Ethics in architecture: Ethics and the professional code of conduct in Architecture—or any field—has been a concern and a debatable topic at the ground level. Professionalism, integrity, and competence are some qualities expected from an architect who pledges to serve the country and the world by preserving its natural environment for future generations and considering his vocation as a job and also as a calling; treating his business with responsibility towards mankind and nature.
India being a country of a billion-odd people, we promote ethics in architecture in the most primordial way; by licensing colleges and institutes for education and preparation of the architecture workforce. Thousands of colleges produce hundreds of thousands of architects ready to work, without having properly assessed the demand of the architectural sector. The recent Supreme Court verdict about the protection under the Architect’s Act 1972 is extended to the title and style of the architect while leaving open the practice of architecture to anyone with or without a degree, has elevated concerns of what ethics in architecture mean now. When a large population of people in the construction industry does not fall under the code of conduct set forth for Architects and yet may practice architecture, will it lead to a loss of trust towards architects and the profession itself? It may seem plausible, but I don’t see it happening at the galactic scale that it is being said.
We often witness large debates at national and regional levels where panels discuss the erosion of the status of the architect in society and business. Let us admit that they usually revolve around business because as we have reduced ourselves to a society that operates on a piece of paper, we are more concerned about how to attain that piece of paper, primarily through commanding respect and ownership over the other agencies involved in the process of construction. Frank Gehry in an interview about ethics once said that he built his firm on self-imposed ethics of not borrowing money, making sure he pays his employees, and not imposing his ideas upon the regional culture of wherever his buildings are based in the world. He also added that this practice is not there anymore within the architecture community as more and more firms are racing to be at the top and increase their number of projects and in turn their revenues. Similarly, Charles Correa, at his RIBA conference, had commented about how architects are not the first persons to be hired in an architecture project anymore like before. A project management consultant is usually the first one in and as it has evolved, he is the one who hires the architect on behalf of the client, and further because of specialized fields popping up within architecture, the architect is merely a part of the project and, unlike earlier, never has control over what is happening throughout the project.
Something sparked an interesting debate in my local architecture community when many architects suddenly started noticing clients, who came to them with a certain project, disappeared. Later the same clients would reappear on the scene with a different architect. In time they realized that there had been a few architects offering their services at a lower fee than the accepted norm in the region. There was an immediate reaction to it and, as most reactions are, it was not thought through. They approached the local community of architects and demanded that a minimum fee structure be set. Not realizing the repercussions of that on those architects at the fringe of the market struggling to make ends meet, let alone the fact that any architect freely choosing to offer services at a discounted fee is free to do so at their own will, unless they are pressurized. If done willingly, without feeling pressured, then uncompensated design raises no ethical issue; without freedom, as the philosopher, Jacques Ellul has argued, there are no ethics. Ethics in architecture can only operate under the assumption that we have a choice to act in one way or another, or else why bother to discuss it at all? Here again, we come to the argument revolving around that elusive piece of paper that we so want to conquer and horde. It is saddening to see architects competing over trivial matters rather than competing to create the next big innovation that will save this dying planet.
Ethics in architecture extends well beyond just the conduct of the architect with the society, clients, employees, and other professionals involved in the project. It also corresponds to the responsibility of the architect as the world’s leader and visionary who will lead the world into the next century and thereafter. Sounds exciting to read, but the ground reality is quite different as we churn more and more architects out every year, as if from a factory. Ethics and professional code of conduct amongst architects, between architects and the public, between architects and the environment, take a back seat when competition and a distorted sense of popularity and a business-centric approach overpowers an architect’s true soul. Most of the architects covered in the media usually talk about their ethical practices and surely there must be exceptions who conduct their business responsibly, but the overrun of architects coming out of schools every year seems to keep reducing this number into a smaller niche and forcing us to look at them as exceptions.
Many nuances can be discovered between the codes of conduct of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the UK, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in the USA, and the Council of Architecture (COA) in India but the dilemmas faced by practicing architects have many similarities throughout the world. If we were to broadly compare these three institutes and their codes, the AIA elaborately explains the responsibilities and obligations of the architect in conjunction with state laws through a four-page document differentiating between what rules are and what we can construe as guidelines. RIBA in the UK does this in even more detail through a 27-page document, explicitly explaining the three major principles, Integrity, Competence, and Relationships. Whereas the COA in India has one-liners for every code of conduct and leaves the interpretation up to the person reading it. There seems to be no mention of enforcing the ideals and ethics or the disciplinary action by the council if an architect does not hold up the standards of the profession. Such vague guidelines are open to interpretation in any way by anyone, and the guidelines not being linked to state laws give rise to easy confusion when a dispute arises. We should not assume that, if we make a complaint at the council on the professional behavior of an architect, that complaint will not be dealt with.
But for any complaint to be registered, a simple way of determining ethical violations must be available. As an architect, sometimes everyone faces situations where it becomes confusing whether we are on the right course of things or are we overstepping ethical boundaries that we respect. One example of such a dilemma would be when a builder or a developer friend asks an architect to do some designs for free, unable to pay the architect because of recession, but holding out the possibility of the work turning into a commission once things get better. The architect may find the project appealing and also have some free time for it, but needs to understand the responsibility that comes along with accepting such uncompensated work. When designing for free, it does not absolve the architect of the responsibilities and obligations that arise with where and how the final product is used. Thomas Fisher, in an Architecture Brief about Ethics for Architects lists 50 dilemmas of professional practice. In it, he says, “Professional licensure carries with it responsibilities that cannot be waived by any individual since it includes obligations to public health, safety, and welfare that extend beyond any agreement between two parties. The architect is never free of such duties, even when working without pay.” Fisher continues explaining what it means, “For one friend to ask another to take on such risk without any reward, now or in the future, hardly seems like friendship. Likewise, the freedom to expose oneself to so much liability without any equity stake in the results hardly seems like freedom. If freedom, as Friedrich Nietzsche observed, involves being responsible to ourselves, then the real freedom of the architect here, asked to provide free design services to a friend, involves saying no.” Just because another architect may do it, does not mean you should too.
“Good people don’t need laws to tell them to act responsibly and bad people will find a way around the laws,” – Plato
This brings us to an important element of Ethics in architecture and an architect’s life: the individual. When a national level regulating authority provides guidelines and rules as part of the professional conduct of an architect, we often see architects compare themselves to Advocates and Doctors—a comparison which the supreme court also considered while giving the recent verdict—in a bid to explain, justify and educate the layman. Comparing medicine, law, and architecture can give an insight into the differences between the three and also enlighten the architects about how they fit into the larger picture of professionals in the world. For instance, no matter how many healthcare workers you put in the operating room, an operation cannot take place if one of them is not a doctor. A person does not go to a lawyer based merely on the fee or their status or visibility. They go to them for their expertise on the genre of law they practice. Even in law, it is not unethical to quote competitive prices, especially in corporate law. The AIA code of conduct also specifies that submitting, at any time, competitive bids or price quotations, including in circumstances where the price is the sole or principal consideration in the selection of an architect; providing discounts; or providing free services are not, in themselves, unethical, unprofessional or contrary to any policy of the AIA. whereas, the COA’s professional code says that an architect shall not prepare designs in competition with other Architects for a Client without payment or for a reduced fee. Now wouldn’t it have been easier to let the architect decide on a case-to-case basis?
Coming to the individual capacity of the architect, the architect must understand that every time he works in the capacity of an architect; he represents not just himself or his firm, but also the entire community of architects. This is a tremendous responsibility that lies on an individual architect. The way an architect conducts business is the way the public sees, not just that individual, but also the profession. In this background, it is not the organizations that build an architect’s status, but it is the other way around.
“It is not through thoughts that you attain knowing but through thinking. Not by collecting thoughts, but by giving birth to thinking,” – Osho
In conclusion, the professional code of conduct is a guide to how an architect must behave in a professional setting and what his obligations are towards the public, the client, and the environment. Ethics, on the other hand, are a matter of individual understanding, and every individual is responsible for the collective image of architects. Spreading awareness and promoting architecture is a by-product of the way one architect responds to society and fulfills his obligations. An argument can be made for the standing and status of the architect in society and how awareness of ethics in architecture must be spread among the people and most importantly, how the architect must realize that the onus of the entire community does not lie with a regulatory body, or an organization, but with the individual and the way he conducts himself and the way he conducts business; ethically and responsibly.