What is the role of an Architect in 21st century society?

The famous British architect Cedric Price claimed, ‘architecture s peripheral to the most important social aims. I wish it was less peripheral. That’s why I´m an architect’. Architects generally enjoy a strategic and tactical advantage over engineers and artists, since they are trained as both technicians and artists. However, contrary to their own belief, they are certainly not seen as the protagonist of the process (Schoenmaekers, 2011). Just because their contribution is visible and conspicuous, architects tend to oversell their role. Although architects are proactive in exercising their power over consultants and contractors when they are working directly with a client. However, they can be seen as acting otherwise, when their client is an experienced builder or a real estate agent. The noteworthy trait is that architects do not endorse or value the skills and efforts of other building professionals. For example, in the case of interior designers and architectural technicians, architects argue that they, by licensing such professionals, public safety and welfare may be at risks because they lack technical skills and professional qualification. According to Spector (2001, p.23), architects’ disapproval of interior designers is nothing more than part of a power struggle.

Architects’ ego

Architects struggle to strike a balance between the purpose of architecture and their ego (Ivory, 2004). It is no longer possible for architects to build single-handedly and their vision is guided by the requirements of the client and executed by various consultants and engineers. If an architect is not able to adapt to this collaborative culture, he is often confronted by poor design, unhappy clients, and a project that everyone wants to wash their hands off. Architects’ inclination to hog the limelight, overindulge and exaggeration to sell their role as social reformers and designers of the built environment has only been partly successful in developed countries, except for Belgium, where they have been able to establish a complete monopoly, where all buildings must be designed by an architect (Schoenmaekers, 2011). Lobbying by architectural associations to secure more social control is a central ideology for most practising architects. While these organisations were consciously created to regulate and structure the profession, their role has been widely criticised due to internal politics and the varied opinions that their members hold.

Architects’ dilemma

Drawing upon the four major approaches to Western ethics, Thomas Fisher (2010) attributes phases of architectural project and describes the ethical dilemmas that architects are often confronted with. Phase one: architects get commissioned for a project based on ‘virtue-ethics’ (personal qualities such as honesty and integrity). Phase two: ‘contract-ethics’ come into play during negotiations of architectural fees, alongside the appointment of other consultants and contractors. In phase three, design and contract administration call for ‘duty‑ethics’ to display good intentions and fairness. Finally, the last phase, ‘utilitarian‑ethics’ demands evaluation of whether the clients’ aspirations and needs were met (ibid. p. 11).

According to Bernard Williams, many architects often struggle to reconcile societal values with professional norms, as argued in Professional Morality and Its Disposition (1995). As a result, they often face ‘disquieting ambivalence’ with respect to ethical duties. Henry Cobb explains how uncertainty looms over – how an architect can best fulfil his duties and make difficult choices, as the recipients of his service are ‘fiercely committed to widely divergent and deeply conflicting principles of human duty….Hence, a disquieting ambivalence with respect to ethical issues – a pervasive uncertainty about how best to fulfil my duty as a professional – is a nearly perpetual state of mind for me, as surely it must also be for every architect in practice today whose work significantly touches or shapes the public realm’ (Cobb, 1992, pp. 47–48).

There is yet another theory that suggests that the relationships between professions and society could be better understood through the lens of power struggle rather than from the standpoint of ethics. As Magali Larson thought of the same predicament as a tactical move in which professionals tried to interpret and present things that suited their assemblage and financial gains, rather than client benefit. For example, in the case of architecture, norms are set to favour the architects, such as legitimising their knowledge through academic institutions, creating a high entry and exit barriers, demanding public recognition of their status and protecting their own interests (Larson, 1979; Winch and Schneider, 1993).

It is therefore natural for architects to struggle with the dilemma of doing moral good while satisfying their professional egos (Winch and Schneider, 1993). Spector (2001) maintains that the present situation is likely to prevail unless architects determine whether they want to pursue the role of an expert consultant or a concerned professional – whether they want to design beautiful things for their clients or keep trying to define goodness for the public. In fact, many scholars and practitioners admit that it was indeed challenging to establish a practice with the aim of achieving versatile and impactful architectural solutions while ignoring some of the relevant philosophical considerations and phenomenological observations (Sirowy, 2013, p. 178). Nevertheless, by ignoring ethics under the pretext of professionalism, architects are often looking for reasons to justify their actions and are not able to reflect the value of reflecting human ways of existence.

Thus, it could be argued that architectural ethics indubitably need a more prominent place within architectural discourse. As Wasserman et al. (2000) have pointed out, ‘architecture, in its many manifestations, is as much an ethical discipline as a design discipline’ (p. 31). Sirowy (2013) clarifies that Husserl’s view (1936) urges us to redefine the rules of engagement between objects and people based on phenomenological frameworks where the relation and response of people were valued over the materialistic worth of things. In Husserl’s view, the way out of the crisis would be to reconstruct the basis of philosophy and intellectual life in terms of phenomenology. It is, therefore, essential to repetitively question and re-evaluate such charters, which are solely based on scientific and mathematical reasoning, to consider a more philosophical, socio-cultural and humane approach.

References and further reading

  1. Fisher, T. (2010) Ethics for architects 50 dilemmas of professional practice. Princeton Architectural Press.
  2. Spector, T. (2001) The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/330307.The_Ethical_Architect
  3. Sirowy, B. (2013) ‘Architectural Ethics: A Phenomenological Perspective’, in Fløistad, G. (ed.) Ethics or Moral Philosophy. Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht, pp. 177–194. doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-6895-6.
  4. Schoenmaekers, S. (2011) The Regulation of Architects in Belgium and the Netherlands: A Comparative Analysis. Intersentia (Ius Commune reeks).