recall for us—as architects, and as Americans—what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Every architect has the capacity to be an angel.
It’s not necessary to dedicate your career to designing hospitals in Rwanda (though that would be a lovely gesture). And you don’t have to be happy about the prospect of a tax hike to help pay some stranger’s medical bill. Nonetheless, architects have the opportunity—and the obligation—to do good, to volunteer, to provide pro bono services, to contribute to the commonweal. It comes with the job.
In 1920, in Vers une Architecture, Le Corbusier wrote, “It is a question of building which is at the root of social unrest today: architecture or revolution.” The early Modernists lived through a time of great social upheaval, and they believed that architecture could be part of the solution.
The very last line of Vers une Architecture reads, “Revolution can be avoided.” It’s a lesson worth taking to heart.