What Do Ethics Have to Do with Design?

The following speech was delivered by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy on May 25, 2004, at the Toronto Design Exchange’s Future: Perfect seminar, which this year was titled Innovative Thinking in Architecture and Design. The audience of some 250 included designers, architects, and citizens.

Why should we cloud our lighthearted discussions on creativity, art, and beauty with something as difficult and even quasi-religious as ethics? Ethics, after all, concerns rights and wrongs, and in an age when anything goes, why should we burden ourselves with making a distinction between the two?

Apparently, we must: Ethics plays out in the media everyday, and we can’t ignore it. This morning another gaggle of CEOs were doing the perp walk on the local news: the gray-suit-and-red-tie gang from WORLDCOM. Their ethical misstep? The abuse of shareholder trust, leading to the now-familiar financial bankruptcy of many small investors, which happened as a direct result of WORLDCOM management’s own moral bankruptcy.

Ethics, it seems, has to do with personal decisions. In the case of WORLDCOM, the personal business standards of a few wealthy men wanting to gobble up even more wealth.

When you knowingly do something that’s harmful to others—be it running a business, participating in a relationship, or designing a building—you cross the line between ethical and unethical behavior. The operative word here is “knowingly.” So if knowledge is power, power must come with responsible behavior.

Now what do architects and designers know? That if they ignore it, they create injury to others? For years the design community has heard and learned about environmental degradation caused by design processes and practices. We know about wasteful packaging, the poisonous contents of electronic gadgets that land in the trash quickly and poison our ground water, toxic inks and bleaches used in printing everything from brochures to ads, and equally toxic building and furnishing materials. And so we know that many of the things designers specify in huge volumes are harmful to the environment, children, and other living things.

But if this ethics thing was as simple as making our materials and practices environmentally sound—and, of course that’s far from simple—we might have this problem solved in short order, or at least in a decade or two. But it’s much bigger than that.

The ethical crisis we face today has to do with a world view that can be traced to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum principle of a man-centered universe. This view had worked well for centuries, but now it’s in crisis. We know the old systems of industrialism, individualism, and modernism don’t work anymore. We know that amnesiac modernists have done—and still are doing—a great deal of harm to our species, from making sick buildings to creating brown fields.

We first knew this instinctively, but now science is proving our intuitions correct. As we begin to understand whole systems and the web of connections that produce them, we are learning the importance of connectivity.

As playwright Andrew Ordover tells us, “We carry our ancestors with us. Without [a] sense of rootedness, without [celebrating]…what we have pledged to one another, we forget what our culture has learned…we lose all sense of awe and wonder, and allow life to become mean and hard and thin.” Awe and wonder—they aren’t luxuries.

“Too many children in our culture,” continues this young writer, who is also an advocate of the arts education in New York City public schools, “are cut off from any sense of wonder, and they come to see themselves as nothing more than sacks of shit and blood, snarls on their faces and fists in the air, with nothing to contribute to the planet but rage and fear.”

I don’t know about you, but that frightening statement—which is very real to our school teachers—should be a call to action to the creative community to help reintegrate our lost children with our great and awesome planet and its fantastic process.

Architecture is one of the propagators of this dislocation. You notice I say “one of,” not “the.” I no longer believe that any one profession can act alone, or see themselves as über-fixers, when faced with today’s complex environmental and philosophical issues. So let’s just remember what architecture—with a few commendable exceptions—has done for these children: apparently everything possible to alienate them from earth and sky and the sun that gives us life.

Generations have grown up in mechanically heated and cooled rooms with sealed windows and the constant hum of machinery. Kids often don’t see daylight, and when they do, it’s on a mean asphalt slab expunged of anything that can move. They go through metal detectors as if they were common criminals and sit in chairs nailed to the floor—all in the name of security.

They have no idea where the water they drink comes from, or how scarce it is in some parts of the world, or where it goes when it flushes away their waste. All of this signals a mean and ugly quality of life, regardless of how many DVDs, SUVs, PDAs, and other gadgets these kids’ families may possess.

What are the stars of architecture—our superheroes—doing about fixing this terrible malaise? They do great form, which lately has begun to feel like empty gestures. Think, for instance, of the most celebrated building of the spring season: Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

I was there in April and can report the following: the courtyard, which can be reached through a flight of stairs, keeping the public realm largely private, offers a grand moment in architectural miscalculation. (I don’t want to say ignorance or unethical behavior because I, like many others, find Gehry’s forms seductive and hard to attack.)

This miscalculation? A part of the Disney Hall that faces the courtyard is clad in a sparkling metal. As the sun hits this section of the building, the glare bounces into the apartments across the street; the people who live there are mad as hell and they’re acting out. The remedy—at least in April—was to drape a chunk of gray vinyl on the offending detail.

Now you would think that the designers, engineers, contractors, even the hall’s managers—all living under Southern California’s relentless sun—would have seen this coming. Ignoring what you know about the sun is obviously not a good idea, as it may soon be unheard of to not use the sun’s power.

Closer to home, we’ve been watching the fiasco at the World Trace Center site and it makes me sick. The tragedy that befell us was dramatic and overwhelming; its images are seared onto our retinas. Aside from the destruction of the architecture and its stinking and messy aftermath, it’s the people we remember. All those lovingly posted Xeroxes of personal moments in the lives of the lost and the dead! You could see those lovely and handsome young faces—so many of them were so young!—in the midst of a birthday party, on vacation, at work. Their lives had purpose, dimension, and, yes, reality.

We were seeing tragedies unfold on those walls, and understood their personal implications. I return to Andrew Ordover once again: “Tragedy sees each human being as sacred and irreplaceable, and it deals with the consequences of that with relentless honesty.”

For me those home-made posters dramatized the tragedy we saw. Ordover takes his lesson from the ancient Greeks when he adds, “Homer details the death of every character that falls. We know the wound, we know the pain, we know the person—his family, his wife, his background. Every death hurts; every death counts. Every death is a real life, lost. Compare the war scene in The Iliad to any scene in Rambo,” he concludes.

We thought we had witnessed the nobility of human behavior as depicted in The Iliad on 9/11 and the weeks after. But what we’re getting is Rambo architecture: meaningless, cold, calculating, and defensive.

It didn’t start that way. Daniel Libeskind seemed to understand the tragedy. As far as I know, he was the only architect in the site’s design competition who actually went down to the bedrock of ground zero and came up with a plan that seemed to commemorate all those personal losses, while celebrating human endurance and ingenuity.

The slurry wall—that grand feat of engineering constructed to hold back the Hudson when the Twin Towers were built—is now gone from the master plan. In fact most of the poetic features Libeskind proposed have evaporated.

The developers may have expunged the poetry, but for many of us it’s hard to forget those faces in the home-made posters, now themselves gone, victims of wind and rain. I’m not sure if there is room for anything but rentable space down there, although Libeskind did talk about something hopeful and meaningful and lasting, and we are all the better for him saying it.

Some architecture insiders called his impassioned speeches corny, politically motivated, embarrassing—sometimes I thought so, too. But I also feel that he showed architects and designers how to speak the people’s language.

People understand relationships, their kids’ health, and their own well-being; they want clean water, clean air, and healthy food—the real things in life that design should be servicing. I like to think of what Alavar Aalto is reported to have told his students some 50 years ago: “When you design a window, think of your girlfriend looking out of it.”

I’d like to ask all designers to think of your wife when you design a chair; think of your husband when you design a coffee pot; think of your mom when you design a house; think of your dad when you design a car. They’re all real to you—not some abstract marketing aggregate. And they need you to understand the stages and ages of their lives and their varied and changing capabilities.

My students, many of them, are intuitive environmentalists and natural techies; they are true heirs to the creative professions and humanists who tend to be ethical in their practices. And that’s exactly why designers became designers in the first place: to make a better world. Now that our world is in distress, we need you more than ever. It’s your chance to become what you always wanted to be—to be NEEDED.

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