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.
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:
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
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.
importantly, the discussion of the 40 tensions was facilitated and
guided by the presenters, so the responses collected cannot be
considered unaided responses.
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 . 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Bellah, Robert N. et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism
and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, Calif.: University of
California Press, 1985.
Benedikt, Michael. For an Architecture of Reality. New York:
Lumen Books, 1987.
Bess, Philip. Till We Have Built Jerusalem. Wilmington,
Delaware: ISI Books, 2006.
Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn. New York: Penguin, 1995
De Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York:
Pantheon Books, 2006.
Frumkin, Howard; Frank, Lawrence; and Jackson, Richard. Urban
Sprawl and Public Health. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004.
Gorringe, Timothy. A Theology of the Built Environment.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Harries, Karsten. The Ethical Function of Architecture.
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998.
Hayden, Dolores. A Field Guide to Sprawl. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 2004.
Jacobsen, Eric. Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and
the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2003.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. New York:
Oldenburg, Ray: The Great Good Place, 2nd Ed. New York:
Marlowe & Company, 1999.
Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. Manchester, N.H.: Sophia
Institute Press, 2001.
Solomon, Daniel. Global City Blues. Washington, D.C.: Island
Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Weaver, Richard. Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our
Time. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Gage, Fred H. “Neurogenesis in the Adult Brain.” The Journal
of Neuroscience, February 1, 2002, 22(3):612:613.
Ulrich, R. S., Lundén, O., and J. L. Eltinge (1993). “Effects of
exposure to nature and abstract pictures on patients recovering
from heart surgery.” Paper presented at the Thirty-Third Meeting
of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Rottach-Egern,
Germany. Abstract in Psychophysiology, 30 (Supplement 1,