Here’s how the question comes up: I’m with a group of architects, and we’re talking about how hard it is to make money in the profession. Someone turns to me, as the only lawyer in the room. Wasn’t there a time when it was different? When fees were set by the American Institute of Architects, under the old Code of Ethics, so architects weren’t always trying to undercut each other?
Well, yes, it was different, once upon a time...
Back in 1970, members of the AIA operated under a Code of Ethics that hadn’t substantially changed for more than a century. He (at that time, AIA members were 99 percent white men) thought of himself as an expert sheltered from the hurly-burly of the marketplace. So that an architect’s professional judgment wasn’t contaminated by conflicting loyalties, AIA members could not act as builders or developers. They could not advertise, talk with a potential client who was working with another architect, or offer free services to help deserving clients.
As compensation for these self-imposed economic constraints, the ethics code made architects promise not to compete against one another on the basis of price. Every AIA chapter published a mandatory fee schedule, based on sliding scales for projects of different types and sizes.
In short, the old AIA Code of Ethics was all about money. It created a safe, sheltered, cozy system, conducted under a polite set of rules. And sometime between 1970 and 1980, it was blown to smithereens.
The system was destroyed by an unlikely alliance of the political right and the political left. The attacks of those advocates were primarily aimed at the big, powerful professions, doctors and lawyers, who operated under similarly restrictive codes of ethics. The much smaller architectural profession got caught in the cross fire.
Those on the right were advocates for a laissez-faire economy. Remove the constraints of professional ethics codes, they argued, and the deregulated market would force professionals to become more competitive and innovative. Those on the left also wanted to abolish the ethics codes, in the interest of a more egalitarian society where professional services would be readily available to all.
Both sides agreed that existing professional ethics codes amounted to price fixing. Through a series of strategic lawsuits, they convinced federal judges, enforcers at the Department of Justice, and ultimately the US Supreme Court. In decision after decision, the pillars of professional practice — fixed fee schedules; bans on advertising, soliciting work, and free services; bans on acting as a builder or developer — were swept away. By 1980, the American architect was practicing in a changed legal landscape, where we find ourselves today.
So what has happened to architectural practice since then? As in so many areas, the vision of a deregulated market seems to have triumphed. The contemporary architect has been transformed from a sheltered expert into a marketplace competitor.
We have seen explosive growth and mergers of large firms. We have seen novel combinations among architects, engineers, builders, and developers. We have seen the globalization of the design marketplace. And we have seen the revolutionary impact of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other new technologies.
Today, alternative models of practice are flowering at many different scales. Nimble young firms offer services outside the traditional definition of architecture: from participatory planning to product design, from brand consulting to real estate development. New digital technologies enable smaller firms to form alliances and compete for very big projects.
There has been less progress toward the egalitarian goals of the left. There is still no government subsidy of low-cost architectural services comparable to Medicaid or legal aid. We do have a network of community design clinics, such as the Rural Studio at Auburn University. Private firms offer pro bono services, encouraged by the AIA’s One Percent Solution program. And we’re starting to see nonprofit architectural firms, of which the Boston-based MASS Design Group (on whose board I sit) is the largest and most prominent example.
The emergence of public interest architecture points to the most important, if unintended, consequence of the legal battles of the 1970s: the redefinition of architectural ethics.
When the old AIA Code of Ethics was destroyed, the profession was forced to untangle ethics from financial self-interest. Back in 1970, the code was silent on the need to make design available for those who can’t afford an architect. It was silent on combating discrimination and protecting human rights. It was silent on an architect’s duty to preserve historic buildings and the natural environment. Today the AIA Code of Ethics no longer serves as a protective shield, an attempt to keep architects financially solvent. The current ethics code contains a set of aspirational goals, describing how architects can try to serve the public good.
Architects are now fiercely debating those goals. How can we reconcile our desire to serve the public good with the pressures of the marketplace? Can the profession remedy its own patterns of racial and gender inequality? What is our duty of stewardship toward the environment?
An ethics code should be a spur and a goad to the conscience; it should force architects to articulate and debate the questions that we find most uncomfortable. It should push us to find forms of practice that are both efficient and creative, both profitable and just.
For more on the history and evolution of architectural ethics, see the writer’s article in Architectural Theory Review (2016).
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.