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?