The Problem

The New York Times article by Michael Kimmelman, about the AIA’s rejection of an explicit code of ethics regarding society's most heinous building types is a clear statement of exactly what is wrong with the AIA. Without a code that does more than vaguely reference ‘upholding human rights in all professional endeavors’ the AIA blurs precisely the line it should be clearly drawing.

Why would architects expect to be the respected members of a civil society they crave being, while claiming to be agnostic about the uses for which their buildings are designed? Should architects have a hand in building absolutely everything, no matter how destructive or degrading to human rights? Is nothing is out of bounds? Not death chambers, not concentration camps, not despot's palaces? Absolutely everything is, if not excluded, endorsed by the AIA as appropriate for its members to proudly author.

While the AIA is spending significant marketing dollars to reposition the perception of architects in society, is it dodging a critical moral morass in its quest to reshape its member’s societal roles?

I am a Fellow of the AIA, a member for 35 years and I think it is squandering an opportunity to be seen as a standard of decency rather than a tool of any client’s need.

If the AMA prohibits prescribing death chamber lethal injections is it a leap for AIA to proscribe death chamber design? The AMA could argue that their involvement would alleviate suffering, but what possible role would architects play in alleviating execution chamber suffering? Better lighting; less bright acoustics?

There may be significant debate about nuclear power plants, about private prisons, about animal testing labs and even about border fences. But we hope that death chambers and concentration camps have no moral constituency. The AIA should strike its ambiguous code of ethics article referencing human rights if it can find no architecture that violates human rights. In this case the AIA supporting "personal choice" is like the "States Rights" argument for slavery.

This highlights, of course, both the best and the worst natural tendencies of any architect: we are doubly optimistic, believing we can improve (society, people’s lives, sustainability, etc.) with architecture, by holding dear the belief that good architecture can make absolutely any part of the built environment, no matter how debasing, incrementally better.

The line between design positively influencing society and designers naively dressing up every square inch of the world to 'make the world a better place' is elusive to some.

An Alternate Repositioning Manifesto

Aligning with the AIA approach to ethical dilemmas I offer a new manifesto:

We are Problem Solvers, able to make Anything Better, through Good Design and Award Winning Projects! Finally liberated from ethics and morality we can truly express ourselves in every possible category, and in every building and space. Every problem can be solved and every solution can make the world a better place.

Our new tag line could be:

“We make the unimaginable imaginable”

This means an entirely new set of categories in the various AIA Design Award Competitions held at the local, state and national levels:

-Best Detention Camp (subcategories; CIA Black Site, Most Overcrowded, Most Degrading)

-Best Face on the Worst Nation (subcategories; Oppressive Regimes, Olympic Facilities, North Korean)

-Best Warlord HQ (subcategories; Permanent, Nomadic, With and Without Torture Chambers)

-Extreme Housing (subcategories; Without Light and Air, Least Permanent, Highest Occupancy per Sq. Ft.)

-Most Dangerous (subcategories; Highest Casualty during Construction, Most Destructive of Life, Shortest Lifespan)


There are great examples, both serious and satirical, of architects in moral quandary from Monty Python's "the Architect" sketch to "My Architect". And there is a wonderful show at MAXXI in Rome until early March, "Architecture in Uniform" about the varieties of design and architecture prompted by war from Jeeps to Auschwitz and from Quonset Huts to the Pentagon.

Architecture has many ways to respond to the moral questions of the day, but simply declining to respond is not one of them. Philip Johnson may have flippantly quipped that "all architects are pretty much high class whores" but even sex workers draw the line somewhere.