A long time friend and colleague, Tim Culvahouse, is the Chief Editor of ArcCA, a quarterly journal of AIA California. After I had talked to him about the latest findings on my research and interviewing him about his thoughts on architectural contributions to Hurricane Katrina, Tim asked me in return to contribute my thoughts to a discussion about “Ethics and Etiquette”.
It always comes to a surprise that ethics still remains an optional discourse for many schools of architecture around the world, just as often as sustainability is caught out to be a token gesture in many design projects today. The topic of ethics is entangled with Socratic contradictions that generate one question after another; and, because it seldom offers tangible, actionable solutions, the topic makes the vast majority of the architectural profession glaze over, or worse, assume that they are already ethical both in their decision-making and conduct.
Photo © Richard Misrach
from his book of post-Katrina graffiti images, Destroy This Memory
My penchant for architectural ethics has led me to spend the past three years at the University of Auckland and the University of California, Berkeley, asking the question, “What is the ethical role of architects in humanitarian endeavors?”—with particular interest in the various roles the design professions play in the context of disasters. The research looks at the ethical roles and attitudes of architects who are currently active in the field in humanitarian endeavors. With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, the ethics of designing for the disenfranchised is a double-edged sword: the industry proponents call it Architecture for Humanity (via Cameron Sinclair), and its skeptics call it New Imperialism (via David Harvey). However, when the repercussions of any action (and sometimes inaction) involve human lives, the issue becomes even more laden with ethical questions.
Internationally, the humanitarian aid industry is replete with examples of more or less inappropriate solutions to housing and their cookie-cutter approach to post-disaster reconstruction that have become a vicious cycle for many agencies. Opportunities to build back better have often been missed due to pressures of “Time Compression,” inhibiting sustainable recovery.
Having just returned from Bati Byen, the Rebuilding Centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I am very optimistic about the role the professionals—architects, planners, urban designers, engineers—could play in facilitating the various agents of recovery (such as local neighborhood groups, the government, other local and global agencies) to build back better. Despite my as-of-yet deficient understanding on how professional ethics, humanitarian ethics, indigenous ethics, and personal ethics are present in the post-disaster context, it is obvious that they sometimes compete, contradict, and complement, yet necessarily coexist with each other. The art of asking the right questions, perhaps, has never been more important for ethics in disasters. It is something to be considered for an increasingly global practice of architects honing their design etiquette for foreign sites.