social contract


Is there social contract in architecture? Most of you know I am an architect, and I was thinking about reports made in the recent issue of Architect Magazine where the editor (Ned Cramer) describes an architecture firm (MASS Design Group) that has developed a thoughtful statement (manifesto) stating their vision of architecture. The term “social architecture” is used, but my mind went to the term social contract as the same editor used the term in an earlier editorial referring to the work of PAU who has bravely gone to note on their website the types of work their office will not do. The editor states “the social contract invests architects with responsibility for civilization itself.” Well, my brain cannot let those go without comment.

Now a (very) brief search into the history of this term (in politics) yielded mixed, but unpleasant origins, so as a political term my ruling is it is specious and not what I had in mind today. I’m thinking of it in a selfless relationship within people of a culture, in my beliefs the origin follows the prophet Micah who penned in his prophetic book, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

How do architects reconcile a duty, given us by our respective licensure boards, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the occupants and an implied or potential additional duty of a social contract with the public? Are we inventing something that doesn’t exist?  Does our jurisdiction tacitly expect this type of added responsibility beyond the expectations already in place? Can we keep architecture from being a weapon (political or literal)? Can we keep architecture from being political?

Am I, are we inventing this concept as a reaction to the current events of country? Why didn’t it exist or manifest itself in the early days of the architect being an autonomous profession? Did it? Are we trying to fit square peg in a round hole or is there a duty beyond the demands of our clients? Protecting the public’s health and safety seems obvious, but not necessarily that difficult for a competent architect. Therefore, does this fall under a broader definition of one’s welfare? I’m just designing someone’s house – why bother me about this?

Soapbox warning. Political partisan views can’t avoid this conversation and those are ones that have turned my stomach in recent months. I eschew most labels and I don’t like any type of name (positive or pejorative) that ends with “ist” – or other derivatives. I find them limiting at best, and divisive at worst. There is too much name calling, hypocrisy, instead of action, patience, real tolerance and compassion. When was the last time you really listened to someone with a different opinion or set of values than yours? When have you been willing to share yours without trying to proselytize or demean the person listening? It’s sickening.

Although I’ve always kept my blog about all things architecture, my personal values and beliefs will eventually leak into it. I am a creationist so I’ll accept that “ist” label that many mock and my bio lists me as a follower of Christ. It won’t take long to find my flaws, but that’s the beauty what that really means. Someone else has paid my debt when I was hopelessly incapable. I’ll accept that my Biblical beliefs will clash with many moral issues of today; call me unpopular. Yet, if I think about it, the teaching to love my neighbor and to steward the Earth coupled with treat others the way I’d have them treat me, begins to formulate a question of how to draw lines as architect and I don’t mean the ones on paper.

If I look back on my 26 years of practice, there haven’t been many moral dilemmas or projects to turn down because I determined them at opposition to my personal beliefs. I do recall a time, early in my practice, that I turned down the renovation and addition to a strip club. Still, I don’t recall struggling to decide whether a project really fit into the idea of a “social architecture” that extended beyond the limits of the site.

I have partially marketed my firm to focus on adaptive reuse projects, as I strongly feel that we have plenty of buildings that need attention and need repair or renovation prior to building new. That seems far less harmful to the planet, at least at face value. Many buildings already exist, why build new? I’ve avoided marketing to suburban development and greenfield development but I haven’t been given many choices to say no to them yet.  I’m involved with pro-bono work and have built dignified low-income and permanent support housing. When the time arrives, will I investigate the genuine issues; will I make the right choice?

Not judging others was never a declaration of the Christian Bible – it warns one is not to judge with a standard that isn’t held up by the one judging, but extended equally to all. There is an equity and equality built into the teachings of Jesus that are often missed, but remain the source of my motivation. Therefore, the standard that we follow is not a standard for me and not for you but the standard for all of us. I need to consider where that is, what that is, and how I respond.

Have you thought about it?

social contract

14 thoughts on “social contract

  1. Love the reference to Micah and the tatoo! I think it is also important to remember that Jesus was an entrepreneur. He was a carpenter. While not much is known about his career, I bet he had the normal ups and downs and frustrations that entrepreneurs experience. Hence he had to get on his knees everyday and depend on God to provide for him. I think he saw his calling as a carpenter as a way to serve others – and be fairly compensated for that service. I would like to think that “Christian Practice” is more about SERVICE than self expression.

    1. Thanks for the gracious comments Edward. I too love to speculate about what is not recorded in the Scriptures – with respect and with reasons to back it. I’d like to think everything Jesus made – from a plow to building a wall, was beautiful if we could have seen it. Reconciling self-expression outside of your response is something I attempted to address in my last post of “How the Artist Emerges.” For me the self-expression is an attempt to “serve” through my expression rather than stifle it for whatever reason. I’d like to say I’ve never been selfish, but I cannot. The goal is to use the gift for reasons far more important than pointing to me.

  2. Sean Tobin says:

    Lee, a great post, as usual. I really like the context you have laid out here – for yourself, the readers (the public), and other architects. Its a great challenge to step back and examine ourselves, and to question whether we are truly listening, and if we pass judgement, how are we arriving at that? Like Edward, I too love the reference to Micah. This is probably my favorite part: “the teaching to love my neighbor and to steward the Earth coupled with treat others the way I’d have them treat me” – where I find my failures it is often in the latter part of that.
    Thanks for a though inspiring post this morning, and for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

    1. Sean, I’m humbled at your comments to this conversation – what a nice summary. I had this on my mind for months, but I realized the best way to communicate was to be vulnerable but honest.

  3. Robert E. Moore says:

    Important to remember the context and the point to which Micah was prophesying. Not only did he predict the destruction of Jerusalem but he also rebuked Israel because of their dishonesty in business, corruption in government, and the way they treated the poor. All three sound familiar to us today. Those aspiring to do good would do well to take his advise.

  4. Great article Lee. Thank you most of all for demonstrating how someone conveys Christian concepts in a forthright way without excuse, arrogance or fear of transparency. Sam Mockbee wrote in “The Rural Studio:”

    “For me, these small projects have in them the architectural essence to enchant us, to inspire us, and ultimately, to elevate our profession. But more importantly, they remind us of what it means to have an American architecture without pretense. They remind us that we can be as awed by the simple as by the complex and that if we pay attention, this will offer us a glimpse into what is essential to the future of American architecture: its honesty. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is the most important thing because nothing else matters. In doing so, an architect will act on a foundation of decency which can be built upon. Go above and beyond the call of a ‘smoothly functioning conscience’; help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so even if nobody is watching.”

    You ask the question, “Have you thought about it?” Amazingly, I just finished writing about “it” myself last night! I would like to humbly share a segment of my thoughts on this. Please forgive me for my enthusiasm. I do not mean to consume or dominate your blog, only as a contribution to your conversation. Your friend, Larry

    “Being many things, architecture is most beneficial when a personal investment extends beyond classic and theoretical architectural topologies into the topography of human betterment. Architecture is a bridge between the deeply personal to the profoundly meaningful. When the community of people served professionally is made better personally, architects discover unsurpassed rewards. As an example, Lawrence Halprin spent his professional life changing places. He changed a place, not just for the sake of making something new or different; he did it so the place became a better environment improve the lives of others. Architects need to elevate humanity first before indulging their own professional interests. Society and culture become elevated when architecture intimately and actively overcomes the downtrodden and the less-served, not by remotely-inspired opinion. In architecture, the difference between professional interests and community relationships should not make any difference at all in what we do or how we practice. Relationships matter most; all the rest follows.

    The idea of humanity first before the pursuit of personal architectural interests should not come to mind as an “either/or” proposition; they should be seen and thought mutually compatible. Human betterment is not a “political” statement made in favor of style manifestoes or awards recognition. The honors and quality of architecture exemplified by MASS Design Group and firms like NLÉ Architects and Kéré Architecture all testify to the premise human betterment and outstanding architecture are not mutually exclusive—quite the contrary, they thrive together.

    The strategy to focus media attention on headline projects common to more iconic endeavors is not the reason for the success of more humanitarian and sensitive firms, or has it propelled the success of earlier ventures like Architecture for Humanity and Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio in Alabama, and therefore the importance of recent humanitarian design efforts as a whole. But one does not need to follow the pathway of architects engaged in non-profit work to participate in socially conscious design. Nor does anyone have to abandon the primary principles and theories of the design domain to create deeply meaningful places and buildings. Like sustainable design practices, socially conscious design needs to become an integral part of the entire architectural process and practice. It should not become “specialized.” Being a special type or more altruistic architect is not at all necessary to integrate social design and human betterment into the work. Rather, socially conscious design involves the creation of innovative places and buildings, newly constructed or adaptively reused, which positively impact individual and community relationships in measurable ways.

    Architecture is more than the need for shelter or for housing functional activities. In many ways, architecture is that which exceeds basic necessity, and it is the discovery and exploration of the opportunities of that added potential that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavor. Architecture is a technical response to questions which are not technical at all, but rather is historical and social. Architecture is a complex, negotiated cultural practice which involves in a single moment all of the aesthetic, environmental, technological, economic, and political issues of social production itself. The practice of architecture combines human thought and human history by the architect’s imagination. Imagination is how we think about architecture and it is the mode of thought for relating humanity to the world—physically, intellectually and spiritually. The opportunities for socially conscious design are often found right on your doorstep, waiting for discovery.

    1. Larry, thanks for sharing – send me the link. I’d sum it up by saying, in my belief there is just the architect – no adjectives needed. Everything you said, all my expectations of the profession fall under the simple 9-letter title.

  5. Because buildings and the resources assigned to them are finite, every design decision is an economic decision and, therefore a value decision. Values (priorities) necessarily spring from a particular moral framework, no matter how uncomfortable some may be with admitting as much. It’s critical that we articulate our beliefs in advance, as you’ve done so well here, so that we can act with integrity when called upon to do so. To use another old-fashioned term: thanks for your witness.

    1. Ron, thanks for adding to the conversation. You’ve summed it up well and it is clear from observation where values lie. At the risk of being vulnerable, I’ve shared mine and will continue to ponder this question.

  6. Lee: I’m awed by not only the thoughtfulness and honest insight expressed in your post but also the responses by your readers. Thank you for sharing and stirring a serious conversation, and on my part reflection, about the concept and obligation of all architects to a “social contract” and the standards it might imply, that extends well beyond our duties as merely mandated by state licensure.

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