Architecture as an Ethics of Technology

Among the professionals involved in the building industry, architects have a unique ability- even a duty- to apply a broad range of criteria in making design decisions. This is the essence of the traditional role of architects in building- not only to know about how things are built, but also to question assumptions and conventions of building in light of their larger effects on human life. The philosopher Karsten Harries has called this broad questioning of goals and means of building the ethical function of architecture, and it is precisely what distinguishes architecture from other building design disciplines.

The proliferation of building and design technologies has made technology an area of particular importance for this aspect of architecture. Technology is vital to our society, culture and economy. Unfortunately, it has no built-in guide as to what problems to take on and limited criteria to apply in finding solutions. It’s like a precocious child- capable of amazing things but lacking the basic sense not to play in traffic. Like a child, it needs to be allowed to explore while being guided by wisdom and experience. The problems we ask technology to solve, both the goals and the means used to achieve them, need to be chosen according to a broad range of criteria. In the domain of building and design technology, only architects have the training and the professional culture that allow them to do this.

New technologies are created in response to a perceived market. A key criterion is their potential profitability. The “needs” they meet are fungible if not created out of whole cloth. Clever marketing can create desires and transform them into felt needs. There’s an enormous market for trucks and SUV’s that burn much more fuel than most cars and release correspondingly larger amounts of pollutants. These vehicles can have a legitimate purpose, but they don’t owe their gigantic sales volume to the need of a typical family to haul bales of hay or climb glaciers. The first question about any technology should always be about its purpose. Economy is always a consideration, but an ethics of technology requires a broader critical questioning of the end to which it is created.

Apart from effectively fulfilling a purpose, the only criterion technology innately recognizes is performance: functional (accomplishing the assigned purpose as efficiently as possible), and economic (generating profits for its creators). The net result is that technology naturally seeks to achieve maximum effect for minimal cost. Using the market alone to assess performance neglects many impacts of technological methods that we might want to challenge on ethical grounds, such as environmental degradation and labor exploitation. Ethical judgments in fact do sometimes come into play. Opposition to the destruction of embryos has impeded genetic research. Revelations about the scope of the NSA’s data gathering have at least placed limits on the use of certain technologies. These examples involve public opinion, but it is also possible for individuals and small groups to assert other criteria in selecting technologies and influencing their development.

The clearest example of this in the building industry is sustainable design. Architects played a major role in establishing sustainability as an accepted design criterion. Given its present widespread acceptance, it’s easy to forget how recently and rapidly sustainability achieved this status. Sustainable design can often be defended on the basis of lifecycle cost, but at bottom it is an ethical value. As an ethical principle, sustainability is readily justified on utilitarian grounds (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Since it mitigates such things as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water pollution that harm every person on the planet, it clearly works to increase our collective well-being. Sustainability also has the virtue of being quantifiable (in some respects). One can calculate kilowatt hours saved, volume of emitted CO2 avoided and so on. Once the basic principle is accepted, this provides a basis for agreement among diverse individuals about what is more or less sustainable. However, not many ethical principles can be as clearly justified or applied.

Modern construction is a highly technical enterprise. With the coming of BIM and other computational tools, building design has also become technology-intensive. In both arenas architects are constantly confronted with decisions about technologies, what to use and how to use it. Amid the rush towards greater efficiency that our world demands and technology promotes, it is difficult but essential for architects to maintain a critical stance towards building and design technologies. Indeed, they are the only building professionals with a mandate to do this in keeping with the ethical function that is the hallmark of their discipline.

Architects face some serious difficulties in questioning technology. One is the paradox of challenging technology on its own turf. As technology becomes more pervasive in building and design, its imperatives of efficiency and enhanced performance become more deeply embedded in the ethos of the building industry. Architects are under great pressure to adopt these values. Who can object to buildings that are cheaper and faster to build while performing the same functions as well or better? Sometimes it’s possible to come up with an idea that both asserts non-technological values and succeeds on technology’s own terms. In rare cases, an architect may assert other values as a condition of his or her work. In general, however, the value of more efficient, better-performing buildings is so universally accepted that it can’t be directly opposed. Asserting other values must involve redefining performance– changing the criteria a technology must satisfy. As the example of sustainable design shows, these new criteria can be ethical, although it helps if they can be couched in performative terms. It also helps if the market and/or regulation adopt these criteria. These change the economics of design decisions, by reducing their cost or making it unavoidable.

The newly technological nature of design media creates another order of difficulty for architects. These complex pieces of software contain both capabilities and limitations that influence how architects approach design problems, often without their being aware of it. They profoundly change the relationship between the architect and his/her work, in terms of both design and building. They require new skills and render some traditional ones obsolete. They create changes in how architects work in design teams that transform their role in the design process. Most importantly, the products of these media have a powerful innate tendency to be understood as simulations by designers- virtual equivalents of the building. This is radically different than the abstraction of drawings, focusing designers’ attention on the (simulated) experience of the spaces and construction, at the expense of conceptual relationships. The categorical differences between a digital model and the eventual reality of the building are blurred by the seductive appeal of simulation.

These problems are challenging but not insurmountable. Their solution requires architects to understand how apparently useful and innocent technologies can impose values on a project. This is the first step. The next is to relearn to formulate and explore design ideas using a wide range of criteria, performative and otherwise, taking control of their tools rather than simply following their tendencies. There is a place for performative criteria in developing a design, but only taking the time to explore it fully according to a larger set of values.

Among building professionals, architects traditionally have a unique background that prepares and motivates them to apply diverse criteria to the uses of technology. This professional mandate is being undermined by pressure to adopt the same performative values as the rest of the industry. To maintain their cultural and social relevance, architects must be critically aware of technology and the values it entails. Architects must judge, select and apply technology according to the broadest possible range of criteria to obtain its benefits without falling for its blandishments and the vacuous utopia it promises.