Social irresponsibility: thinking the unthinkable

From the recent backlash of Libeskinds’ claim to boycott working in China, to the call for a ‘Code of Ethics’ from Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, the politics of the global built environment is undergoing perpetual debate. Some argue that ‘starchitects’ only have short-term political agendas in search for publicity stunts. Others claim that all designers and architects should be allowed to choose by themselves what they believe to be moral without the pressure of social responsibility.

The premise that the knowledge and power architects have in the production of space should be used to have a positive impact shaping our political landscape remains under question. Recently, Hadid was piloried for saying “It’s not my duty as an architect” to address the deaths of workers on World Cup building sites. But she was criticised as much for the audacity to have an opinion that ran counter to the chattering class morality of the day, as for the content of what she said.

Strict laws and regulations today govern the architect, and at a time of recession, should architects have to turn down work based on moral consciousness? How can we evaluate the delicate balance between the collective responsibilities of obligations the profession has to society and the impact individual decisions and agendas have on political and economic shifts? Does refusing to work in totalitarian regimes make the situation itself worse? In many instances – from community-empowerment to behaviour change agendas, ethically-concerned architects seem to be little more than quangos, acting out government agendas. Should architects play politics… or is this exactly what architects do as a matter of course? It is worth asking what behaviour is now sanctioned as “responsible”, who decides… and anyway, what’s so good about being virtuous?


Tim Abrahams, editor, Machine Books; former Editor-in-Chief, Canadian Centre of Architecture; ex-editor, Blueprint;

Dagmar Binsted, associate, GMW Architects; non-executive director, RIBA Enterprises;

Nick Stokes, senior associate director, LCE Architects

Philip Graham, partner & architect, Cullinan Studio; architect on UK and Libyan masterplans

Stephen Herbert, vice-president & senior project architect, HOK

Chair: Martyn Perks, technology consultant, co-author of ‘Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation’.