Articles and Reviews


the dilemma of contemporary practice

by Tom Spector, Princeton Architectural Press, 2001

This book was written against the background of the state of American architecture in the 1980s. In 1979 the American Institute of Architects mandatory code of ethics was withdrawn under threat of anti-trust action by the Justice Department, the Modern Movement's claim of solving society's problems through architectural design having been exposed as hollow by social scientists, feminists, and disability rights activists.

In 1987 the AIA produced a new code of ethics resembling a statement of values but all consensus in design values had vanished with deconstructionism and post-modernism in general.

A similar process occurred in the UK in the 1980s under Prime Minister Thatcher, with the Royal Institute of British Architects struggling to promote the profession of architecture as the Architects Registration Board took over from the ARCUK, more as a consumer watchdog than as a promoter of professional practice. As in the USA the professional bodies were seen as privileged and self seeking.

Since then the RIBA has done more to promote good architecture with many initiatives and popular exhibitions designed to attract the general public, such as the Neighbourhoods by Design Exhibition in 2002.

However there is still no design consensus, and the various strands in the Modern Movement are seen as styles now, even though the Modern Movement's claim was to have eliminated the problem of style inherited from the Victorians, with design based on functionalism. In a pluralist society there seems little hope of any consensus for a universal design approach. Post modernism would even deny its desirability or possibility.

Post modernism would even deny any universal ethics, so what value is this book?

Jeremy Melvin, reviewing it in The Architects' Journal (25 October 2001) called it a welcome book, but made it seem philosophically heavy weight. However it is rooted in practice - and theory - and unites them. Architectural practice inevitably poses ethical dilemmas, such as conflicting needs between different user groups, or minimum standards becoming maxima. Society itself demands high ethical standards from professionals, and expects architects to comply with planning and building regulations. Society also expects builders to be regulated, and to perform to standards, rather than acting as cowboys.

But this consumer ethics, and ethics it is, is about practice and not about theory, which is equally important, if buildings are to be more than purely utilitarian, to possess beauty and bring delight.

In Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum aesthetics and utility clash. For all its iconic status curving walls and sloping floors are far from the ideal conditions in which to view works of art. All buildings of any cultural or aesthetic value are likely to have compromises between their functionality and appearance; and any building without any beauty, any ugly building, is likely to have dysfunctional affects on people mentally or emotionally. Indeed as utility meets physical needs, delight and beauty meet psychological and mental needs.

Clearly a power station will prioritise functional needs and a leisure centre concentrate on aesthetic values, visual and spatial, while still being functional. Children learn best in stimulating environments, not dull utilitarian ones. So inevitably decisions, compromises if you like, have to be made and these are ethical.

Traditionally there are actually three concepts to balance - firmness, commodity (functionality) and delight. Firmness concerns structural stability; while it may be argued that structural stability, ie safety for the users, must not be compromised, what intensity of earthquake should a building be designed to withstand? What gust strength or frequency must a window survive? More generally what should be the design life of a building? Should lower standards be accepted for existing buildings, or must all be upgraded to current ones? Now to these we add the concept sustainability.

Money may cynically be seen as the bottom line for each of firmness, commodity and delight, but they still have to be balanced within the overall budget, which itself is an ethical decision which local and central governments have to make between providing schools, hospitals and cultural/sports centres.

Ethics is therefore central to architecture as to life. Spector writes that "how best to cope with the ethical dimensions of architecture has yet to be resolved by the leading architectural theorists."

Spector does not provide the answers but argues the case for the need of ethical thinking in architecture, and sets out a framework in which it might happen. In his own words, in the Epilogue, " This does not mean that easy solutions to design dilemmas will automatically present themselves, but it does help to focus the discussion and to eliminate a few impediments enabling morality to become a more integral part of architectural discourse."

That is the whole purpose of this website, to promote an ethical approach to architecture, and beyond that to promote Christianity as providing the best moral philosophy on which to base the ethics.

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