We seem poised to enter a new era of the control and regulation of private life by the public institutions of government. The reason, it is becoming clearer every day, is that too many individuals in key positions of authority and responsibility  have abused their privilege of freely choosing their courses of action, by serving their own interests at the expense of the interests of the wider public. This is equally true in politics (where ideological fantasies trumped reality), finance (where greed for short-term profits did the same), industry (felled by sloth and stupidity), and commerce (debt-financed consumerism and damn the consequences—won’t the party go on forever?). So, new leaders are being brought in and must use their authority to try to repair the damage done and set the society on a new and healthier course. It is an extraordinarily difficult task that will require—given the complex interconnectedness of everything today—unprecedented degrees of centralized control. Regardless of anyone’s political philosophy, there is no other choice. The SOS has been sent. What we’re talking about now is not the best of all possible worlds, but survival.

Architects, particularly many of the more recognized and celebrated ones today, share part of the blame for this unhappy state of affairs, along with leaders in other fields entrusted with the public’s interests. For too long they’ve set the model for professional behavior by serving the narrow interests of clients who are primarily commercial developers, and who are famously interested in making quick returns on their money. Spectacular new building wrappers for tried-and-true (presumably unrisky) types of buildings have produced some amazing new shapes and surfaces, but little else. Developers will not risk their money on really new building types. Meanwhile, questions of new types of affordable living space in cities and of public spaces in an age of exploding population and diminishing direct contact go begging for some imaginative invention. And now, against all previously safe assumptions, we can begin to ask, who is going to buy all those luxury condos and lease all that corporate office space? We should care less if developers get burned in the current catastrophe, but we should care that some of the best and brightest of an innovative generation are going to suffer in the crises presently underway, and deepening.

On the other hand, it is difficult to feel badly about all the projects for skyscrapers, condos, resorts, luxury hotels and shopping malls that are currently going on ‘hold,’ and will certainly die altogether. But is not hard to feel sorry that so many gifted architects have devoted so much of their talents and energies to them. The ancient Greek conception of tragedy looms here, as even the greatest heroes are undone by fate. At the same time, Existentialist voices keep whispering in our ears that we each choose our own fate.

For too long, architects have justified their servile attitudes (often accompanied by ostentatious displays of pride and independence, cleverly indulged by clients) with their belief that clients have more social agency than they do. In other words, by having lots of money or access to it, and therefore the capability to commission large and expensive buildings, which use massive amounts of human and natural resources, developers prove that they speak for the public—the ultimate source of all wealth—and are acting in its best interests. As recent events show, this is far from true. Then again, no one expects developers to be moral or social philosophers, while we do hope that architects—the stewards of constructed human space—exhibit a wider perspective of and concern for the human condition. When they do not, especially at the top of the profession, it sets a bad example for the whole field.

Each of us, regardless of our social or professional status, has not only agency within our own lives, empowering us to achieve our personal goals, but social agency, in that what we do affects others. Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” states that to be both rational and moral, each person must “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Jean-Paul Sartre brought this idea into modern life by stating that each of us “is responsible for all mankind.” Our actions become the model for the actions of others. So, for example, if we decide to throw our used chewing gum wrapper on the street, we should not imagine that we are the exception, but the rule: if everyone threw their trash on the street, we would not be able to wade through it. Sartre went further with his idea of “bad faith.” We act in bad faith when we base our decisions on a socially assigned role, rather than our own inner sense of right and wrong. He had in mind the Nazi extermination camp commanders who defended themselves by saying that they were only following the orders of a legally constituted Nazi government, even though they did not personally believe in the murder of innocent people. A less dramatic example would be the judge who orders the execution of a prisoner “because it is the law,” even though he or she does not personally believe in capital punishment. A much more common example is the architect who accepts the commission for a project that he or she feels may be superfluous from a social standpoint, or perhaps redundant or even damaging, because “architecture is a service profession,” displacing—in bad faith—the responsibility to the client. By way of contrast, the great architect Cedric Price always asked potential clients, “Do we really need this building?” He inevitably tried to talk them out of building, saying “ the problem is not that we don’t have enough buildings—rather, we have too many of them. The problem is, we don’t know how to use the ones we have.” He devoted his practice to addressing, in the most ingeniously innovative and inventive ways, how to use, and re-use, what we have.

We should lament that Price’s sense of his social agency was not widely influential. Of course, he had few clients and commissions. Hardly a model for today’s globe-trotting, international superstars, or those who dream of following their examples. Still, we might imagine that the current economic downturn and financial shakeout will give all of us in the field of architecture pause, and some time to reflect on what we are—and should be—about.


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