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Boston Society of Architects

Ethics Feature

Dilemmas of design

The means, ends, and aesthetic lens of architecture

Dilemmas hero prettycage

Pretty Cage, 2017, digital collage.

All illustrations by Tyler Spangler

We humans have problems, big problems, life-or-death problems. We often die too young — from diseases, in accidents, and as punishment for alleged crimes. Luckily, there are special people with unusual skills and training who are pledged to come to our rescue and protect us from these harms. Using the ancient sciences of biology, physics, and logic, these specialists fight the existential human problems of illness, injury, and injustice. Their devotion to the public values of health, safety, and justice give them indispensable powers to promote the survival of civilization. Resembling a kind of league of nerdy superheroes, they are the learned and licensed professionals of medicine, engineering, and law.

As even Spiderman knows, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s where professional ethics come in. Professionals have moral obligations to all four corners of their practice: to the public, to their clients, to their knowledge, and to the professionals themselves. Let’s unpack these four in reverse order.

A Trip to the Farmland, 2017, digital collage.

Professionals must nurture themselves.

If they don’t, they risk decline and extinction. If professionals stopped existing, they would stop protecting us. This would amount to an unacceptable abandonment of their core public values. The ethical duty to self-service includes any action that helps sustain the profession and its ability to serve others, such as helping emerging practitioners, ensuring comfortable pay and working conditions, and cultivating talents from diverse origins.

Professionals must create knowledge.

The sciences underlying their practice are the only tools professionals have to solve society’s problems. Professionals must keep those tools sharp, which includes efforts such as conserving historical insights, experimenting with new ideas, exploring emerging technologies, creating robust internship programs, supporting academic training, examining fieldwork for possible lessons, and candidly sharing experience and knowledge with colleagues.

Professionals must privilege their clients.

The work of professions is not primarily inside the laboratory or the ivory tower but in the outside world: It is applied work rather than academic work. Clients supply the casework where professionals apply their specialized knowledge. But, by definition, this knowledge is more advanced than lay knowledge, resulting in a potentially dangerous power imbalance. To counter this danger, professionals must put their clients’ interests before their own. Only with this fiduciary relationship can clients have the faith (fide) that what they don’t understand won’t be used against them. This ethos can be traced as far back as ancient Rome, where orators who argued in court on behalf of the less literate were prohibited from taking any payment.

Professionals must serve the public.

The sum of all possible clients equals the larger public and, accordingly, the largest professional obligation is to the public. Although professionals must prefer client interests over their own, they must prefer public interests over both. This means ensuring that work for clients also promotes our human rights to a dignified, secure, fair, free, and sustainable society. Conversely, professionals must not use their skills to help clients get away with anything that runs counter to larger interests and, if necessary, must raise client values to align them with public values. In fact, the failure of a profession to uphold its defining public value (such as safety), by definition, dissolves that profession.

A building designer who managed to uphold all these ethical values would certainly qualify as a morally excellent professional and engineer but hardly as an architect. As Gropius remarked, “Architecture begins where engineering ends.” That is, to be an architect requires more than ethical excellence; it requires aesthetic excellence. In fact, maintaining a critical distance from ethics is often exactly how architects achieve aesthetic excellence. Take the example of one of the biggest ethical controversies in contemporary American architecture.

In the 1970s, the Hancock corporation boldly proposed an illegally large headquarters in Boston’s historically scaled Copley Square. The local residents and architectural community rallied to denounce the project and its unethical New York architect, I. M. Pei. Indeed, the Boston Society of Architects/AIA issued the following official statement to the Boston Board of Zoning Appeals: “Copley Square would not only suffer drastically from the intrusion of so gross a building, but worse would be the damage inflicted on the morale of the city by the spectacle of a corporation rich enough to make mockery of the law.” But as a large employer in the region, Hancock had tremendous leverage in pursuing its appetites. It threatened local government until the zoning code was changed enough to permit a somewhat unobtrusive tower located off the square at the back of a neighboring block.

Even that audacity turned out to be a bait and switch. Once Hancock had gotten the idea of a skyscraper approved, it threw out the smaller design and proposed something 50 percent larger — too big not to disfigure Copley Square. Not wanting to dirty his own hands with this corporate greed, Pei quit the project. Believing Hancock would otherwise hire lesser designers and wreck his hometown, Henry Cobb (Pei’s Boston-born partner) took the project.

In this drama, Pei put the means before the ends and Cobb, the ends before the means — classic ethical roles, which moral philosophers call “deontological” (prioritizing “duty” or “deon” in Greek) or “consequentialist” (prioritizing “consequences” or results). For his consequentialist decision, Cobb was savaged by his Boston peers, who believed he had abandoned the moral duties of his profession for the amorality of commerce.

Out of this ethical predicament, however, Cobb created perhaps his most ingenious aesthetic accomplishment. He infamously pushed the available glass technology to the point of failure to achieve a scale-less reflectivity. At street level, this hypersmooth mirror closed the architectural gap caused by Hancock’s building site by repeating and appearing to connect the cornice lines of the adjacent buildings. At the skyline, it helped dissolve the monstrous bulk into an abstraction. By rendering a mass as pure surface, Cobb created a plane that he could then fold around the site into a contextually responsive geometry. The resulting shape opened up new views to the beloved Trinity Church while the full-height wrinkle on the side facing the square made the building’s narrowest elevation seem even slimmer. Meanwhile, the expansive planes on the connecting sides broadcast Hancock’s presence from miles away.

A project born of scandal grew into a revealing essay on the opposing ethics of community pride and corporate ambition, and won most major architectural awards along the way.

In essence, Cobb defied ethical norms in his profession in order to aesthetically explore and expose ethical norms in general. Without artistic freedom, architecture, “the mother art,” cannot exist and cannot advance our understanding of ethics or any other aspect of our reality.

As Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky points out, “Aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” In other words, aesthetic knowledge comes first and provides the source of moral knowledge. He explains further:

“The tender babe who cries and rejects the stranger... does so instinctively, making an aesthetic choice, not a moral one... even without fully realizing who he is and what he actually requires, a person instinctively knows what he doesn’t like and what doesn’t suit him. In an anthropological respect... a human being is an aesthetic creature before he is an ethical one.”

The Greek roots of the word aesthetics mean “to perceive,” and the Latin roots of perceive mean “to seize wholly, or see all the way through.” The Greek roots of the word ethics mean “character” or “manners” (the word morality is no more than the Latin translation with similar roots in “habits” or “customs”). Aesthetics, then, is the lens through which human character and customs can be best interpreted.

It is crucial that architects enter the age-old conversation about professional ethics; these values provide the heroic protections that keep us alive. However, rather than just following a preexisting conversation developed through the priorities of other disciplines, architects could be leading an even deeper conversation — one that analyzes moral values right along with the other essential aspects of human life. Ethics, after all, is just one of many cultural products of humanity’s natural aesthetic preferences. And architects are actually the only professionals with the aesthetic qualifications to design our culture and lead our society, through inspiration rather than regulation, toward lives better lived.

Artwork: Seattle-based graphic artist Tyler Spangler is a “psychology graduate and Art Center College of Design dropout.” Since 2011, he has been creating and sharing two original digital collages every day on his website and social media. All images courtesy of the artist.