Two of the most important ideas in ethics are empathy and reciprocity: understanding the world from the perspective of others and treating others as you would want them to treat you. Twentieth-century architecture failed on both counts. It showed little empathy, with its universalist assumption that there existed an “International Style” independent of the culture or climate of a place; and practiced little reciprocity, with its utopian urge to impose singular urban visions on vulnerable populations, be they Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin or Albert Speer’s Third-Reich Berlin.
But 21st-century architecture has taken an ethical turn, one that has become most apparent in architecture schools. Ethics has become an expected part of every accredited school’s curriculum as part of the student performance criteria around professional practice, and the ethical questions raised by students’ design work do get discussed in studio reviews more than they did decades ago. What seems missing in many schools is a rigorous discussion of ethics itself and how its many facets — environmental ethics, feminist ethics, business ethics — might affect architectural design as well as practice.
Also missing in most schools is a discussion of the ethics of higher education, where the social contract between faculty and students has changed dramatically. Digital media has prompted this change, letting students get information faster — and sometimes more accurately — than faculty can give it. And with that has come a move away from a hierarchical, one-way delivery of information to an egalitarian, two-way discovery of knowledge, in which faculty members have as much to learn from their students as the other way around and have learned to treat students with the respect that they deserve.
This is not just a technological shift but an ethical one, with empathy and reciprocity at its core. Not all faculty, however, have recognized or accepted this. The academy rewards contrarians and some, especially older professors, continue to teach as they were taught, droning on in the front of a lecture hall or placing unreasonable demands in a design studio. But such faculty no longer get away with it; these teachers get called out on sites such as ratemyprofessors.com and soon discover that no one wants to take their courses; the ethical turn has consequences for those who ignore it. Think of this as reciprocity’s revenge: Those who treat others badly get treated badly themselves.
The youngest members of the profession are also helping to chart a new course by steering architecture toward exploring new forms of public-interest and pro bono practices. If you look at the student work in a school like mine, most projects have a deeply ethical and environmental character, taking on some of the biggest challenges of our time. This generation of students and recent graduates will not simply accept traditional forms of practice or 20th-century ways of thinking. Firms that do not have a sympathetic grasp of this ethical turn — or that refuse to change their practices in response to it — will not thrive, however successful they may be at the moment.
At the same time, the demand for and interest in design among other disciplines has never been greater. At my university, fields as diverse as business and public policy, nursing and public health, anthropology and kinesiology have taken an active interest in design, embracing it in their classes and on their research teams. Design appeals to them not for aesthetic reasons, but ethical ones. They see design — perhaps even more clearly than many designers — as an empathy-driven, paradigm-shifting, action-oriented way of working that our rapidly changing world needs now more than ever.
That signals one of the greatest impacts the ethical turn may have on architecture. Long defined by the outcomes of its practice — buildings — the profession has entered an era in which the ways in which designers work may matter just as much or even more than what form that work ultimately takes. Architects will still design buildings in the future, but just as many will design systems and services that have a physical or spatial component. An empathetic understanding of what people really need will make that change almost unavoidable, and a reciprocal sense of responsibility for others will make it highly desirable — and an enviable outcome for the profession. ■