Identity crisis in architectural design and what is at stake for architects?


When it comes to urban planning, the poor do not belong in cities anymore. Or so it seems. Does the architect have a responsibility to the greater good of communities or just to the client?

The day after the election, the AIA issued a statement of support for President-elect Trump on behalf of its members—but without their approval or notification. Ill-advised action, at best.

Architects from coast to coast responded in universal shock and scorn, fuming that the AIA had overstepped and violated ethical guidelines by issuing a statement of support behind a candidate whose views are perceived, by some, as founded on exclusion and bigotry. The AIA subsequently issued two press releases. But the fallout continues with media relation directors submitting their resignation letters and a continued deployment of apologies.

But in the end, this was proof of the self-interest at the heart of an organization’s leadership. Service-based industries, like architecture and engineering, are struggling to come to grips with their role in the greater power structures of society. Modern architecture has always hung between two poles: on one end providing a service to clients, and on the other putting forward new ideas about the way we live, from housing to urban design to fashion to tech. In the postwar era, architects responded to Europe’s severe housing crisis, from Le Corbusier to Alvar Aalto. But in recent history, the politically charged side of architecture has fallen out of vogue. It was superseded by two forms of architectural design: solutionism technology and sustainability.

The political climate in both the U.S. and the many parts of Europe, particularly the UK after Brexit, is forcing architecture and its professionals to grapple with its ambiguous role in the world. Does the architect have a responsibility to the greater good of communities? Should architects be pushing for social impact reform? Or is allegiance reserved exclusively for clients? Are design professionals merely service providers, or do they have a greater purpose to improve the lives of people through the built environment?

Coincidently, the same process and thought leadership is taking place in the tech industry, with giants like Facebook and Google slowly acknowledging the way their technology shapes and impacts the world. While tech companies are businesses, increasingly there is a demand for some degree of ethical responsibility to the community. It will take years for the debates on ethical design to play out in both industries. Om Malik wrote about the Silicon Valley and stated that there was an empathy vacuum – ethics should be practiced, not merely a buzzword buried in design discourse.


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