Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

Where should architects draw the ethical line? In discussion, Gehry and Ratner inevitably come up

On the Glass House Conversations web site (connected to the Philip Johnson Glass House), writer Mark Lamster recently raised a question about architectural ethics, and of course Frank Gehry and Atlantic Yards came up.

Lamster posed the question:
How do we choose our clients? On this subject, Philip Johnson, self-professed "whore," was apt to quote H. H. Richardson's admonition that the "first principle of architecture is to get the job." That is rather cynical, perhaps, and in fact there were some clients (the mafia, for instance) for whom even Johnson would not work. But how do the rest of us know when and where to draw the line? Is it acceptable to work for a government with a spotty record on human rights? How about a corporation with a poor environmental history? How do we balance commercial imperatives with a desire for a moral practice?

To be a design professional is to navigate ethical territory that is rarely black or white, but some shade of gray. What compromises are and are not acceptable in this world?
Architect Andrew Berhheimer hedged:
But, in reality, I have actually purchased tickets to go visit a (supposed) developer in China, a country with a miserable human rights record, a lack of civil rights and basically no press freedoms. I have designed weekend homes for people with political views with which I disagree. I have, repeatedly, made luxury items of dubious environmental value. And while I hope that all these things are recognized for having some level of beauty and intelligence, I am under no delusions that they are vital, indisposable. I also hope that some think I have also done some good, but that, in the end, isn’t entirely up to me.

I guess this is a too-long and inarticulate way of saying that clients are judged in the moment and in the context of a business and relative to a whole host of other issues related to art, aesthetic opportunity, and even family. For example, if I take on a client whose views I detest, might the fee for that job make it possible to keep a staffer employed in a down economy and therefore help them support their (and also my own) loved ones?
The Gehry/AY mention

Brooklyn-based writer Karrie Jacobs:
Architects in particular, because they rely on clients with excess money and clout to achieve their artistic and professional goals, are susceptible to temptation and moral failure. (See: Faust.)

Two examples come to mind:

...2) Frank Gehry and Bruce Ratner. To the many opponents of the Atlantic Yards project, this seemed like an unholy alliance. All I could figure was that Gehry was, for a very long time, blind to the politics of this gig because it gave him something he badly wanted: the chance to design an entire high-rise urban neighborhood. And because it promised to keep his firm in black-ink for a long, long time. I’m not convinced that morality had anything to do with Gehry’s exit from the deal. I just think that Ratner, ultimately, couldn’t afford to build Gehry’s dream neighborhood. The money and the clout had diminished.
Morality had nothing to do with Gehry's exit; his design (four towers constructed simultaneously with the arena, sharing HVAC) was impossible, and his cordial words upon leaving the job likely had to do with his other gig with Ratner, designing the Beekman Tower.

And I think another reason he took the job was that he'd never had the opportunity to design an arena.

More discussion

Paula Scher:
When I look too closely at almost any business or institution I can find something morally wrong there. Ballet Tech, a New York City Public School for Dance was supported by Philip Morris as was the New York City Ballet. Mobil put on Masterpiece Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park is brought to you by Bank America, etc.

...I have to look at each project on an individual basis. Who are the players? What is their goal? What is their expectation of the final product? Does it do any public harm? Who gets to use it or benefit from it? Is it something interesting to work on and/or do the fees pay the rent so I can pay my staff. Does it afford the opportunity to raise expectations?
Architect Amey
Bhan: I studied under a professor of Professional Practice who, on coming in to class each time, would write down three rules on the chalk board.
1: Get the job
2: Get the job
3: Get the job

While this may be an overly simplified view on the ethos of any practitioner, (especially in my profession of architecture), it highlights the fact that most architects rarely have the luxury to pick and choose the projects or clients that they decide to work with or for. It is difficult enough to keep a steady stream of projects coming in to the office to keep the doors open and pay the bills.
Did Gehry need the job? No, he didn't. So, even though Atlantic Yards was a huge gig, he did have far more clout than nearly anyone in his field.

Navigating your principles

Designer Constantin Boym:
Ultimately, I do not think there is a universal prescription. These situations are always decided on a case-to-case basis. It is one’s personal moral beliefs, and that gut sense which sometimes tells you to walk away, that should guide you.
Remember, Gehry said in January 2006, "If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I’d walk away."

Of course Gehry, who confused Ratner's esthetic tastes and surface liberalism with being "politically like me," wouldn't give big bucks to the Republican party, as Ratner did, would he?

No easy answers?

Tom Abraham of Elemental:
As professionals engaging in a project, we have the legal obligation to provide services with diligence and care. I would also argue that architects practicing within the public realm engage in a social contract – that our work resides within society and as such, architects have an obligation to state positions on issues vis-à-vis our work – built, un-built, written or otherwise. Can both of these ideas co-exist if they are in conflict? Can a work of architecture, while meeting its professional and programmatic requirements subvert the issues of its users? It is a complex question that I feel there is no single answer to.
Kaleem Khan:
With few exceptions, designers are not trained to address ethical issues although they face them on a regular basis in executing their responsibilities. We are all asked to make compromises and a compromise in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is a negotiated agreement that lets us find a common way forward and is at the bedrock of our society and civilization. The problems arise when that common way forward violates one’s ethics, or personal values. Compromises are rarely black and white or framed in terms of good and evil. The most common compromises that most of us encounter in the course of our work are small ones that have a cumulative effect over time. And that is what makes each one fraught with peril.

At the heart of this is another question: “Where do your responsibilities begin and end?” Do you think about the upstream and downstream effects of your actions? Do you think in a systemic way that includes elements and actors beyond the design brief and its goals? Do you think of ecosystems and how they interact with one another? The interplay of design with art, technology, economic imperatives, political motivations, distributive justice, social interactions and effects, history, and more, all affect what we do as designers just as we affect each of those spheres.
Gehry's choice

So it's never easy. Still, I'd suggest, Gehry, more than nearly anyone else in his field, has and had the option to pick and choose his client, or to push back against a commission, or to take seriously public concern and opposition.

He didn't.

Rather, he dissed project protesters in May 2006, cracking, "They should've been picketing Henry Ford."

As I pointed out in August 2008, Charles Taylor, writing in Dissent, suggested such vision is enabled by starchitect-defending critics like Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, who wrote 12/16/07, in an essay headlined Let the ‘Starchitects’ Work All the Angles:
Architects have no control over a development’s scale or density. Nor do they control the underlying social and economic realities that shape it.
Taylor called that "horse puckey," arguing that, when an architect like Gehry "signs on to an immense public development, as Frank Gehry has to Forest City Ratner’s gargantuan Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, he not only gives concrete expression to how the scale and density might be realized, thus having the most direct impact on 'underlying social and economic realities,' his imprimatur gives the project the weight of cultural edification."