Sponsors - Ethics


Links - Networking
Bookshelf - Ethics
  • The Ethical Function of Architecture
    The Ethical Function of Architecture
    by Karsten Harries
  • Ethics and the Practice of Architecture
    Ethics and the Practice of Architecture
    by Barry Wasserman, Patrick J. Sullivan, Gregory Palermo
  • The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice
    The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice
    by Tom Spector
  • The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture
    The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture
    by Victor Papanek
  • Architecture, Ethics, and the Personhood of Place
    Architecture, Ethics, and the Personhood of Place
  • Architectural Design and Ethics: Tools for Survival
    Architectural Design and Ethics: Tools for Survival
    by Thomas Fisher
  • The Hand and the Soul: Ethics and Aesthetics in Architecture and Art
    The Hand and the Soul: Ethics and Aesthetics in Architecture and Art
    University of Virginia Press
  • Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics
    Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics
    by Alberto Pérez-Gómez
  • Thinking Architecture
    Thinking Architecture
    by Peter Zumthor
  • Architecture, Aesth/Ethics, and Religion
    Architecture, Aesth/Ethics, and Religion
  • Architecture Depends
    Architecture Depends
    by Jeremy Till
  • Towards a New Architecture
    Towards a New Architecture
    by Le Corbusier
  • Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form
    Learning from Las Vegas - Revised Edition: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form
    by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown
  • Robert Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
    Robert Venturi: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture
    by Robert Venturi
  • Morality and Architecture Revisited
    Morality and Architecture Revisited
    by David Watkin
  • Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises
    Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises
    by Architecture for Humanity
  • Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency
    Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency
    by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, Timothy Hursley
  • Rethinking Architecture: Reader in Cultural Theory
    Rethinking Architecture: Reader in Cultural Theory
    by Neil Leach
  • Ethics and the Built Environment (Professional Ethics)
    Ethics and the Built Environment (Professional Ethics)
    by Warwick Fox
  • Ethics for the Built Environment
    Ethics for the Built Environment
    by Peter Fewings
  • Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture (Architectural Design Primer)
    Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture (Architectural Design Primer)
    by Leon van Schaik
  • Mastering Architecture: Becoming a Creative Innovator in Practice (Architecture in Practice)
    Mastering Architecture: Becoming a Creative Innovator in Practice (Architecture in Practice)
    by Leon van Schaik


Doing The Right Thing...


The crux of this project is an evaluation of the ethical/moral obligations that architects have to guide clients in directions that result in projects that transcend art, appearance, and monumentalism. At the same time, architects themselves should be challenged, if not obligated, to produce responsible projects and not just pad their portfolios.

Before getting into this, let me preface this discussion with something I mentioned elsewhere on this site: I am aware of when I am idealistically broaching a subject with no expectations for a definitive result and know when I'm tilting at windmills (does that make me a pragmatic optimist?). That being said, why would I choose to bring up the issue of ethics, something that I think is probably not only taboo, but also an issue likely to create problematic, unresolvable controversy?

My objective is, simply, to learn, to self-educate - research, gather information and opinions, put forth thoughts on paper - as part of the process of consciously forming a personal position on the subject. The “right” answers may be elusive, temporary, and sometimes not even achievable, but through this effort, my own ethical core should be better defined and articulated.

Thus, my explorations begin – they are not likely unique and in no way do I profess to have covered every aspect of the subject. I suspect I will first hit on things that are most intriguing to me and in line with my own thinking, but I am curious about ideas that others may have, congruent or otherwise, and am anxious to encounter them.


What are ethics?

Referring back to the Greek origin, ethics, or ethos, was defined as “a way to conduct ones life well in order to reach happiness.” Ethics is a philosophical study of moral dilemmas encountered in human actions, with morals being personal guides, or codes of conduct, based on core individual values, principles, and beliefs, or on those of the encompassing society. Developing morals begins as early in life as a person is able to comprehend right and wrong. Over time, they evolve as a result of conscious thought, life experiences, and associated personal growth.

The ethos is made up, for every person, of sets of values that are sometimes congruous and other times in conflict. Ethical beings are those who, naturally, find themselves in situations that require decisions based on an evaluation of relative levels of good, or bad. The system(s) used in making these decisions vary by the individual based on life experience, breadth of vision, and core values. How one evaluates a situation and develops solutions that integrate personal mores with the bigger, worldly picture determines the resulting product.

The fundamental question that lies at the core of ethical debate is "What ought one to do?” This question emphasizes the presence of choices and decisions in defining and dealing with the moral landscape. Along with this, the only way to escape these related issues and choices is to lead a life that is void of reflection and thought. People may have commendable attributes, like honesty, courtesy, trustworthiness, and courage, but go through life following someone else's codes, without making conscious decisions and commitments that reflect their own beliefs, values, and principles, or leading their own life.

Choices of actions can be both moral and immoral, depending on point of view. Sometimes there is no single, right solution or answer to a moral dilemma - there may only be choices that have a variety of pros and cons that need to be evaluated in the decision-making process, resulting in a decision that could be debated but is nevertheless the best one possible given available choices.

Jane Collier (Fellow, University of Cambridge) proposes that ‘wrong’ decisions are frequently not the result of moral amnesia but a lack of moral imagination and perception of the situation that is limited by tradition, culture, and/or personal motivation. She suggests that ‘moral imagination’ can be enhanced by being aware of the approach taken in decision-making, revising the approach to take into account new possibilities, envisioning possibilities that are unlikely to come up in the typical process, and developing the insight needed to uncover moral dimensions of all possible outcomes. She also contends that moral imagination is not an isolated attribute, but one that is part of a more systematic decision-making approach that takes into account interdependent elements of a situation.

Axiology, a term I’m still getting to know, is the science of human characteristics of quality or value. In its definition, it is often taken to include the philosophies of ethics and aesthetics, and it enables us to identify the internal valuing systems that influence our perceptions, decisions, and actions - to clearly understand "why" we do what we do. More to explore…

Ethics and Architecture

Getting Ethics...

With the exception of one professor’s efforts to instill a socially conscious aspect in our approach to design solutions, and minimal coverage of the AIA Code in Professional Practice courses, the majority of the architectural education I experienced was void of discussion or consideration of, let alone emphasis on, ethical aspects of design problems. The approach may be different at other institutions, but it should be incumbent upon institutions of learning to incorporate development of the professional, ethical core of architecture students at this point in the process.

The time spent post-graduation in the traditional position of ‘intern’ should be another time for examination and development of ‘self’ as a professional. Theoretically, and optimally, this should be facilitated by the firm(s) that employ interns as well as by the mentors that participate in the IDP. It is interesting to review the InsideArch/Firm Report website and review the opinions submitted by interns regarding a variety of approaches to personal and professional development by firms where they are employed. One can get a fairly clear idea of which firms genuinely encourage this development and which are using people merely as throw-away labor. Comments from interns range from "this is an excellent firm...they have very polished professionals who are extremely patient and willing to teach...my experience here has been incredible", to "When will I get the heck out of here...and why do I have to be here, are the things you ask yourself everyday." One can likely surmise that the overall ethical standards of firms are reflected in their approach to the internship process.

Architecture is considered a profession, like Medicine, Law, and Engineering, among others, and is self-governed by a group of industry participants that controls membership and, thus, actions of members of the profession. For the aforementioned other groups, Health, Justice, and Safety are the defining ethical values, respectively, as promulgated by the American Medical Association, The American Bar Association, and The National Society of Professional Engineers. It is the common morally essential goal that each of these disciplines maintains that supports their ‘professional’ designation.

Examining the AIA Code of Ethics & Professional Conduct results in little more guidance for architects than to act like good, law-abiding, honest, trustworthy citizens. The inclusion of ‘Obligations to the Environment’ in the 2007 Codes is a step in the direction of a uniform design ethic, but the inclusion of the term “should” when setting the guidelines is self-defeating and, thus, establishes little more than a token gesture toward a definitive direction.

The NCARB Rules of Conduct also counsels members to refrain from lying or breaking the law, and parts specific to architecture - e.g., interpret drawings fairly – are far from a definitive professional ethic. An analysis of the focus of each organization’s guidelines and their relationship to ethical standards is presented in the documents ‘AIA Code Analysis’ and ‘NCARB Code Analysis’.

Thus, while the subject of ethics has been nominally addressed through written documents (i.e., professional handbooks), it seems that there is no meaningful industry standard for ethics within the architectural community.


Architecture is…

Architecture first evolved out of the relationships between needs (shelter, security, worship, etc.) and means (available building materials and attendant skills). As human cultures developed and knowledge began to be formalized through oral traditions and practices, architecture became a craft, with architects being considered the master builder.

The earliest known written work on the subject of architecture is De architectura, by Vitruvius in the early 1st century BC (though Vitruvius draws upon earlier works by Greek architects from as early as the 4th century BC). According to Vitruvius, a practitioner of architecture, among other things, a good building should satisfy the three principles of firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis, which can be translated as:

  • Firmness (Strength/Durability) - it should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
  • Utility (Commodity) - it should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  • Delight (Grace/Beauty) - it should delight people and raise their spirits.

According to Vitruvius, the architect should strive to fulfill each of these three attributes as much as possible.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes architecture as “…the art and technique of designing and building, as distinguished from the skills associated with construction. The practice of architecture emphasizes spatial relationships, orientation, support of activities to be carried out within a designed environment, and the arrangement and visual rhythm of structural elements, as opposed to the design of structural systems themselves. Appropriateness, uniqueness, a sensitive and innovative response to functional requirements, and a sense of place within its surrounding physical and social context distinguish a built environment as representative of a culture's architecture.”

Similarly, the Columbia Encyclopedia describes architecture as “… the art of building in which human requirements and construction materials are related so as to furnish practical use as well as an aesthetic solution, thus differing from the pure utility of engineering construction. As an art, architecture is essentially abstract and nonrepresentational and involves the manipulation of the relationships of spaces, volumes, planes, masses, and voids. Time is also an important factor in architecture, since a building is usually comprehended in a succession of experiences rather than all at once. In most architecture there is no one vantage point from which the whole structure can be understood. The use of light and shadow can greatly enhance a structure."

These descriptions or elaborations on the meanings of architecture contain the three attributes - structure, aesthetics, and function - that Vitruvius' architecture strived for. Accordingly, they will be used as a starting point for establishing an ethical system for architecture:


Simply put, the building must stand up. While at one time this may have been included in the duties of an architect, consulting structural engineers now bear the responsibility for ensuring structural integrity. There is an obvious and necessary connection between architect and engineer, with the architect leading the way design-wise and the engineer verifying that the desired structural system is adequate for intended loads. This congruent relationship becomes most important when structure and aesthetics are integrated, tectonically, in a design solution.



The aesthetics of a project is the aspect that most observers are able to relate to, whether the reaction is positive or not. However, one must question how much aesthetics, or art, applies to the architect’s duty to seeking the social good.

As Henry Cobb, of Pei Cobb Freed, paraphrases a statement by poet-philosopher Paul Valéry, “a work of art always transcends those principles of human duty which it may embody or to which it refers. Thus, a work of art is alone among human productions in being privileged, indeed obligated to escape the rule of human duty. Hence, we can say that the only absolute duty imposed on a work of art is that of being undutiful.”

Accordingly, a building’s aesthetic quality, while contributing to its meaning, is only part of its essence, and is therefore amoral. That is, as an art object, which by definition and intent avoids any semblance of serving a public duty, no ethical considerations can apply.



Finally, the definition of architecture includes the provision for satisfying functional needs of the people for whom the project is intended, as well as those who are affected by it, and it is this attribute that separates architecture from art. Without function, architecture is merely sculpture. That is not to denigrate sculpture, but sculpture is art, and architecture is to transcend art. The fact that human use is involved necessitates an ethical obligation that art, in its essence, avoids.

Because architecture is meant to serve people by providing for their functional needs, architects, as ‘professionals’, are obligated to perform their services in a manner that ethically addresses this responsibility. The difficulty of truly fulfilling this obligation is understood, cannot be overstated, and is something that must be struggled with on a project by project basis. However, fulfilling the obligation of creating a safe building that integrates form and function without being subservient to either is the ultimate and difficult task of architecture.


What ‘should’ be…

The first recorded study of ethics was by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their contemporaries, who used words that in translation had multiple meanings: the term aischron described something 'shameful' as well as 'ugly', and kal's referred to something as being 'honorable' and/or 'beautiful'. This duality of meaning seems to indicate that there was an early relationship between ethics and aesthetics, which in turn may relate to a link between the character of an architect, the approach to design, and the quality of the work.

Increasingly unachievable is the very basic human characteristic of feeling, or being, ‘in place’. Humans have not evolved in a way that we are no longer in need of or incapable of experiencing and knowing places. However, our use and exploitation of the human environment is indifferent to place. When people depend on place to define meaning, then it is that indifference that is in need of ethical scrutiny. For humanity to live in a more permanent, grounded self, we need to renew the ethical framework to remind us of the virtues of life and help create and preserve place.

Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose explains, ethics is derived from the term ethos, meaning dwelling or habitat, or the characteristic mode-of-being of individuals and communities. “Habitat encompasses habits, as the product of bodily activities, and make up one’s character, one’s specificity, or what is properly one’s own (being). To belong to, and to project out from an ethos is to take up a position in relation to others.” With this projecting out, architecture becomes the framework, or connector, for overlapping activities that occur between public and private domains.

In light of these premises, what is the architect’s ethical responsibility in responding to this need? As an admittedly idealistic start, I’ll suggest:

  • To create buildings that are holistic and reflect the interrelationship and interdependency of the time, people, place, culture, and contex.
  • To create buildings that engage current issues and thinking, and link past, present, and future.
  • To create buildings that impart upon people who inhabit them a sense of place and an orientation in their local environment as well as in the world.
  • To create buildings that engender and enhance peak experiences; intellectually, emotionally, and sensually.
  • To create buildings that are based on principles of Intelligent Design (more on this topic to come)
  • To create buildings that are more than self-aggrandizing exercises by and/or for the privileged.


What ‘can’ be...

With such propositions comes the need to consider whether architects can really do ‘what ought to be’ in today’s culture, or is such idealism irreconcilable with pragmatic issues and reality? One might wonder, also, how does an architect fulfill an obligation to design buildings that meet suggested ethical considerations when the client pays him/her and they might not be so inclined? Are we back to square one, where the architect assumes the subservient role of puppet to the wealthy?


Wrapping it up – for now…

To bring this discussion back to its origins, consider the introductory section that describes the current trend in homes being built on Casey Key. Where beach cottages once stood, buildings resembling Palladian villas are being built, with no regard for any of the aforementioned, suggested ethical responsibilities.

Clients want it, zoning and building codes permit it, and architects are happy to assist in providing it. The reasons for their willingness to comply are readily apparent, and I know my idealism reflects an unrealistic view, but at what point should an architect, as a ‘professional’, suggest to a client that they are not in Tuscany but on a subtropical island in freaking Florida, where a design suitable to the context – the climate, the lifestyle, the setting, and with appropriate regard for the neighbors - would be more appropriate?

As written, any existing Code of Ethics directed at the architecture profession is lacking criteria that might cause an architect to even consider offering such an opinion, let alone take a stand against something so blatantly out of ‘place’ (dual meaning intended). With no conscious, personal effort to change, there will always be a lack of congruence between those to whom the architect should be ethically responsible (the community) and those to whom an architect is accountable (the client).

As stated at the start of this exercise, my intentions were to research, consider, ponder, and offer points of view on this subject, not develop a definitive answer to this dilemma. My own position on this has been clarified and that was my true goal.

With that, I’ll end with the following opinion of James Steele, PhD, which offers both an empathetic summary of my thinking and a stimulus for further thought:

Architecture “…functions as a tangible manifestation of a specific social ethos, offering a …record of cultural attitudes. While a work of architecture can be enjoyed at a purely experiential or aesthetic level, its significance cannot fully be appreciated without understanding the dreams and struggles of the society in which it was designed and constructed. Architecture...can be read as a textbook of history, providing profound insights into who we are as a people."


Comments to further the discussion are welcome and can be initiated by clicking here.