Cole Desolation 1

Why the Bible Said, Blessed are the Placemakers

Adorning the walls of the New York Historical Society are five canvases chronicling the rise and fall of humanity. Painted by Thomas Cole in the 19th Century, The Course of Empire is a graphic novel time trip. The last painting (seen above) is called Desolation. There are no people in the scene. The built environment is in ruins. Under a setting sun, nature is reclaiming a once great civilization. Cole produced his post-apocalyptic vision at the end of another era, pre-modern architecture, which is where our narrative begins.


Elon Musk plans a colony on Mars, and he wants to get there in 40 to 100 years. Wish the CEO of SpaceX Godspeed because there is a 20% probability the last generation of Earth humans has already been born. Over the next century, our species faces 4/1 odds of extinction. Given global warming, this may not seem shocking. The surprise is that climate change is a branch, not the root, of the problem. While real and growing, it will likely take greenhouse gasses longer than 100 years to wipe us out. This is due in part to human adaptability, but also because Earth’s new weather patterns will hurt some and help others. Scientists predict agriculture in Northern Hemisphere countries, for example, will expand as food production declines south of the equator. Although millions could die as seas and temperatures rise, if sufficient food is available and other conditions remain relatively stable, segments of civilization will survive well into the future.


The good news is that global warming alone won’t annihilate us. Neither will the world end in fire and brimstone. A 15-kilometer meteor of the kind that ended the dinosaurs 66 million years ago (equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs) has only a one-in-million chance of striking in the next hundred years. The bad news is that smaller yet highly destructive impacts are more frequent and also overdue.


The dire news, however, is that a combination of low probability events compounding over a current lifespan has a reasonable chance of killing us all. Under the right circumstances, even a small war could unleash decades of starvation and pandemics that leave no one unscathed. Those who survive may die in aftermaths of nuclear winters, nano-weaponry gone wild, and bioengineered disease. Or, our die-off may begin with an accidental release of genetically-modified goo into the biome that first decimates plant life and then the rest of the food chain. Other possibilities include computers that outcompete us before we can shut them down and autonomous self-replicating robots that bite the hands that designed them. Stir those possibilities up, mix in festering global warming, add a splash of resource exhaustion, season to taste with a stray asteroid, and we’re cooked.


The imminent risk of Homo sapiens’ 200,000-year reign ending has unaddressed architectural implications. Today, we design for sustainability, i.e., buildings that maintain the natural environment and ecology. It’s an ethical and legal obligation—and potentially tunnel vision. Focusing on net zero and resiliency is treating symptoms instead of disease. Human behavior is the root of our impending doom, not carbon. It would be tragic if we successfully capped the temperature rise at 2℃ by 2070, only for our grandchildren to starve or die from radiation, manufactured pathogens, and out-of-control AI.


“Well,” you might say, shoulders raised and palms up, “architects can only do so much.” Ethically, you would be correct. Canon VI of the 2017 American Institute of Architects Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct requires members “promote sustainable design and development principles.” By definition, sustain equals maintain, not repair, recuperate, remediate, ameliorate, or preempt. Resiliency is bounce back, not roll back. There is nothing in the AIA ethics code about changing human behavior, and that could be fatal.


Thomas Cole, Destruction, 1836


Destruction is the name of Cole’s fourth canvass. The scene is rendered from the same vantage point as Desolation. Armageddon is underway. The end of civilization is at hand.


Few architects are working to prevent Destruction and Desolation, but moral inspiration can be found in a recent manifesto published in Architect magazine. Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, principals of MASS Design Group, propose a “New Empowerment” that compels projects to “speak to greater societal goals outside the building and seek to affect systemic change to society” (emphasis added). The idea conjures buildings that do more than chase fashion, keep the rain out, and lower energy consumption.


Thomas Cole, The Consummation, 1836


Painting number three is called Consummation of the Empire, a state of oblivion representing today’s society. Cole painted humanity at its high point, blissfully unaware of its dark future. Here, life seems good.


At its core, the idea of buildings affecting systemic change implies architects become behavior change agents, which necessitates adding psychologists to design teams. Fossil fuels were prehistorically motivated by survival. Today, it’s greed, the same driver of other intractable human-caused problems, such as global poverty. There would be no poor if the world’s 100 richest people could be persuaded to share 25% of their wealth. Intolerance, persecution, crime, conflict, hunger, and illiteracy also have behavioral solutions.


Those with shrugged shoulders can relax. Change agent is a role architecture has played for millennia. Pre-modern buildings were infused with alchemy that advanced religious, cultural, political, social, even ecological agendas. In the 1960s and ’70s, the profession flirted with environmental determinism to shape what people thought and did. Pruitt-Igoe and other social housing projects failed, but architects gave up on psychosocial design too soon. Had the profession persevered, investigated what went wrong, come up with new hypotheses, tested other assumptions, experimented, analyzed results, refined its approach, rinsed, lathered and repeated, global warming might be less of an issue today, and apocalypse odds less favorable.


A recognized model of behavior is Social Cognitive Theory (SCT), which offers pathways architects can use to positively alter what people think and do. SCT considers human actions a product of two factors: environmental and personal (Figure 1). In simple terms, a person’s behavior is influenced by other people and by the environment in which the behavior occurs. Albert Bandura, one of SCT’s leading proponents, has written: “Seen from the sociocognitive perspective, human nature is a vast potentiality that can be fashioned by direct and observational experience into a variety of forms within biological limits.”


Figure 1. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (inside the box) applied to building-based behavior change.


SCT’s biological factors are architecturally out of reach: sex, ethnicity, temperament, and genetic predisposition. But other personal influences, in particular, the acquisition of knowledge and experience, have architectural dimensions. History suggests meaningfulness can be instilled by design. Pre-modern buildings created affective learning events through another psychological theory, Narrative Transportation, by embedding story references that reinforced desired behaviors.


Today, cognitive neuroscience is studying SCT’s environmental determinants to see if and how architecture can trigger sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, temperature, motion, pleasure, and balance sensations by manipulating views, form, color, light, acoustics, materials, and mechanical systems. The goal of neuroarchitectural design are buildings better tailored to human activity and living, but sensory confirmation could also promote positive behaviors.


From a moral perspective, though, built environments as behavior change instruments raise issues. For one, even in the face of Armageddon, should architects redeploy narrative transportation and develop neuro-persuasive technologies? From physical barriers to stained glass Bible scenes to circadian lighting, the distinction between authoritarian control, behavior modification, and independent choice can be fuzzy, especially in the name of the common good.


Are walls to keep out “bad hombres” a good or bad thing? Are occupancy sensors an attack on free will and privacy? Should school and civic architecture embody Founding Fathers who owned slaves or Confederate generals who fought to preserve the right to buy and sell them? Who decides which behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged through architecture, and who selects narrative architectural stories: designers, scientists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, politicians, local communities or society at large?


Architectural morality is a contentious issue. Painful debates have raged over social altruism and political correctness, dividing practitioners into idealists, realists, and fatalists. Richard Rogers recalls his early days as a British architect: “In my generation, the idea was you’d build for the future…that we have a responsibility to society. That gives us a role as architects not just to the client but also to the passer-by and society as a whole.” He laments, “This has gone. It’s much more an age of greed.”


Architects aspired to behavior change before Modernism and remained morally committed to reshaping society after World War II, even as they abandoned their intervention tools. Philosophically and ethically, how should the profession approach building-based behavior now? A consequentialist would consider any structure that produces a positive outcome morally valid, no matter how the effect is achieved. In this Machiavellian view, the end justifies the means and opens design to overt or strong-arm methods. Studies show, however, the longest-lived behaviors are intrinsically motivated (coming from the self). Psychologists call barriers and rewards extrinsic motivators (coming from others), meaning walls won’t keep people out for long and rewards for recycling trash will not have a lasting effect.


Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1836


Cole’s second painting in the series, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is an idealized world of few humans and minimal architecture. Here civilization coexists with nature.


A deontological moral strategy aligns with the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have done unto you. It assumes an inherent duty to do what society accepts as right, even if the outcome is bad. In this light, Pruitt-Igoe was a morally-correct undertaking since the goal was social justice. Aristotelian morals emphasize virtue as agent. Knowledge plays a key role, such as awareness of an existential threat to society.


Behavior science has struggled with similar ethical questions. B. F. Skinner believed elements controlling human behavior could be identified and modified to produce change. Skinnerian techniques were applied to a variety of behavioral problems in schools, hospitals, and prisons from the late 1940s on. As successes were reported in the literature, controversies arose. Allegations of “mind control” surfaced in the 1970s, leading to congressional investigations. Vice President Agnew called the concept of behavior modification “drivel” and “a new kind of despotism.” There were predictions of Draconian social control leading to repression. In the end, science prevailed, but not without changes, including increased emphasis on informed consent and protections for vulnerable populations.


Given our short-term survival odds, does architecture today have a duty to try harder saving the world, and if so, are persuasive buildings morally justifiable? Aristotle would give systemic change two thumbs up, supporting the view that society considers architects stewards of all environments, from rooms to planets. After all, the profession is licensed to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare. If that doesn’t give architects a legal obligation, it probably confers a moral duty to act on knowledge of a problem and its solution. And maybe even a Divine responsibility. A 1562 edition of the Geneva Bible contained an interesting typo: Blessed are the placemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9.


While morals are individual, ethics tend toward the institutional, often codified by a governing body. The AIA ethics code obligates architects to sustain the environment, not prevent extinction. That’s a shame because buildings are capable of more.


The profession has a choice: it can expand design to address societal problems in addition to sustainability or allow other destructive human behaviors to continue unacknowledged. If the latter, architects may find within a few years time that they have a new moral duty: in the words of philosopher Christine Overall, “not to stave off extinction if it turns out our prosperity will not have lives that are worth living.”


Our prospects are not good. Stephen Hawking also believes the end is nigh. Like Elon Musk, the Cambridge mathematician and physicist advises we plan our Earth exit strategy now. Unlike science and engineering, though, fields disciplined by data, architecture is, by nature, an exercise in speculative optimism. A manifesto for systemic change offers hope.


Thomas Cole, The Savage State, 1836


Thomas Cole began The Course of Empire with The Savage State, painting civilization’s birth as a humble campsite. Daybreak is pushing away storm clouds. The future appears bright.


All images via Wikipedia Commons. 


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.