Heaven and Earth
Festschrift to Honor Karsten Harries

Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007


___David Greusel
Kansas City
___Eric Jacobsen
___Michael Metzger
  Architecture as Moral Art:
Surveying the Moral Dimensions of Architecture




The environments we create can promote or inhibit healthy communities, healthy lifestyles, and healthy societies. But all too often, architects are lulled into thinking that by following building codes and zoning ordinances, they have done all that’s needed to create good communities. Our thesis is that architects have a responsibility for human health, safety and welfare that goes far beyond compliance with statutory requirements that buildings not fall down and be easy to exit.

This session, which will involve participants in a discussion of the moral responsibilities of architects, will expand the understanding of responsible design to include issues of public health, resource depletion, and what constitutes a truly healthy community. The presenters intend to provoke and engage the session attendees in a lively dialog about what an architect’s ultimate responsibilities are, and about where that awareness leads.

Purpose and Background

The authors believe that the built environment, rather than simply being a stage set where humans enact the moral dramas of existence, is in fact a part of that drama. While we do not go so far as to suggest that buildings are moral agents, we believe that buildings are expressive of the moral views of their authors, for better or for worse. And as such, they impact the people who live, work or pass by them on a daily basis.

By authors, we of course mean buildings’ architects, fully recognizing the many other agents who play a role in the construction and maintenance of the built environment, not least of whom are building owners, whose needs, wishes and desires are often expressed in built work. But with the exception of single-family homes (not discussed in this article), an architect is involved in the design of nearly every habitable structure in the developed world. Builders also play a role, but that role is generally carrying out the will of the designer and the owner. And, as Stewart Brand points out in How Buildings Learn, owners and occupants can change buildings over time so that they do not always resemble what the architect first intended.

Very little theoretical or practical work has been done in the area of the morality of building. Apart from Karsten Harries’ book The Ethical Function of Architecture, few authors have attempted to link the design profession to an ethical framework. This paper, and the seminar on which it is based, are an attempt to do that.  We locate this inquiry about the moral value of buildings in the area of buildings as artifacts in the moral conversation. One might call this line of inquiry teleological, meaning we are looking at telos, the purpose or the end result of the process of building and attempting to make a judgment about the moral success or failure of that result.

Having said that, we also want to distinguish the art of architecture from other fine arts because of its social nature. Architects cannot afford to be as radical and experimental as artists in the other fine arts because an architect’s work is encountered by many people who don’t choose to interact with it as art, yet it can affect the quality of their lives deeply. As such, architects need to be much more accountable to the public than other artists.

In 2004, David Greusel and Dr. Mike Metzger developed a seminar presentation for the 2005 annual convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a U.S. professional society with over 70,000 members. Originally entitled “Dimension M: The Power of Architecture to Transform Communities,” the intent of the seminar was to initiate a discussion within the architectural profession of the moral aspects of design. This seminar was presented at that 2005 AIA convention in Las Vegas by Dr. Metzger and Greusel, and a set of data was collected from the audience which would eventually result in the creation of this paper. This seminar was repeated, with a change in title to “Architecture as Moral Art: Designing as if People Mattered,” at the 2006 national AIA convention in Los Angeles, the 2005 Central States Region convention of the AIA in Overland Park, Kansas, the Texas Society of Architects (a very large AIA chapter) annual convention in 2006, and the Alberta Association of Architects, a provincial licensing board in Canada, in 2007. Data were collected from each of these engagements which forms the basis of the findings presented here.


The authors created a matrix of 40 “tensions” along three dimensions that represent the moral aspects of design. The three dimensions are the Aesthetic, the Functional and the Social. The tensions are identified in Table 1 below:

Aesthetic Dimension

Functional Dimension

Social Dimension






















































































Table 1

A series of visual stimuli were collected to illustrate the poles of these tensions. In nearly every case, the stimuli were selected to represent exemplary design as determined by critical consensus or popular opinion or both. The intention with the “tensions” was to illustrate a moral tension between two goods, not between a good and a bad approach to design. The authors’ view was that using obviously good and bad examples to illustrate the tensions would be overly didactic and would do little to encourage architects to think critically about their own work. As it turned out, some respondents felt that the examples were overly didactic, perhaps an indication of their own strong responses to the stimuli.

Data were collected by having attendees mark their preferences for each of the 40 tensions on a scale with a range of nine values. The fifth, or middle value, represented a neutral view or the respondent’s inability to make a choice between the poles represented. There were four values on either side of the neutral value a respondent could use to indicate the strength of his or her preference. Except for a few respondents who could not or would not follow the instructions, the scale system worked well for capturing the expressed preferences of the attendees.


The findings reported here represent the results of surveys returned from over 400 architects attending six different presentations of the same seminar in five geographically diverse parts of North America. In this respect, they are broadly representative of the views of practicing architects in North America. Having made this claim, however, the following caveats should be taken into account:

  • Attendees were self-selected volunteers, meaning that the session topic presumably held some interest for them versus other concurrent education sessions they might have chosen to attend. Interest in the topic of morality in architecture could be construed as a predisposing bias among respondents.
  • Attendees, by virtue of being at a convention, were typically more senior employees and more actively engaged in the profession and its related professional activities than the average practitioner. Therefore respondents are only generally representative of the profession as a whole, and may be non-representative with respect to age and or income level.
  • Most importantly, the discussion of the 40 tensions was facilitated and guided by the presenters, so the responses collected cannot be considered unaided responses.

Extraneous Considerations

Early in the seminar, several moral aspects of architectural practice were briefly discussed and dismissed as extraneous to the question at hand. Those aspects were as follows:

Compliance morality. Architects are licensed by some regulating authority, and are required to meet local building codes and zoning ordinances which reflect, presumably, accepted norms for buildings for human habitation. Compliance with these norms is unexceptional and does not merit additional discussion. It is a commonplace that architects ought to design buildings that are structurally sound, safe to inhabit, and that can be exited in emergencies.

Business ethics. Like other professionals who collect fees for services, architects must operate in a business environment. While the profession is rife with anecdotes of overbilling, unpaid interns and unpaid consultants, meeting one’s normal business obligations is also unexceptional and not worthy of extensive discussion.

Practice morality. Perhaps more interesting and exceptional are architects who have oriented their entire practice toward a moral end. The firm called Architecture for Humanity, for example, is a practice dedicated to meeting the shelter needs of victims of wars and natural disasters through design. While these sorts of moral-centered practices are certainly commendable, they are out of the mainstream of day-to-day work for most design professionals.

Programmatic morality. One often sees published design projects with a specific moral aim, such as single-room-occupancy apartments aimed at meeting the shelter needs of homeless persons. Also commendable, these projects are largely dependent on the programmatic need being addressed for their moral content. And architects are seldom the determiners of programmatic need in the first instance. So while programmatic morality is commendable and certainly ought to be encouraged, it is not the place where most architects encounter the moral dimensions of design on a daily basis.

The seminar itself focused primarily on building design, as this is the realm where architects wield the most influence. Architects seldom create building programs out of whole cloth, more often responding to their clients’ facilities needs. But it is the particular response to their clients’ needs that architects can have the greatest impact on society for good or for ill. As Kansas City architect Mary Cyr has observed, “While a doctor usually harms only one patient with one error, Architects are capable of harming thousands with one error.”[1]


The seminars began with an assertion that there is better and worse in architecture. While a fairly bland assertion on its face, this assertion opens the door to a discussion of morality in architecture because “better” and “worse” are moral terms. Once one has agreed to speak of better and worse architecture, one has already entered the moral realm. The authors’ challenge to the participants was then to think more deeply about this realm than just consideration of “better” and “worse” design.

The Aesthetic Dimension

The first of the three dimensions of morality in architecture that was discussed was the Aesthetic dimension. In consideration of aesthetics, some practitioners might question whether there is a moral component at all, or whether aesthetics are just a matter of taste. In exploring the 13 tensions in this dimension, the respondents’ attention was often directed toward the affect that aesthetic decision have on a building’s occupants, on passers-by, and on the community as a whole.

The aesthetic dimension was related to the metaphor of a Schatchen, or matchmaker. While the matchmaker does not create love between two individuals, when doing her work well, she creates the possibility of love developing over time. Likewise, architects cannot directly cause their buildings to be loved, but can at least create the possibility of a building being loved over time. The tensions explored in this dimension included the following:

Conventional–Unconventional. The stimuli were two secondary schools – one from the 1920s and one very recent. The older building connotes a conventional notion of beauty: order, harmony, proportion, in a sort of Southwestern Gothic style. The other image, an aggressively contemporary school, challenges those conventions. Architects can choose to be somewhere along the line that goes from conventional beauty to daring originality. Beauty implies excellence, and excellence is a moral value. Historically, beauty was considered a form of moral excellence. In the 20th century, however, that correspondence became discredited. Now our understanding of beauty is that it is understood as a set of aesthetic tastes that one can acquire, absent any moral content whatsoever.

Contextual–Expressive. Two museum additions were contrasted, one respectful of the scale and proportions of the older building, and one that was expressive of a very different aesthetic. The tension is about a respectful conversation with context. Architects are free to ignore context if they want to, but doing so can create a real dissonance in the public realm.

Consistent–Variegated. A uniform office block is contrasted with Frank Furness’ Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Obviously, cost is a moral issue. It costs more to be as expressive as the building on the right. But standard parts that look like they were made in a factory dehumanize the office building.

Colorful–Sculptural. The illustrations contrast old use of color and bold use of form. The tension is between using color as a design element versus sculptural form. Research in neuroscience[2] has shown that environment plays a role in neuronal growth in the brain. That is, the brain can form more and better neural pathways when individuals interact with an environment that is stimulating. Both of these examples are stimulating, just in different ways.

Organic–Platonic. The tension is between something that is more natural-looking, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and purity of form (a nearly cubical building). We use the word “Platonic” to refer to pure forms, referring to Plato. Plato was a Greek philosopher who developed the idea that the physical world, because it is imperfect, is inherently bad. But Fallingwater is an affirmation that that natural world is in fact a wonderful, beautiful thing. The Platonic building seems to be striving for Platonic purity – which is unachievable.

Ornamented–Minimalist. The stimuli were ornate 19th Century civic buildings compared to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis: the never-ending battle between decoration and what you might call the “essence” of a form. People do love these old wedding cake buildings. We’ve had ornament on buildings since the dawn of civilization – until Modernism took hold in the 1920s and 30s. Modernism is about stripping away ornament to get at form. But people also love the Arch for its elegant simplicity. So we’re back to Plato, and the dualism of physical and spiritual? Maybe so. But both of these structures are loved.

Playful–Tasteful. The contrast is between a themed German restaurant and a recent bank that interprets Classicism with a contemporary vocabulary. The tension represented is between something that’s kind of goofy and fun versus something that’s trying to follow the rules of classical order in a contemporary way. Because buildings last for a long, long, time, architects need to be careful about coming up with architectural one-liners. Does that mean buildings shouldn’t have a sense of fun or play? No, just that designers need to be careful, because what seems fun today may seem kitschy or just weird in thirty or fifty years.

Harmonious–Dissonant. A classical arcade is contrasted with Morphosis’ project for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One attempts to make all the pieces hang together. The other seems to relish the fact that they don’t. There’s plenty of dissonance in modern society already. Do architects need to be adding to it intentionally? Does expressing the dissonance of modern life in architecture do anything to help it?

Regional–International. A campus building faced with local limestone is contrasted with Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center in Berlin. The library is covered with local stone. It’s part of a campus that’s mostly built with local stone. The Sony Center is steel and glass, and while it makes an interesting place in Berlin, it could have been built anywhere. How is that a moral issue? Daniel Solomon addresses this point in his book Global City Blues. When architecture is divorced from its regional context, it tends to make cities everywhere look the same – it’s why Shanghai is starting to look like Sao Paolo and San Francisco. Architecture should be about diversity, especially about the diverse cultures and peoples and geographies and climates in the world. Because if architects use the same pieces and parts everywhere, soon every place is no place.

Historicist–Timely. The stimuli include a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, and Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St. Louis. The replica is a recreation of an ancient form. The one on the right was absolutely of its time – albeit an earlier time. Humans are inherently creative. It’s as ridiculous to keep doing the same building over and over again as it was for the U.S. to suggest closing the Patent Office in the 1890s because everything had already been invented. Architecture must always leave room for healthy innovation.

Lyrical–Rigorous. Two iconic Modernist buildings are contrasted, Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, and Crown Hall at ITT by Mies Van der Rohe. The tension that’s represented is the romantic versus the rational. Every architect feels the tension of romanticism and rationality at some point. Romanticism is a kind of reaction against the Enlightenment idea that everything is science. Crown Hall celebrates this notion. Ronchamp is a spiritual place, a reaction against scientific rationalism. Which of these two iconic buildings is more beloved?

Straightforward–Refined. Two large public structures are compared: one an arena with noticeably common exterior materials, the other a railroad station with refined and expensive interior and exterior stonework. The tension between modesty and extravagance in public buildings. How is that a moral issue? The real question is how nice does a building needs to be. Perhaps brick and galvanized steel is fine for a public arena. But the railroad station is all cut and polished stone inside and out, and it conveys a real sense of opulence. The real question with the train station is, is it uplifting or oppressive? And has the architectural profession forgotten how to build well?

Rational–Random. The Jefferson Memorial is paired with Stephen Holl’s Sarphatistraat Offices in Amsterdam. The tension that’s represented is between a highly rational geometry and one that’s intentionally irrational. Holl reportedly developed a computer program to locate the openings randomly in the façade of the office building. Building design as programmed accident. Perhaps that represents a denial of responsibility.

The Functional Dimension

The second dimension explored has to do with the functional aspects of building design. Rather than a detailed analysis of responsiveness to program, however, the functional dimension is explored in a similar manner to the aesthetic dimension, by comparing (mainly exterior) pictures of buildings representing poles of the tension being described.

The metaphor used to describe this dimension is the Doctor. In contrast to the merchant, the doctor brings professional judgment to the interaction with his or her patient. This professional judgment may include views that are contrary to the patient’s wishes. But the doctor considers his or her moral duty to the patient to be greater than merely granting the patient’s wishes. The functional dimension contains these 14 tensions:

Biophilic–Technophilic. A hotel in a lush landscape is contrasted to a tower by Jones Partners that is devoid of landscaping. The tension that’s represented is between buildings that embrace the landscape and forgetting plant life altogether. It turns out that humans need contact with nature – and not just because plants produce oxygen. Patients are shown to recover more quickly when their hospital rooms have a view to nature[3]. We are biophilic animals. Architects need to recognize that buildings are a fundamentally different category than digital cameras.

Prototypical–Unique. A chain restaurant is compared to Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion. The tension that’s represented is between mass production of buildings and one-of-a-kind craftsmanship. Certainly economics plays a role. Standardized buildings can be less expensive to design and build, and unique buildings can be very expensive – certainly the Pritzker Pavilion was. But the real question is whether it makes sense to mass-produce buildings. Certainly mass production is efficient, but it also takes away from a community’s sense of identity. And if everyplace looks the same as every other place, won’t that affect the community’s mental health somehow? Or perhaps even its spiritual health.

Artisanal–High-tech. In this tension, a highly handcrafted public building was contrasted with Helmut Jahn’s United Terminal in Chicago. The tension between craftsmanship and industrial production is in play. The word “artisan” comes from art – the making of things by hand. It matters if we see construction workers as artists rather than as mechanics bolting parts onto a machine. Part of our responsibility is to honor the worker as well as the user. This pair brings to mind the work of Christopher Alexander and his notion of how buildings develop from a whole, not from an aggregation of parts.

Economical–Extravagant. A stark college building and a rather exuberant city hall are the stimuli. The tension that’s represented is between construction that achieves a program goal for a budget, versus making something ridiculously nice. People associate extravagance with waste. Is it in fact a certainty that ridiculously nice architecture is a waste? Certainly people spend a lot of money to go see places like the City Hall in Paris. On the other hand, designing to very tight budgets may not always be the right approach, either. Sometimes buildings like schools get so stripped down that they become dehumanizing containers. These are both public buildings, and they both express the values of the people who built them. But they seem to express very different values: economy and efficiency versus joy? Exuberance? This tension makes one wonder if maybe all budget formulas are fundamentally flawed. Just because you can build something for US$ 95 a square foot, does that mean you should?

Sustainable–Disposable. This tension is the one exception to the practice of using exemplary design for both poles. The “Disposable” pole is represented by a branch bank in a mobile trailer. It’s opposite is an institutional building designed specifically to be usable for at least 100 years. Architecture is a statement about the future. Building sustainably is not just about conserving resources. It’s about suggesting that there is a future that transcends the next stock market cycle. It’s about creating a building our grandchildren might enjoy instead of bulldozing.

Walkable–Convenient. The contrast shows two popular chain clothing stores: one in a walkable mixed-use environment, the other in a strip mall parking lot. The tension is between the benefits of walking versus the convenience of being able to park near the store’s front door. Americans are starting to become aware of the health consequences of driving everywhere. Besides the obvious problems of fossil fuel depletion and air pollution, they are starting to understand that driving everywhere causes, literally, obesity, heart disease, strokes, and hypertension [citation needed]. Turns out the miracle cure for all those health problems is the same thing: walking. But when architects go along with the status quo, which in the U.S. often means surface parking and no sidewalks, we are violating the public health, safety and welfare.

Restored–Eroded. A renovated 19th century downtown block is contrasted with one of SITE’s eroded BEST store projects. Things decay in the real world. Part of architects’ work is to put them back, to restore them. Or, if you like, to make a joke of decay. Not many architects design buildings that try to look decayed. But we don’t pay enough attention to restoration. Architects have a lot to offer the world because we understand the technical issues that degrade buildings. The profession could be doing a lot more to restore what we have.

Renovated–Restarted. Another functional tension is between renovating older neighborhoods versus erasing the slate and starting over. A reused block of older buildings and a new urban housing project are contrasted. The tension between repurposing older buildings and tearing them down to start over is in view.
Architects need to be cautious when they invoke “neighborhood revitalization.” Sometimes it’s necessary to scrape a block to the ground, but there are consequences to the history, culture, texture, and the very life of a neighborhood when one does that. Because scraping a block changes a neighborhood irrevocably. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s also not a good thing as often as architects might think.

Austere–Rich. The contrasted pair are two houses in Newport, Rhode Island: a modest Colonial-era home and a Gilded Age mansion. Proud buildings certainly consume more resources, but they also create a resource. What’s interesting in Newport is the high value placed on both the humble and the proud buildings. They’re both integral to what makes Newport a special community. The concept of buildings fabric and monumental might prove helpful.  There is not one standard for building – it really depends if they are supposed to be fabric or monumental. And you need about 98% fabric buildings in order to support the 2% monumental. This has been used to make sense of Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao – yes, it works, but it depends on 1000 years of fabric buildings to really work.

Stable–Tenuous. Two city halls are in view: a Classical-style building and an inverted pyramid. The tension that’s represented is between building something that looks permanent and something that looks, well, tenuous. How is that a moral issue? Buildings make a statement about the nature of the thing they’re housing. Obviously, the inverted pyramid isn’t going to fall down, it just wants to look like it is. It makes one wonder what the architects were trying to say about municipal government: that it’s inherently unstable? Prone to collapse? Immune to gravity? What if it was asserted that the inverted pyramid building is all about protecting office workers from harsh sunlight? We would say there are ways to accomplish that that aren’t so dramatic.

Purposeful–Whimsical. A sturdy, if homely, steel bridge is contrasted with Santiago Calatrava’s Campo Volantin bridge in Spain. The tension is between responding solely to the technical challenge of spanning a river versus a more lighthearted approach that is not the most economical way to span a waterway. The Fort Wayne Bridge gets its beauty from its directness, the straightforward way it solves the problem. The Campo Volantin Bridge is nearly the opposite. Its beauty comes from the delightfully non-obvious solution to the technical problem. It’s more than it has to be, but still very beautiful. And beauty represents moral excellence.

Concealed–Revealed. The poles are represented by two ceiling vaults: one from Pasadena’s City Hall, the other from a transit station by Helmut Jahn. The tension between the self-consciously designed coffers in Pasadena and the unapologetic technical approach in San Diego is in view. The Pasadena vault is an argument from convention: that there is a right and proper and orderly way to do a vaulted ceiling. The transit station is an argument from technique – that the right way to span a vault is to reveal the means of doing it to view.

Recreational–Productive. In one of the odder pairings, the shopping area of a Las Vegas hotel-casino complex is contrasted with the interior of Van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at ITT. A fantasy environment for adult play and a flexible environment for serious work are compared. These environments make very clear statements about work and play: Play should be fun, work should be serious. What’s curious is the care and the detail shown in the recreational environment. Las Vegas is a town that takes fun very seriously. Is it too much to say that the “productive” environment seems joyless? Should work be viewed as drudgery?

Permanent–Evanescent. A neoclassical train station is seen next to a contemporary theater with a fabric roof. What is the tension that’s represented? One of the great tensions in architecture – between the seemingly permanent and the seemingly temporary. How is that a moral issue? Shelter can be as permanent as a cave, or as temporary as a tent. Caves are big and heavy. Tents are small and light. But one feels different degrees of shelter in caves and in tents. The sense of degree of shelter could have an impact on the well-being of the building’s occupants.

The Social Dimension

The third dimension explored is the Social dimension. The metaphor used by the authors to describe this dimension is the Host: that is, someone who can bring disparate people together in a comfortable setting and stimulate healthy conversation. The tensions inherent in the social dimension were explored as follows:

Modest–Extravagant. Hosts may provide hospitality that is either modest or lavish. Buildings may do likewise. In this tension, two 20th century church buildings are compared, one very simple and rectilinear, the other a Midwestern variation on English Gothic style. The contrast is between doing something to enclose some space versus doing something really grand. The modest church exemplifies the American spirit of pragmatism: i.e., how much space can be gotten for how little money? Perhaps architects have an obligation to challenge clients to do more. Maybe not as much as the extravagant church, but then again, which building represents real value over the long haul? Or, thinking like a host, which building is likely to make people want to come early and stay later?

Nourishing–Sterile. A rather striking contrast is created between an urban produce market and a corridor in one of Mies’ ITT campus buildings. The tension could be described as between Venturi’s ‘messy vitality’ and geometric purity. Formal order, when carried to an extreme, becomes sterile. Human beings require nurturing all their lives. People like being around food, around color, good smells, around other people.

Refreshing–Demanding. A landscaped plaza is contrasted with an imagined interior for a museum of technology that lacks horizontal floors, guard rails, or any cues about human safety and comfort. The tension that’s represented is between environments that refresh and environments that challenge the occupant. Refreshment suggests nurturing: health, well-being. The challenging environment suggests that a certain level of courage and stamina is needed just to move around in the space. People need challenges – it’s how humans develop. The question is, do architects need to build buildings that challenge their occupants? Do hosts sometimes challenge their guests? Yes, but it’s usually a friendly challenge – like to a game of billiards. Not a fight to the death.

Comfortable–Inspiring. Again, two churches are contrasted. One, a capably-designed space for a large congregation in Texas, is contrasted with Thorncrown Chapel by E. Fay Jones. The tension is between functional support of sitting, seeing and hearing and perhaps slightly uncomfortable inspiration. One might ask if a host should not be interested in making sure their guests are comfortable? Of course, but it is possible to take comfort too far. You can miss out on the spiritual in service to the functional. One can’t discount comfort and function altogether, but one also can’t let those be the only criteria for success.

Sociable–Contemplative. A popular new baseball stadium is contrasted with the extremely successful Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., by Maya Lin. The tension is between public space for recreation and sociability and public space for serious reflection. Both spaces seem well-suited to their respective tasks, so perhaps the only real tension present is in ensuring that the architectural response to public space is appropriate to the uses intended and the types of social interactions that are desired.

Legible–Mysterious. Two public buildings are contrasted: a large convention center and a proposed art center. The tension is between a large building that helps people find their way around and a smaller building that appears to be a challenge to negotiate. A garden maze may be fun, but the architect as host owes it to the public to make public buildings intelligible – to provide clear clues where one is in the building, like Wright’s Guggenheim museum or Richard Meier’s High Museum in Atlanta. Users seldom get lost in those museums, because they have a clear spatial organization. It is possible to lose oneself in the art without losing oneself in the art museum.

Sheltering–Transparent. The contrast is between two art museums. One is nearly opaque, with tiny windows set in thick walls. The other presents an all-glass façade to the street. The tension represents protected environments versus spaces that are more open to the outside world. How is that a moral issue? Unlike fragile artwork, people need access to daylight for their general health and psychological well-being. So transparency is, on the face of it, a good thing. On the other hand, the use of full-height glass in a high-rise building can leave an occupant feeling vulnerable, or even ill. So even healthy transparency needs some sheltering to go along with it.

Delightful–Sophisticated. The Paseo del Rio in San Antonio, Texas (popularly known as the Riverwalk) is contrasted with Renzo Piano’s De Menil museum in Houston. The contrast illustrates a space that is unselfconsciously joyful and one that is tailored, refined and cool, like a tuxedo compared to a party dress. Architects, at least as they are represented in the professional press, seem to have a preference for the sophisticated over the delightful. But walking along the Paseo del Rio at Christmastime, it is hard to help feeling good. One can appreciate the cool sophistication of Piano’s museum, but the building is not known to induce euphoria in its occupants. Do architects have a responsibility – like a host – to help people feel good by designing places that delight along with elegant, sophisticated buildings?

Respectful–Demonstrative. In this tension, two dramatically different public buildings are shown. A convention center addition that exactly matches the older original is contrasted with a museum in Graz that contrasts markedly with its surroundings. The tension is between respectful submission to context and purposefully ignoring the context to make an expressive statement. Buildings converse with other buildings. The convention center example says exactly what the original said – it’s a repeater with nothing new to say. But the museum isn’t even in the same conversation as the buildings around it. Do both of these buildings then fail the ‘host’ test? To a certain degree. One by trying too hard to stand out, the other by trying too hard to fit in. Perhaps the Piazza San Marco demonstrates better how buildings can fit in without coming close to dull repetition.

Engaging–Monumental. Two sets of columns are seen. One set is scaled to the building (a two story commercial façade) and the street. The other set, in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is gigantic. What is the tension that’s represented? Columns that are warm and inviting versus columns that are intimidatingly large. This tension shows how buildings have a personality, and how they engage people just like people do. A building can be a friendly, welcoming, affable neighbor, or it can be towering, overwhelming, intimidating and pompous.

Welcoming–Defensible. Two large buildings are seen, one engaging the public realm, the other set back from it. The tension that’s represented is that the “Welcoming” structure seems open and inviting to the user. The other one seems to be saying “stay back.”
The buildings’ personalities are in view again. No one likes people who are distant and defensive. Why should buildings be any different? But don’t the residents of the “Defensible” building want to feel safe and protected? It is possible to feel safe and protected without closing oneself off to human contact.

Human-scale–Awe-inspiring. This tension shows two central business districts. One is in a smaller community, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, with buildings of two to three stories. The other is downtown Chicago and its numerous skyscrapers. The tension is between the respect of human dimensions and the excitement generated by a district of giant buildings. The difference is scale – everything in Chicago’s Loop seems huge. Hugeness is a moral issue because of how it affects people. Tall buildings are exciting, but they can also be alienating. The host wants all the guests to feel special and important.

Congenial–Self-centered. The final tension is between two groups of buildings: a 19th century streetscape of similar urban buildings is contrasted to a 20th century streetscape of suburban buildings. The tension concerns buildings that relate to one another versus buildings that don’t. In a sense, this is the social dimension. The 19th century buildings look like they’re having a conversation. The 20th century group looks like they’re standing in the corner talking to themselves. Are architects responsible for the conversation – or the lack of it – between buildings? Yes, but one must also add planners, zoning boards and politicians to the list. They bear some of the responsibility for the non-existent conversation in the latter group.
These images bring to mind Colin Rowe's “Collage City.” It seems relevant not only that the buildings talk to one another in terms of materials, style, etc; but even more fundamentally that the public space that they form is coherent and useful. Rowe’s figure-ground diagrams make comparisons between modernist projects and traditional urbanism and show how incoherent the spaces between modernist projects can sometimes be. Unfortunately, that incoherence applies to most of what gets built in America’s suburbs today.


The following figures represent the compilation of all scores from the sessions. With the caveats noted above, these could be considered generally representative of North American architects’ views in the early years of the 21st century.

The Aesthetic Dimension

Figure 1 shows the architects’ ratings on the Aesthetic dimension. For the most part, ratings on this dimension were near the neutral center, suggesting that architects hold fairly diverse views about the tensions which represent the aesthetic dimension. Marked preferences are seen in a few places:

Organic–Platonic. A clear preference for organic versus Platonic forms suggest that North American architects are sympathetic to the natural world over against an idealized non-existent world of pure form. From a moral perspective, it appears that architects can imagine building users being better off in buildings which are more irregular than regular, suggestive of the contingent nature of most things that exist in the world.

Historicist–Timely. The architects surveyed clearly preferred timely (that is, original) designs to replication of previous forms. This accords with the view that humanity is an inventive species, and while rules and tradition are important, honoring the creativity inherent in humans generally and architects particularly is strongly valued.

This dimension also revealed a pair of tensions which were nearly in balance: Conventional–Unconventional, which contrasted a traditionally handsome building with a highly-regarded but very unconventional one, and Straightforward–Refined, which contrasted two very large public buildings: one of an older vintage featuring very expensive and polished materials, and one more recent with more pedestrian finishes. In both of these tensions, it seems fair to say that the consensus view is that both approaches can have equal merit depending on the particular circumstances.

If one views the left side of Figure 1 as (usually) representing traditional design values, and the right side of the figure as (usually) representing a more avant-garde approach, it seems clear that the respondents were about evenly divided on the merits of traditional versus less conventional approaches to design.

The Functional Dimension

Figure 2 shows the architects’ ratings on the Functional dimension. In contrast to the Aesthetic dimension, architects’ preferences were more pronounced on several of the tensions presented.

Biophilic–Technophilic. While high-tech architecture receives considerable attention in the professional press, the architects surveyed showed a clear preference for projects which exist in and reflect sympathy for nature and landscaping. This finding is consistent with their preference for Organic forms in the Aesthetic dimension.

Prototypical–Unique. Strongly contrasting a chain restaurant with a Frank Gehry building, architects showed a clear preference for the one-of-a-kind over the one-size-fits-all. Perhaps this preference is explainable culturally as the design profession is trained to view each client and each site as unique, even when working repeatedly for the same client. Architects appear to have a strong dislike for “off the rack” building designs. This preference corresponds with a noticeable though less clear preference for regional over international design in the Aesthetic dimension.

Sustainable–Disposable. Not surprisingly, architects showed a strong dislike for thinking of buildings having a short shelf life.

Walkable–Convenient. Architects surveyed appear to be sympathetic to at least this aspect of the New Urbanism, that designing more dense buildings people can walk to is clearly preferable to the still-standard North American model of single-story, single-use buildings with large surface parking lots.

Restored–Eroded. Despite the popularity, for a time, of self-consciously deconstructed projects such as the example used, architects surveyed showed a clear preference for restorative treatment of the built environment over against making ironic statements about decay and deterioration.

Ratings that clustered around the neutral value were found in the Economical–Extravagant and the Concealed–Revealed tensions. In the former case, architects seemed to be repelled in equal measure by heedless pragmatism on the one hand and heedless luxury on the other. In the latter case, somewhat surprisingly, Modernist dogma about the appropriateness of revealing structure came to no better than a draw with ornate plaster coffers in a direct comparison of two vaulted ceilings.

Once again, if one takes the view that the left side of Figure 2 represents values that are generally more traditional in nature, and that the right side represents a more progressive view, the architects surveyed showed a clear preference for more traditional values in the Functional dimension than in the Aesthetic. Even if one were to discount the obviousness of the Sustainable–Disposable and the Restored–Eroded tensions, Figure 2 still would show a marked preference for the more traditional values found on the left side of the scales.

The Social Dimension

Figure 3 shows the architects’ ratings on the Social dimension. Strong preferences among the architects surveyed were noted in a few areas:

Nourishing–Sterile. Surprisingly, an interior by Modernist master Mies Van der Rohe fared badly against a very ad hoc, almost undesigned corridor in an urban marketplace. Architects responded positively to the colors and the imagined sounds and smells in the Nourishing image over against the grey-on-grey palette of the Miesian interior.

Welcoming–Protected. Architects showed a clear preference for large buildings which have a clearly identifiable front door, sense of arrival, and sense of openness versus a largely undifferentiated building mass set back from the street. The Postmodern character of the Welcoming example did not seem to detract from its appeal to respondents.

Congenial–Self-Centered. Perhaps most encouraging of all the findings, architects showed a clear preference for buildings which have an identifiable relation to other adjacent buildings, over against the suburban ideal of buildings as sui generis. In a profession where “signature architecture” has become a buzzword, it is reassuring to know that a substantial majority of practitioners would choose to pay attention to nearby buildings in an urban setting rather than ignoring them in a quest for unfettered personal expression.

Only one tension in the Social dimension was nearly neutral in the ratings. Architects found the two public buildings representing the poles on the Sociable–Contemplative tension to have similar merit despite their very dissimilar programs and expressions. Apparently the respondents recognized the appropriateness of differing responses to differing needs and conditions.

Looking at the Social dimension as a whole, a clear preference for more traditional social approaches to design is apparent. This should not be understood as an endorsement of traditional design per se (recall the ambivalence apparent on the Aesthetic dimension), but of approaches to design that recognize traditional humanistic values such as sociability, welcoming and respect. Architects attending the seminars seemed to recognize that buildings can express these affirmative values, and they seemed to acknowledge a clear preference for buildings that do just that.


Judging from the overall ratings, the seminar was successful in getting architects to think about the moral tensions inherent in design. In our survey, the neutral rating was the mode (most frequent response) in only a few cases, and in only a very few tensions were the results extremely skewed in one direction. This point suggests that for the most part, architects attending one of the seminars thought carefully about the tensions presented and wrestled with the moral implications, even while moving briskly from one set of tensions to the next.

Looking only at the Aesthetic dimension, one might be tempted to say that North American architects are conflicted, confused, or at least ambivalent about the right way to design. Looking at the Functional and Social dimensions, however, the preferences of respondents are more clear-cut. Both the Functional and the Social dimensions of moral practice showed a clear “left-handedness” (though not in the political sense), leaning toward a more traditional set of behavioral norms. Clearly, however, this traditional leaning did not carry over to a preference for traditional design aesthetics. The Aesthetic dimension, looked at in total, was more ambivalent, with strong preferences in a few areas tending overall to balance one another out.

We need to make one more caveat about the limitations of this line of inquiry. One could suggest the existence of an additional overlay regarding the moral concepts of “fittingness” and “excellence” that transcends some of the tensions presented here. A moral architect would be one who can discern when to be tasteful and when to be playful, and sometimes a truly original architect, like a Wright, can change our understanding of tastefulness by a brilliant execution of a building that is both playful as well as tasteful. This additional caveat is added to suggest that this paper is just one small foray in a much larger and more complex conversation that has been neglected for some time.

While the seminars reached only a small subset of architects practicing in North America, estimated to be over 100,000 licensed practitioners in the U.S. alone, the authors feel that a good beginning has been made to introducing the discussion of morality in design. Other speakers at AIA conventions in recent years have taken on the question of ethics from a variety of points of view: business ethics, social justice, sustainability and respect for the planet. Without taking anything away from these worthwhile discussions, we believe that the discussion of moral architecture should focus on design, because design is the central discipline of architecture. And we look forward to continuing the discussion in years to come.



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Vol. 12, No. 1
August 2007