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Is the Profession of Architecture Corrupt?

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The following guest blog is from Victoria Beach, an independent architect and former lecturer in architecture at the Harvard School of Design.

Is the profession of architecture corrupt? According to the definition of “institutional corruption” currently in use at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University, yes.

The Center’s new director, renowned attorney Lawrence Lessig, has defined as “corrupt” organizations that have tragic structural flaws that undermine their own purposes for being. He has recently re-focused the Center’s resources on studying these ineffectual institutions and their corrosive effects.

Now, apply this descriptive framework to the architectural profession. Its purpose for being is to create architecture — that is, to make art out of the science of building. The purpose of this art, if there is one, is often debated but most agree it should engage, if not uplift, the individual mind and body as well as human culture as a whole. What kinds of structural features might be holding back the profession from consistently achieving these results?

Here are some possibilities.

    * Though the situation varies from school to school, the design academy tends to attract narrowly educated technicians, often without college degrees or any experience in the humanities, and proceeds to advance that narrow focus. This may be a distant residue of an ancient need for draftsmen and laborers, which is rapidly being made obsolete by computer technology. This vestigial practice can prevent  architects from understanding and engaging their work in the larger social questions and from collaborating with their broadly educated peers in law, medicine, and the like.

    * The internship that the architectural profession requires for licensure takes place in un-accredited, un-monitored, private offices across the country. Because this three-year period is mandatory, offices have an incentive to exploit intern labor, using it for self-serving rather than educational ends. Interns have no leverage to change these conditions and thereby further their training. Often they work for little or no pay, in violation of national labor laws, which virtually ensures their permanent economic dependency on this flawed system.

    * The examination for architectural licensure does not test for architectural acumen. It is primarily an engineering exam that does not capture qualitative aspects of humane design. The legal title “architect,” on which laypeople rely to find qualified assistance, therefore does not actually ensure any architectural ability.

    * The ethical codes that the profession enforces have been diluted over the years to minimal standards of basic citizenship. They no longer require, and often don’t even describe, the actions that would produce architecture. Neither laypeople nor architects could easily discern from these codes what distinct values architects are meant to uphold and what purposes they are meant to serve.

    * The primary professional society for architecture, the American Institute of Architects, mainly promotes, as its name suggests, architects rather than architecture. It is organized under section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code, which means it is a “business league,” “promoting the common economic interests of … a trade.” The general public can therefore be excused for interpreting this technicality exactly the way the government does: Architects are businesspeople first and professionals or artists second, if at all.

    * The building industry has detected, enhanced, and leveraged the public’s confusion over what architects do. As architects surrender their leadership positions, the odds that buildings might serve interests beyond those of their developers worsen. Many architects now sit in the back offices of these developers and are economically dependent upon them – a circumstance that was ethically prohibited a century ago.

    * But even without the influences of the building industry, architects are faced with the same ethical conundrums of “agency” that all professionals are. When lawyers are put in the compromising position of knowing information that might clarify the truth of a matter but condemn their own clients, they struggle (one hopes). But at least with the legal system, the zealous advocacy model was designed to provide representatives on more than one side of an issue. Architects, on the other hand, are charged with representing the needs of their paying clients as well as the often contradictory needs of the non-paying users and the non-paying public. There is no other designated agent for these unorganized interest groups.

These seven structural features may indeed be corrupting in Lessig’s sense of undermining the profession’s ability to serve its defining ethical goals. Furthermore, many even stickier ethical conundrums are posed by the very existence of an artistic pursuit structured as a professional and commercial enterprise.

These issues, among many others, have been under intense scrutiny through the ethical research and teaching of professor Carl Sapers and others at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. On April 26, the Carl M. Sapers Ethics in Practice Fund, was established at Harvard to continue and enhance this work. This presents a unique opportunity to raise the discourse of architectural ethics and to address these many challenges.

by Victoria Beach , 2010

Published with permission of Design Intelligence

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