Architecture: Art or Ethics


Does environment affect people? There are sure to be weighty scientific treatises on this sort of question. There also are sure to be dissenting views: every scientific treatise has them. I use a much simpler means of assessment – horribly unscientific, but much more reliable: does it affect me? Do I feel more relaxed in a Basement canteen or beach-side café? Is it only me who feels different in such different environments, or do you too?

Does environment affect social relationships? Are people more friendly and forgiving in hot, stuffy, noisy, hectically cross-flowing crowds? Or in calm, gentle, quiet, refreshing surroundings?

These, of course, are the sort of simplistic choices that make early environmental psychology not worth bothering to read. Typical experiments were to find out if people felt better locked in a cramped broom-cupboard or reclining on sofas in a luxurious lounge. Nonetheless, if there is difference at the extreme ends, there must be difference in more subtle situations too. (Once environmental psychology became more sophisticated – such as Ulrich’s findings that every leaf visible by hospital patients is ‘worth its weight in gold’ by speeding recovery (huge savings for the hospital) – it was removed from architecture departments. It ‘threatens’ signature ‘art’!)

Is ‘art’ just about fashion?

Nowadays, sustainability is in fashion. Even designers of glass towers claim they’re sustainable. (The more famous, the greater the claim.) True: they use less air-conditioning than some of their rivals. But sustainable air-conditioning? Air-conditioning is a major energy-user, a significant contributor to climate-change – and expensive as well. (There are other issues too, like embodied energy in high construction, running energy for lifts – which increase energy use by 5-15% - and water-pumping, longevity of glazing seals, adaptability of redundant buildings when use patterns change, not to mention local micro-climatic effects like wind, shade, glare, reflected and emitted heat. Moreover, cost-wise, prices shoot up for high buildings: over 6 storeys, construction is 64-100% more expensive per square metre than for 2 storey buildings.[i] And they have long evacuation times in case of fire.) From the evidence of these designers, we’re entitled to ask whether sustainability issues really matter. Are buildings really significant contributors to environmental damage?

Scientists say so. They say New York City uses as much electricity as the whole of Africa. (Even though density and public-transport usage makes New York City the lowest energy-use per person US city.) They allege that around half of all pollution, half of all climate-damaging CO2 emissions, half of all energy is due to buildings.

They’re probably wrong.

How can they be precise about a largely unmeasured issue? But are they 1% wrong? 10%? 25%? 50% wrong? If they are 50% too pessimistic, buildings only account for 25% of environmental damage.


This is the difference between life, ecology and society as we know it and catastrophic run-away climate change. It’s hard to believe that climate change will bring an end to human life. But unless arrested soon, it’s impossible that life will continue as we know it. Current wars over (or exacerbated by) water, grazing and energy (Golan Heights, Darfur, Iraq) are only a foretaste. As an ‘aircraft-carrier’ and accessible entry-point to Europe, Malta will inevitably be affected by other people’s climates.

If it’s true that built environment affects people, society, and planet, do we have any right to design buildings to express ourselves?

Where does this place architecture as an art-form?

There’s widespread agreement that architecture is environmentally expensive. As anyone who’s ever built or paid for a building knows, it’s also monetarily expensive. But is it an art-form? How can it make such a claim?

Conventionally (within the architecture profession), a public toilet is a ‘building’; a major public building (or one so big it’s in the public eye – like a phallic office spire) is ‘architecture’. (Houses are too bourgeois-nostalgic to be considered). But, in fact, every building makes, shapes or affects space between it and nearby things. It creates boundaries to, and qualitative relationships that permeate, space. It creates, enhances or compromises places.

Every place affects how we feel. Every place: within, between, near, influenced by a view of, buildings. Buildings can destroy the mood of places, depress, stress us and make us physically, psycho-somatically or psychologically ill. But they can also revive, re-vitalise, sooth, calm and heal us – both short- and long-term. This gives all places, all buildings, an important role as soul-nourishers.

Of course, life is not mono-mood. Sometimes we need excitement, sometimes calm; sometimes security, or the intrigue of the unknown; sometimes graceful order, sometimes chaotic vitality. Every task we undertake needs a different mood. Eating a convivial meal puts us in a different mood to concentration-demanding work or listening to music. Different tasks require different inner-moods for us to be in harmony. They therefore require different environmental-moods. When we move from one task, room and state to another, we have to make an inner-mood transition. There is a long tradition of using architectural elements – like gateways, bridges, stairs, doorways, floor-texture, acoustic, light and thermal variation to support these mood-transitions. With mood states and transitions, not to mention visual and bodily-movement tempos and patterns, it’s no wonder architecture is sometimes called ‘frozen music’. No wonder it can claim to be an art. Environmental gestures – like calm horizontals, awakening verticals, dynmic diagonals, cramping or expansive space, oppressive lowness or awe-inspiring space-height resonate within us.  Compelling axies, inviting routes, confronting planes, aggressively intruding points or gentle easing around corners, and cramping or embracing angles likewise affect us. Add such elements and architecture moves beyond symphony to Consciousness Changer. This is powerful stuff. If not ethically controlled, it is the stuff of manipulation. We only need to look at Nazi stadia to remember how powerfully – and immorally - it could work.

Places can raise our spirits. This is partly about the transformative power of beauty. But it’s also the messages they emanate. Whatever values underlie why and how places are commissioned,  planned, formed and used become embedded in them. This is embodied spirit. It’s not normally visible. Indeed, only rarely are we conscious of it, but subliminally everyone ‘reads’ these messages. Being subliminal, they’re not filtered by our thinking, so extremely potent. Like all things, these can be destructive or powerfully healing. We can’t fake values or motives. They may be multi-layer and unclear, but they’re there. Our own values, our ethical stance affects whether or not our architecture acts as a Spirit Elevator.

Every building alters the surface of the earth: its ability to support animal, vegetable and soil-microbial life; its solar absorption and thermal emittance; its immediate (and, with other buildings, larger area) microclimate. Additionally, it diverts rainwater. Most use water and energy, and dispose of wastewater and waste heat. Through most, materials flow: useable products in, waste out. Instead of importing substances (often, like water, ‘stolen’ from where it belongs) building development can create self-contained, localized eco-systems. Living things – from beetles to birds – live and feed on the earth’s many surfaces: soil, vegetation, trees – and (unless these are too smooth to hold onto) buildings. But no living organism lives in isolation: it needs a species-community for reproduction, and an ecological-community to provide food and process wastes. The species-community requires linkages to other areas to maintain a viable gene-pool. And, because seasons and weather bring major environmental changes, the ecological community needs to be complex to give resilience to unpredictable circumstances.  In such ways, building development can act as an eco-harmoniser: modifying microlimate, improving and linking habitats. Is this anything to do with art? Nature isn’t art. But conscious enhancement of nature is. Art is about lifting the spirit. Clean air (vegetation and moving water clean air), clean water, delightful and sense-rich microclimate, birdsong (even cicadas!) lift the spirit.

Unfortunately, many buildings do none of this. They may make dramatic visual statements. They may be so novel that nobody has thought of them before – or wanted to think of this! But they don’t bring harmony to the soul. They don’t raise our spirits, transform our consciousness. They don’t take responsibility for cleaning-up their own mess – and, because their off-site, environmental costs are not locally visible, don’t care about these. They don’t seek to enhance nature, only to exploit it. Should such buildings be called art? Buildings are expensive: can they justify their cost if they don’t at least attempt to fulfil these functions?

This brings up another, very practical, issue. Buildings are very expensive. A house typically costs 3-5 or more years gross income + the cost of land (often more expensive than the house) and connected infrastructure (typically costing one room). To actually buy a house, also involves the cost of money – typically doubling the cost.

Who pays? Not the designer. Designers only shape someone else’s costs.

Do we have any right to design the buildings we want with someone else’s money?

This can bring conflicting responsibilities. Are architects answerable to the therapeutic potential of architecture or to the client’s purse? For a private client, it’s simple. If the building is too expensive, it either won’t get built or won’t get finished.

But what if the client is a business? Is it right to sacrifice art, higher motives, altruistic values for someone else’s profit? But all businesses – even ethical businesses - must make profit or go bankrupt (dragging others down with them).

A more fundamental issue, therefore, is to be clear which is the driving aim: profit or service? Ethical businesses are driven by service, but must be profitable to survive. Amoral businesses are driven by profit; service is only given if profitable to do so. Immoral businesses add dishonesty (usually just within legal limits) to non-service. These tend to make the most money – but have the shortest lives.

What about designing for a developer? To give the best service to the client, we maximise his profit.

Or do we?

There are 3 principle sources of development profit:

  • Making a quick buck – usually by possessing (or corruptly obtaining) knowledge   about potential (or corruptly manipulated) value that others don’t have.
  • Rapid response to short-term market opportunities. (In USA, this means 10-year lifespan buildings on short leases, often abandoned after 5 years). This is a form of realizing potential – but it’s profit-potential from the coincidence of trend (time) and location, not the inherent potential of the place itself.
  • Understanding what a place and its community needs, and unlocking the seeds of this need-fulfilment from the qualities of the place itself.

These 3 strategies span the immoral-amoral-ethical spectrum. The first can make lots of money – but at considerable financial and legal risk. Sooner or later, the law usually catches up with such developers. The second is also highly profitable in the short-term – if things don’t go wrong. But they do! Trends change. Community hostility obstructs programmes, bringing cash-flow crises. Street-crime (which such places typically inadvertently design-in) compromises profitability. In fact, even before the credit-crunch, some 11-22% of American regional malls were unprofitable and failing. There must be many more now.

The third strategy is founded on fulfilling community need. It can’t therefore make a ‘killing’ or the community won’t support it. But because the community supports it, it can’t easily be killed off. Also, because it develops a places’ potential – as distinct from exploiting its location – the character emerging is deep-rooted and resilient to changes in trend.

In short:

  • Unethical development strategies can bring high short-term profits at high risk.
  • Ethical strategies are safer and their route to profit, though modest, is inherently sustainable.

It ought to be obvious that maxi-profit is unsustainable. Were it not, we could expect it to be common. Credit crunch a good demonstration. In fact, banking gives a salutary lesson. Ethical banks – especially those who maximize transparency by linking lenders with borrowers – are doing very nicely. Virtually all other banks, even the largest, are to all extents and purposes, bankrupt. They only are not actually bankrupt because the world depends on them, so can’t let them collapse. (The short word for this is ‘blackmail’.)

Nonetheless, even for ethical businesses, there are hard ethical choices. For example, when a non-toxic paint manufacturer’s business expands, should he keep his loyal, original small suppliers, or buy at bulk rates from other suppliers so the product can be sold more cheaply for wider use? Both options seem right, and both bring ‘wrong’ consequences. But if the primary motivation that guides us is ethics-based, we won’t go far wrong. If it isn’t we easily can.

To return to working with developers: Are we designing for client, or users? For people or place? For profit from or value for, community? But must this be either or? Or can it be and and and? If the development both fulfils community need and enhances, heals, place, improvements are for both people and place, so tend to ensure fair (hence modest), but sustainable, profit.

But how do we know what people and place need? Anyway, doesn’t everyone want something different to everyone else? Even choosing room colours can provoke irreconcilable arguments. This is where the Consensus Design Process comes in. This involves users but does not amalgamate their good ideas, because everybody’s brilliant idea is someone else’s nightmare. It starts, therefore, with something everyone can agree on: the physical characteristics of the place. But places change over time. Studying the place’s history enables us to recognize the time-stream running through it and extrapolate this into the future. We get different impressions of places if we enter and progress through them in different ways. This affects how we feel about them. This is about sequence – something we may wish to modify later on. Next, we make mood-maps of the area: how do we feel in different bits of it? Only at this point are we ready to ask what the place ‘says’ to us, what it is asking for. Design mirrors this process. First: what should the project ‘say’? Then, what moods of place would support this, how can these be built on the place’s existing moods and how will they relate to probable changes around the site-boundary? What sequence of experiences and enclosure gestures would support these moods? And finally, what form, materials and experience would support these? As each decision supports the previous agreement, it’s relatively easy to rise above conflicting personal preferences. This listening process frees us from the blinkers pre-formed ideas always bring. This is design as a condensing process – the absolute opposite of idea-led design.

Is this only for present users? Will it suit future users? Times, tastes, needs and individuals change, but the diversity of the user-group helps to bring a universality to design. It’s always wise, however, to consider how any design can be adapted for another use. If it can’t be easily adapted on paper, it almost certainly can’t be when built.

This approach may upset fashion-led designers and grand-idea signature architects. Is consensus design anti-art? Will it produce bland (or kitsch) compromise? Or does the synthesis of place-needs and users soul-needs produce (or tend towards) soul nourishing, place-healing, therapeutic design? From the experience of over fifty projects, I know it works.

Does this give a new meaning – an ecological meaning – to art? Does this so ground environmental art – of which architecture is one form – in ethics, that the two are inseperable?


[i] Buxton, P. [2001] Getting a closer look, Building Design,  June 22 2001