An Architect's Oath

An Architect’s Oath: Why a Pledge May Restore the Public’s Trust in the Profession

Architecture is suffering one of its periodic identity crises. The last one was circa 2012. Then, the feeling was that architects were misunderstood. Research commissioned by the American Institute of Architects showed “tremendous respect for the profession of architecture, but the public isn’t always aware of what architects do or how their work affects society.” Because most people rarely interact directly with an architect, the AIA initiated a campaign to increase general awareness of the profession.

Blueprint for Better, as the effort is called today, is a work in progress, but the positioning project may already be in need of revision. Mindshare could be skewed by a public that now understands architects all too well. The past few years have seen numerous media reports of ethical misconduct and moral failing in the profession: charges of sexual harassment and abuse, gender and race discrimination, unequal pay for equal work, refusing to provide intern architects living wages, accepting commissions from dictators and tyrants, and designing buildings that support human suffering. Also surfacing are historical accounts of famous architects backing megalomaniacs and mass murderers, abandoning families, and abusing children. The perception of architects as virtuous professionals worthy of trust seems tenuous. Public respect for architects is at risk.

How to act while navigating life’s twists and turns is a question religious authorities and moral philosophers have debated since humankind learned to speak. Behavioral rules have existed for millennia. Historians date the Ten Commandments as being given to Moses as early as the 16th century BCE. Disagreements over the tablets began immediately and have continued ever since. Discussions of societal rights and wrongs occurred through the ages of Buddha (600 BCE), Confucius (550 BCE), Socrates (470 BCE), Mohammad (571 CE), Kant (1724 CE), and Nietzsche (1844 CE), and they are ongoing today.

Part of the conversation is how to separate moral issues from ethical dilemmas. The concepts are closely aligned, but sometimes clash. Military ethics may require a soldier to kill an enemy, for example, but a person’s moral code may prohibit it. In architecture, the puzzle includes a tendency to assign ethical values to a designer’s aesthetic choices rather than the designer’s behavior, an esoteric construct that elevates product over process, stylistic integrity over character.

Most professions have written rules that govern how practitioners should conduct themselves. Violations can lead to expulsion from professional societies and loss of one’s commercial license to practice. Ethical commitments may also take verbal form, i.e., an oath recited upon graduation or licensure. Medicine has its Hippocratic Oath and nursing the Nightingale Pledge. Attorneys swear their support of the Constitution of the United States and laws of the jurisdiction in which they practice. Engineers vow to adhere to solemn duties described in The Obligation of the Engineer. Politicians take oaths, as do new citizens, accountants, magicians, and so on.

Unlike law, medicine, engineering, and other fields that profess particular expertise (the genesis of the word “professional”), architects do not take an oath upon graduation or licensure. It is worth pondering, therefore, how and where architects get their moral bearings and what directions are inscribed on their life compass. In other words: How do graduates know what will be morally expected of them after graduation? What values and traits should drive the commitments society expects practicing architects to make?

Thomas Cole, Ph.D., is director of the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics in Houston. He defines an oath as a framework for obligating oneself to actions grounded in competence and skill. It’s “a formal promise, made in a setting of your peers, to abide by the moral values and behaviors of your discipline … a pledge made by an individual, who is then guided by his or her conscience in carrying it out.”

In healthcare, Cole says three virtues underpin the Hippocratic Oath: compassion, integrity, and respect.

Compassion is an emotional and spiritual capacity, a practice of “feeling with” another person. It involves empathy (viewing the world from another person’s perspective) and sympathy (feeling pity or concern) for another’s suffering or pain.

Integrity is also a quality of character, a consistency of action with beliefs, values, and principles. A person with integrity lives in a manner consistent with what she professes and reveals an inner sense of wholeness.

Respect is a virtue involving regard for the unconditional value of others. In bioethics, respect is built into the duty to acknowledge and defer to the autonomous decisions of patients. Respect also applies to professors, fellow students, and administrators in all professional disciplines.

These virtues are on display in modern-day versions of the Hippocratic Oath:

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know.

What virtues should an architect possess? Certainly, medicine’s compassion, integrity, and respect should be on the list as human analogs to the traits Vitruvius asserted buildings should exhibit: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. Add to those accountability for the formidable responsibility of creating the built environment. An architect’s inventory of moral values might begin with altruism (unselfish concern for others) and end in zeal (enthusiasm for a noble cause). Between A and Z would be benevolence, the inclination to do good, and a related concept, also borrowed from medicine, the Latin phrase Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). Leaving well enough alone is a virtuous act when an architect puts society before money. It takes bravery to tell a client to put away the checkbook and not build that community-busting big-box retail center, or not tear down that Midcentury Modern masterpiece and replace it with a McMansion.

Caring is a virtue easy to apply to architecture, but considering clients, users, neighborhood, and nature as equal stakeholders will take caution in planning, commitment to lofty principles, and cooperation with all affected parties. Charity plays a role in architects’ pro bono work when performed in the public interest; it’s a form of social activism.

Diligence is related to concern, and conscientiousness to caring. Confronting pushback for doing the right thing, an architect will need determination and devotion—and, occasionally, defiance.

I’ve argued before on Common Edge that architects are visual artists often lacking rhetorical skills. Great architecture unconvincingly presented is a missed opportunity to do good. Eloquence in language is a skill, but it becomes a noble asset in the cause of advocating for positive design. Empathy has always been a component of architecture. Sketches and renderings from an eye-level perspective, models you can stick your head inside, and computer walk-throughs are attempts to identify with and understand pedestrians and building users’ points of view. Many architects stop there, though, at a superficial level, walking around in their constituents’ shoes instead of their mindsets, mistaking a designer’s world for others’ worldview.

Faith and faithfulness are obvious candidates for inclusion in an architect’s professional identity formation, as they assume a core set of beliefs through which decisions are made. Friendliness, too, is a virtuous commodity, an antidote to the common perception that architects are temperamental narcissists living in ivory towers.

Heroic should be on the list because the term incorporates so many of the qualities we should associate with great architects: valor, courage, daring, nobleness. But honor and honesty are more necessary components, for without truthfulness and sincerity come deceit and fraud. Hope seems crucial to practicing in the Anthropocene age, given the increasing prospect of an uninhabitable Earth. Humbleness should also make the cut, a sense of modesty in the presence of nature’s overwhelming power to shape (and reshape) buildings.

More destinations could be added to an architect’s moral roadmap, such as generosity, gratitude, humility, idealism, impartiality, knowledge, mindfulness, openness, perseverance, respect and reverence, reliability, selflessness, strength, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom. Ultimately, though, the question remains: How to breathe morality into the life of an architect? The status quo assumes architecture students arrive as freshmen of sound moral character. In school, they are briefly exposed to the profession’s two primary codes, the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and the NCARB Model Rules of Conduct. Perhaps students also learn of past moral failures, such as Albert Speer’s contributions to Adolph Hitler’s atrocities. After graduation, an architect’s ethics knowledge is perfunctorily tested during a state licensing exam.

And that’s it; short, sweet, and pretty much black-and-white. Unaddressed is how to handle the mostly gray areas of ethical dilemmas architects confront in practice. Also ignored is the fact that ethics codes are not carved in stone tablets, they evolve. The AIA only recently banned sexual harassment, for example. It banned advertising in its first Principles of Practice in 1909 and also prohibited firms from competing based on fees. Prompted by the U.S. Government, the AIA relaxed the prohibition on competitive bidding in 1972 and abandoned it in 1990. In 1978, again under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, the AIA changed its ethics code to allow “dignified advertisements and listings only in newspapers, periodicals, directories or other publications indicating firm name, address, telephone number, staff descriptions of field of practice in which qualified.” All restrictions against non-false advertising were lifted in a later version of the Code of Ethics. “Supplanting or replacing another architect on a project” was once prohibited, but no longer.

Ethics come, ethics go. What’s an architect to do is what we should know. My suggestion is, starting in freshman year of school and continuing each year until graduation, demonstrate to students the core values that will not and must not change over time, implicit among them: empathy, integrity, and respect. Offer courses with moral underpinnings, not simply bullet-point lectures about ethics rules and regulations. Then continue ethics training by requiring yearly, one-hour continuing ethics education throughout practice life.

Some philosophers believe virtue cannot be taught, only understood, making the issue of ethics education even more complicated. I only half agree. Didactic instruction alone may not change personal beliefs, but behavioral interventions can, and there’s broad scientific literature to support the claim. Methodologies vary, but many rely on role-modeling and role-playing to persuade changed or new behaviors.

At the end of 2018, Gallup updated a multiyear national survey of the 20 most and least trusted professions in America. Using a scale of honesty and ethical standards, nurses ranked first, followed by physicians, pharmacists, high school teachers, and police officers. Engineers were not listed in the 2018 survey but were in 2016. Had engineers been included in Gallup’s latest poll, they would have taken the fourth-most-trusted position. At the bottom rungs were telemarketers (18), members of Congress (19), and car salespeople (20). Building contractors placed in the middle of the pack at 10. Lawyers were in the lower third (14). Although the survey began in 1976, architects have never been on the list, which may say something about how far Blueprint for Better has to go.

It is interesting to note that four out of five of Gallup’s most respected professionals were those pledging themselves to high ethical standards. Conversely, the least-trusted fields have no oath—or, if they do, frequently seem to violate their promises of honesty and fairness.

Could architecture’s latest identity crisis be relieved by enacting a professional oath? Perhaps, but a promise isn’t a guarantee of moral integrity. An oath alone won’t turn a bad person into a good person. A binding oath is, however, a yardstick with which one can measure an individual’s actions and a profession’s worth. Metrics matter. A public gauge can encourage public trust.

How would an Architect’s Oath come about? It would begin with intense discussion and negotiation at a national level, promising to be a rancorous affair. Many would question the need, or worry about further red tape tying architects’ hands, or fear of giving lawyers new ways to prosecute architects. Some would see references to climate change as taking a political stand and advise denuding all contentious provisions. By the time an Architect’s Oath reached state and local levels for debate, it might resemble little more than a watered-down, feel-good statement.

That would be a shame, but at least there would be a healthy debate on professional virtues and vices. To get that conversation going, I am proposing an Architect’s Oath for consideration, to be recited upon first licensure and reaffirmed at yearly renewals.

I am an Architect, an honor that carries solemn duties. I pledge myself to the service of humanity and nature. Through my words and deeds, I promise:

  • To treat everyone with honesty, fairness, and respect—for I am sincere in heart and in admiration of others;
  • To raise humanity’s standard of living environments—for that is the vital role of my profession and the reason for my existence;
  • To put the welfare of my clients and the public above monetary interests—for the needs of others exceed my own desires;
  • To refuse any work that violates human rights, or is intended to cause suffering, or promotes tyrants—for I will not support misery or despots;
  • To protect and restore nature from humanity’s damage—for a healthy Earth is the heart of all well-being.

Featured image: “Tennis Court Oath” by Jacques-Louis David, via Wikipedia Commons.


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