The Eye of the Fish

May 10, 2010

Is the Profession of Architecture Corrupt? Well, is it?

This title caught my eye, as well it might yours. It is the subject of a posting on the Design Intelligence website, and well worth a read in total on the original site. While written by “Victoria Beach, an independent architect and former lecturer in architecture at the Harvard School of Design”, what is interesting as well is the (in most cases) well reasoned arguments from the commenters to the blog. It is, presumably, equally applicable to the NZIA and its followers as it is to the AIA that Beach is talking about – or is it?

“Is the profession of architecture corrupt? According to the definition of “institutional corruption” currently in use at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University, yes.

The Center’s new director, renowned attorney Lawrence Lessig, has defined as “corrupt” organizations that have tragic structural flaws that undermine their own purposes for being. He has recently re-focused the Center’s resources on studying these ineffectual institutions and their corrosive effects.

Now, apply this descriptive framework to the architectural profession. Its purpose for being is to create architecture — that is, to make art out of the science of building. The purpose of this art, if there is one, is often debated but most agree it should engage, if not uplift, the individual mind and body as well as human culture as a whole. What kinds of structural features might be holding back the profession from consistently achieving these results?”

Beach then goes on to list those structural features – go on, read them on the original site, see if you agree. Some fairly provocative statements. But what intrigued me was the replies. For instance, Alan G. Burcope, AIA, MBA, LEED-AP replies:

“Aesthetics have become esoteric. The general public, whom the profession is sanctioned to serve, has been deemed incapable of making reliable judgments regarding such high brow issues as aesthetics. Only the highly educated and trained eye of the architect should be entrusted with such decisions. And, once established as the highest court, even the client and those paying for the building must acquiesce to the architect’s opinions, despite any cost implications, or national bankruptcy. The system has been cleverly designed to assure this.”

There’s quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with Alan Burcope, and others, eventually finishing with Jordan Peters comment:

“The AIA is corrupt in the sense that it tries to do too much. It is actually very good at some stuff, but it is very poor at presenting architects as having a coherent body of expertise, the result of a lack of disagreement over the body of expertise that architects should have. The AIA represents a body that has many voices, and the AIA has decided to echo those many voices with the result that its message is often diluted. I suspect that Ms. Beach would not agree that the strongest service that the AIA provides is the development and maintenance of documents such as AIA A 201 (something you really don’t want to look at when you are on your last charrette in school). It is this effort, however, that affects most widely the practice of architecture and the construction industry. It seems to me that a key question in all of this is “Do architects want to be primarily responsible for public health and safety?” This is what architects have been saying to the public for more than 100 years to justify licensing/registration laws. If architects say that they are a type of visual designer specializing in the aesthetics of building design, does the responsibility for health and safety devolve to engineers and contractors?”

Provocative, and yet, on the whole, reasonable as well. How much of it applies to architects in NZ, and in particular, how does it apply to the NZIA as well? No doubt some would say that the NZIA is as pure as the driven snow. Others may well say otherwise. The upcoming vote at the upcoming AGM will be interesting…