Dubai, where money laundering has clearly influenced new development
Igor Poleshchuk Dubai, where money laundering has clearly influenced new development

In our age of social inequality, ongoing environmental damage, an exponential increase in human population, the rapid depletion of finite resources, and extinction of irreplaceable species, architects have necessarily expanded the scope of what they care about, and that has led to an ethical turn in the profession. Now a required part of architectural education (and a frequent topic at conferences), ethics has become an integral part not just of architectural practice, but also of how we think about and go about designing the built environment. The ethical turn in 21st-century architecture holds that the people most affected by architects’ decisions and actions need to be engaged and active participants in the design process, which begins with an empathetic understanding of diverse perspectives and a respect for cultural and climatic differences.

My latest book, The Architecture of Ethics, published by Routledge, does not advocate a particular ethical position or posit some grand moral system, but instead reflects the diverse ways in which ethics can help us understand the dilemmas that architects face in practice and the design of the built environment. The following three excerpts adapted from the book consider some of the most ethically contentious issues the profession currently faces.

Professions have long seen licensure as distinguishing them from other commercial enterprises, indicative of the years of training and specialized knowledge that professionals must command. Licensure gives the person who holds it the right to practice. But with rights come responsibilities and here, ethics comes into play: Licensure also means that professionals have an obligation to attend to the interests not only of the clients who pay for the architect’s services, but also of the general public: those who will directly experience the results of a professional’s work and those affected by it only indirectly in some faraway place or in some future time.

Although such shibboleths may sound straightforward, complexities arise when two professions vie for the same turf, which has happened in the U.S. as architects have battled with interior designers over the latter’s attempts at becoming a licensed profession. While the opinions of architects on this matter vary considerably, the architectural community as a whole has argued that interior designers should not become a licensed profession. Meanwhile, many interior designers have portrayed that opposition as little more than turf protection, combined with a degree of condescension and gender bias on the part of a predominantly male profession toward a predominantly female one.

This standoff highlights the contradictions that can occur when a field operates as both a profession and a commercial activity. The American jurist Wesley Hohfeld argued that rights are duties viewed from another perspective and that our duties differ depending upon what rights we are talking about. Professions, for example, have a duty to prevent those who lack the proper qualifications from practicing by upholding licensure laws, and yet when that duty stems from a desire to suppress a legitimate competitor, the profession has no right to do so and, moreover, has a duty to refrain from such anti-competitive behavior. Those against the licensure of interior designers have to make a viable case that it would endanger public health, safety, and welfare.

The architectural community has raised the possibility that interior designers, if licensed, could team up with engineers and design a building without ever involving an architect. While this might result in some ugly buildings, architects have not made the case that such a pairing—even if it ever happened—would endanger the public, and so this argument seems like a blatant anti-competitive position of not wanting interior design/engineering alliances to reduce the amount of work going to architects. To use Hohfeld’s logic, architects have no right to make such a claim—certainly without ample evidence to back it up—and have, instead, a duty to refrain from it.

Another challenge comes from the fact that other building-related fields such as engineering and landscape architecture are licensed, something that the architectural community has long accepted. Architects depend upon those other fields for the specialized knowledge they bring to projects, expertise that building designers may not have. But when the work overlaps with what architects do, as is the case with interior designers, the former have fought off the latter, arguing that any effort to define the difference between their respective responsibilities becomes impossible.

Further, architects have claimed that since they already have legal responsibility for the entire building, inside and out, licensing interior designers becomes unnecessary and redundant. Yet here too, the argument sounds self-serving. Electrical, mechanical, and structural engineers, for example, often work extensively on the inside of buildings, and architects have not questioned the legitimacy of engineers’ licenses. Why then do architects question the expertise of interior designers whose knowledge of furniture, fixtures, and finishes often extends far beyond that of most architects?

A more creative solution, and one that would allow both sides to transcend this self-defeating fight, might involve the licensing of the integrated teams that will increasingly create our built environment.

This dispute has become more heated as the global economy has increased competition between the two fields. As design services have become readily available from almost anywhere around the world, the urge to protect one’s turf becomes ever stronger as free-trade fervor seeks to override all such protections. This has led, in the case of interior design licensure, to the decidedly odd situation of libertarian groups opposed to professional licensure joining licensed architects trying to prevent their interiors colleagues from becoming so. How long will it take before these same libertarian groups turn on architects? As Aesop famously said: “We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.”

While politics has dominated the battle over interior design licensure, ethics may offer more help in sorting out which of the antagonists in this situation have right on their side. Both architects and interior designers have claimed to have the best interests of the public in mind when defending their positions, but when we consider what would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people, it becomes hard to support either side, since internecine war between two professions does a lot of damage to the reputations of both and very little to help anyone else.

If anything, the growing belief that the greatest good comes from a more integrated form of practice, in which architects, interior designers, engineers, landscape architects, and contractors work more closely together, makes this dispute over licensure seem like a battle from the last century. A more creative solution, and one that would allow both sides to transcend this self-defeating fight, might involve the licensing of the integrated teams that will increasingly create our built environment. We can become so intent on protecting our turf that we don’t notice that the ground has shifted beneath us and that the turf we have so long protected may no longer matter.

Money Laundering
Although it remains little-discussed among architects, money laundering has long funded big projects around the world. A quick perusal of the banking literature shows why buildings attract so much dirty money: You can buy them for cash and you can pay extraordinary amounts of money to upgrade them, again for cash, all of which can be explained as legitimate and legal expenses. Real estate has been one of the fastest ways to launder money and many architects and developers have benefited from this, generating more demand for space than the marketplace might need.

Money laundering remains illegal in most places, however, and the more that architects look the other way, the more the profession becomes complicit in it, which is itself a crime. In the U.S., the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 makes it illegal to launder money from unlawful activities or to conceal the source, ownership, or control of those funds. The U.K. has gone even further: The Proceeds of Crime Act of 2002 criminalizes concealing, failing to disclose, tipping off, or just being involved with a money launderer. Which makes shrugging off such activity a possible path to prison, or at least stiff penalties.

The fragmentation of the building and development industry, though, makes it hard to catch and easy to conceal such activity. Architects focus on designing and constructing buildings within the budgets a client gives them, rarely asking where the money came from or whether it was obtained legally or not, and yet many design professionals probably get a sense at some point in a project if a misalignment seems to exist between the funds being spent and what a particular client would likely have available. Large cash transactions for building products or professional services, for instance, should send a warning sign to architects, however much they may not want to acknowledge it, with what may otherwise be a very lucrative project. Ignoring such signs does not constitute a defense, since even indirect involvement in a money-laundered project creates culpability.

Drug money has itself become a drug to some in the development community, clouding their judgment and encouraging architectural hallucinations.

As in so many situations, it doesn’t much matter what approach to ethics you consider; all lead to roughly the same conclusion. Virtue ethics would hold that looking the other way when suspecting the laundering of dirty money is imprudent and cowardly, while contract ethics would take the position that such behavior breaks the social contract of professionals by concealing criminal activity that society would want us to reveal. At the same time, duty ethics would have us blow the whistle on the money laundering simply because it is the right—and legally binding—thing to do, while utilitarianism would remind us of the greater good of the greatest number of people, which money laundering does little to advance.

Governments have made it easy to report money laundering. In the U.K., the report would go to the National Crime Agency; in the U.S., it would go to the Department of the Treasury’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence office. But governments themselves, or at least some powerful people in government, can become complicit in such laundering schemes. Donald Trump’s development organization, for example, has licensed its name to buildings that have reportedly served as money laundries, from Panama to India to Indonesia. The Trump Organization has also paid fines and settlements for money laundering, without ever admitting guilt, as if to shrug and say that this is just how business gets done in the development field.

For legal as well as ethical reasons, the development industry needs to change this situation. The huge amounts of ill-gotten money flowing into real estate have led to overdevelopment in some places, reflecting the amount of funds in need of laundering rather than what the market itself can sustain. That in turn can lead to overly ambitious and underperforming buildings that become albatrosses for communities, burdening them for years to come. The use of dirty money to fund projects also corrupts architecture, leading to the overly elaborate, highly complicated, and increasingly expensive designs that money launderers use to wash as much cash as possible.

In that sense, drug money has itself become a drug to some in the development community, clouding professional judgment and encouraging architectural hallucinations. While the vast majority of architects and developers have stayed clean, it remains both highly alluring and widely available, depending on the place and the people involved in a project. Ending the epidemic in drug use would reduce the amount of money in need of laundering, but until then, with so much cash continuing to circulate in the global development industry, the profession of architecture has but one option when asked to design a project built on dirty money: Just say no.

Moral Foundations
Over my career, I have written about buildings located in non-Western countries, and I have always felt torn in how to respond to architecture there. How much do my Western values influence my response to their design, and how much do the people in these places embrace—or not—the Western ideas embodied in buildings designed by architects from Europe or North America? Also, how much do these structures represent an aspiration on the part of these clients to signal their connection to the global marketplace in which internationally known architects trade, or do they stand as foreign outposts of globalism in places that remain decidedly local and tradition-bound in character?

Such questioning led me to moral foundations theory, which seems to provide, if not a simple answer, at least a way to think about global practice that I find helpful. Developed by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham, this theory rests on six foundational ideas that they see as guiding people’s judgments about right and wrong across many different cultures. They include:

1. The care and protection of others.2. Fairness and proportionality in how we interact with others.
3. Loyalty to family, friends, group, and nation.
4. Respect for authority and tradition.
5. A sense of sanctity and avoidance of disgusting things.
6. A love of liberty and freedom from coercion.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that Western, liberal democracies have greatly valued three of these foundational values—care, fairness, and liberty—while downplaying the other three—loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity—that many non-Western societies and more conservative citizens tend to value just as much. That argument has been controversial, especially in the West, since it suggests that liberalism has emphasized a narrower set of ethical values than conservatism, which these authors claim has tended to embrace all six foundational ideas more equally. We won’t enter that debate. But moral foundations theory does offer a useful way of thinking about the relationship of architecture and ethics, particularly across Western and non-Western cultures.

Consider what, for many people, constitutes the most important building in their lives: their home. In many ways, the house, as a building type, epitomizes the foundational value of care, since it typically represents the place in which people share with their family members, seek solace in difficult times, and attend to the needs of some of the most important people in our lives.

We need to listen carefully, especially when working in cultures different from our own, to what people value and prioritize in their lives and not just about what they need functionally or what the codes allow legally.

The typical Western, single-family house can be as varied as the clients they shelter and their communities and climates. But most follow a basic formula of semi-private living, dining, and kitchen spaces into which guests can enter and stay, and more fully private bedrooms and bathrooms often located further from the front door. As such, contemporary Western houses combine care with fairness and proportionality, where the relative size and relationship of rooms expresses the fair disposition and proportional arrangement of rights and responsibilities of the home’s occupants. Here, values trump functionality.

A child might need more space than parents in a bedroom, given the time some youth spend in their rooms, but parents frequently get the larger amount of square footage, tellingly called the master bedroom, because of the latter’s greater position in the family. At the same time, children frequently get rooms roughly the same size, as a statement of the fairness that undergirds most Western families, regardless of whether one child might need more or less space than another.

Foundational values, even among Western countries, can vary widely from one culture to another. Although most houses in the U.K. or in Europe do not differ significantly from the gradation of more or less private spaces of the typical North American house, context does make a difference. Many more houses on the European continent, for instance, occupy existing buildings or share party walls with neighbors, often leading to a tighter configuration of rooms and a greater dialogue between old and new than found in North America. From an ethical perspective, that reflects a somewhat greater emphasis on tradition and authority—on respect for the past and existing urban fabric—than is often found in more individualistic countries like the U.S. or Canada.

However, as I have learned working with students from South Asia, respect for authority, loyalty, and sanctity remain much more dominant values in the housing there. In Kathmandu, Nepal, for example, the typical urban house is multi-level and multi-generational, with the older members of a family—parents and grandparents—on the lowest level and younger members of the family on upper floors, with living spaces and a rooftop terrace to take advantage of light and air, and with a prayer or meditation room located within the house itself. The accommodation of multiple generations of family members, with one generation watching over another, reflects the importance of loyalty to the extended family, while the inclusion of a space for prayer and meditation reveals the value placed on sanctity and on having a sacred space separate from the rest of the house and activities such as cooking or sanitation.

Such differences in how we dwell do not mean that one is better than another or that Western cultures do not care enough about loyalty and sanctity, or non-Western ones about freedom and fairness. All of the foundational values that Haidt and his colleagues have identified exist to different degrees in every community and in every family, or we wouldn’t call them a community or a family. What this does mean, though, is that we need to listen carefully, especially when working in cultures different from our own, to what people value and prioritize in their lives and not just about what they need functionally or what the codes allow legally.

The functionalism of Modern architecture has its place, since no one wants to live or work in a dysfunctional building, but the reduction of architecture to function allowed some Modernists to make the mistake of assuming that because all people have similar physical and biological needs as human beings, they also all share the same values, goals, and views of the world. The International Style, in that sense, represented a morally oppressive architecture, imposing not just an aesthetic, but also an ethics foreign to many people around the world. The glass, steel, and concrete towers that now exist in cities across the globe have sturdy enough physical foundations, but their moral foundations remain questionable and they stand, ethically, on shaky ground.