Thomas Fisher on The Ethics of Architecture and Other Contradictions

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Why don’t architects often consider the ethics of what they do? Thomas Fisher’s new book, The Architecture of Ethics, digs into this topic in great depth and with engaging insight. At the recent AIA convention in Las Vegas, I sat down with Fisher—former dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, and now a professor in urban design at the school, as well as director of the Minnesota Design Center—to talk about his book and the ethical dimension of designing and building in the context of contemporary practice.

Michael J Crosbie: The book’s title is The Architecture of Ethics, but isn’t your focus more on the ethics of architecture?

Thomas Fischer: I was trying to argue that architects have something to bring to ethics by virtue of how we work. We constantly deal with conflicts—undersized budgets, difficult sites—and we try to get to win-win solutions. We’re always looking for ways to accommodate differences. And that’s an important part of ethics: Understanding how our actions impact other people, how we think about problems and arrive at solutions that do little or no harm. The architect’s design mind brings a particular approach to ethics, and the title reflects that.

MJC: Right now seems like a good time for this book; we’re living through an ethically challenging time. How much did our current social/political climate prompt you to write it? 

TF: In the introduction I write about political leaders—not just in the U.S. but in Turkey, North Korea, Russia—who are reflecting questionable ethical behavior and what that says about our culture. On one level, it’s making us realize that our system of government has holes that have rarely been exploited because we’ve always assumed that a president would act ethically. There has also been a lot of attention on unethical business practices—as we saw in the home-mortgage debacle—that have had major consequences. It’s made a lot of people realize that ethics matter.

MJC: Why do we tend to prefer to critique architecture primarily using aesthetic or pragmatic yardsticks, and rarely in regard to ethics?

TF: In the 19th century there was a divorce between ethics and aesthetics. Critics and writers like Oscar Wilde said you can’t have this overlay of ethics on aesthetics, because it confuses art with morality, condemning art as questionable if it was morally shocking. So ethics in art were not considered. In architecture programs, we didn’t even teach ethics for most of the 20th century, so it’s not surprising that architects wouldn’t know much about it, beyond a discussion you might have in a professional practice class. Now the National Architectural Accrediting Board requires instruction in ethics, as is the case in business, medical, and law schools. They realize that all professionals need to have some education in ethics as these questions arise in the conduct of practice. Ethics and aesthetics haven’t been reunited, but the environmental and social justice movements have infused the architectural design with ethical considerations.

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MJC: Most architects don’t give serious consideration to ethics in their design work. Why not? 

TF: The revision of AIA’s Code of Ethics requiring members to discuss the environmental impacts of a project with the client really gets at that. In the past, architects have been wary to have such discussions because it questions the power of the client to do whatever they want because they have the means to do so. Architects have been designing for people with power and money for a very long time. It’s easier to talk about aesthetics, function, or the pragmatics of design because it doesn’t question a client’s power.

MJC: “The pursuit of happiness” is a very strong idea in American culture. How do architects balance serving clients—in their “pursuit of happiness” through architecture—with the greater good of the community? 

TF: In ethics, “the pursuit of happiness” is often misunderstood. Utilitarian ethics states that you strive to make the greatest number of people happy; the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham promoted “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But ethics is also about understanding how others view the world, and how our actions affect the lives and welfare of others. The role of professionals is to look after the greater good. Licensure is a social contract in which, in exchange for a monopoly in providing professional services, the professional is responsible for the larger picture. Designing to satisfy someone’s hedonistic “pursuit of happiness” without regard to that bigger picture is unethical behavior for an architect. It violates the social contract behind licensure. I think an architect should lose his or her license for an action like that. Such an action might not be illegal, but it’s unethical. Ethics is really about our day-to-day interactions with people in the realm of space, public and private.

MJC: Architects are licensed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. What is our ethical responsibility in the realm of “welfare”?

TF: We think about health, safety, and welfare (HSW) primarily as codes, life safety, technical issues. There isn’t a clear consensus in the profession about what “welfare” means. The older meaning was the idea of “well-being.” Ethically, as architects, we have obligations to larger communities, to strangers, to other species. How do we create environments that accommodate lots of different people, regardless of their backgrounds? Those are questions that need to be addressed in terms of welfare and often are not addressed in design or in architectural education.

MJC: You make an observation that Modernism, particularly the International Style, was morally oppressive. How is that?

TF: Sociologist Jonathan Haidt notes that there are six moral foundations in all societies: care of others; fairness with others; loyalty to family, friends, nation; respect for authority; sanctity; love of liberty and freedom. He points out that Western cultures put emphasis on care, fairness, and liberty, while other world cultures also value the other three—loyalty, respect, and sanctity. History and tradition—and respect for them—is more important in non-Western societies. Modernism assumed that you could put the same glass box anywhere because human values were universal, but that’s not so; it’s also climatically a bad idea. That’s the lesson of the 20th century. There is not a singular set of values that are universally valid, just as there isn’t an architecture that is universally valid. We need to evolve another way of thinking about the built environment based on cultural values.

MJC: You note that parametric design and digital fabrication, despite their cutting-edge reputation, are actually ethically challenged. How so?

TF: Ethics talks about ends. Digital fabrication and parametric design is more focused on means: How am I going to make something? Often, there is little discussion of the ends to the means: What is the ethical impact of this form-making, using these resources? How does it affect people’s lives? We view the avant-garde as ahead of its time, but in this case, I see it as profoundly conservative.

MJC: AIA just had its convention in Las Vegas, one of the most poorly designed, wasteful cities I can think of. What are the ethical implications for a choice like that, on the part of our professional association? 

TF: Does ethics have a place in deciding where to have a convention? In Vegas, there was a resolution on architects taking dramatic action on climate change, which passed overwhelmingly. And here we are in windowless rooms, in this carbon-consuming city, walking past open-door casinos pumping air conditioning out onto the sidewalk. I don’t think the architecture profession has yet had its “come to Jesus” moment on climate change and how to respond ethically. If we’re really going to take climate change seriously, why have a convention at all? In a digitally connected world, why fly 15,000 people around the country to interact?

MJC: You write about the impact of money laundering on architecture, something most of us probably haven’t even considered. It really affects sustainability, as projects are overbuilt for the sake of hiding dirty money. Ethically, how is an architect to respond?

 TF: The paradox is that dirty money has fueled the construction of whole parts of cities. A client with an unlimited budget is a great opportunity for architects, who are always rubbing up next to money and power, and that’s one reason it isn’t much discussed. There are all kinds of negative impacts: you end up building too much, with materials that are resource-intensive, raising land values that lead to gentrification. Ethics in the profession should make you pause and think: What are the implications of doing this or that? It’s a lens for looking at the built world, your place in it, and what your responsibilities are as an architect. Sometimes, you just have to say no.

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Cite: Michael J. Crosbie. "Thomas Fisher on The Ethics of Architecture and Other Contradictions" 21 Jun 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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