Michael Powell


Home Concepts Stories &
Scripture &
Spirituality &
Theses Links Contact Details


Scripture & Practice - Paper 6


Ethics is a major theme common to both the Built Environment and Christian Theology fields. In both cases there are rich literatures and varieties of texts shedding light on the depths and nuances of the subject. This paper seeks to discover resonance between the two textual streams. 








Both Christian Ethics and Built Environment ethics (including architectural ethics, planning ethics and others) are the subject of rich literatures and varieties of texts.

The problem is that the Christian and Built Environment ethics texts appear not to talk substantively to, or about, each other, leaving readers and practitioners to make connections as best they can.

However, if one listens and reads carefully, there is significant, if sometimes incidental, resonance between the two streams.

A selection of ten texts has been made from each stream. I have chosen them because over the years they have helped me to develop my own understandings. In some cases there may be later or better texts but I cannot say that they are 'mine'.

I have found that my selected texts from both fields make a pattern, and that the two patterns can be related to each other.

As indicated in the first chart below, Christian Ethics texts can be shown to move progressively from 'Faith and Becoming' at one end of a spectrum to 'Practice and Doing' at the other. Having faith that certain things are true and important, and being part of a faith community, supports commitment to certain values and kinds of action

The second chart indicates how a similar selection of Built Environment Ethics texts can be shown to move in the opposite direction, that is from 'Practice and Doing' at one end of the spectrum to 'Being and Meaning' at the other. In this sequence, involvement in practical situations leads to questions and reflection about what ones values are and what is the meaning of what one is doing.

It could be said that Chart 1 shows a journey from the spiritual to the practical, while Chart 2 shows a journey from the practical to the spiritual  

            Chart 1- Christian Ethics texts

from FAITH and BECOMING.....                                             

  1.    HA Williams                                 Resurrection and ethical possibility   

  2.    Hans-Ruedi Weber                     Christ working on us

3.    Stanley Hauerwas                       Ethics in the Christian community

 4.   Frank Wright                                 Discovering goodness

  5.    Mary E Mills                                  Biblical narrative ethics

 6.   Timothy Sedgwick                        Sacramental ethics    

 7.   Helen Oppenheimer                     Good building work

 8.   GF Woods                                     Ethics and technical standards

 9.   Philip Wogaman                           Ethics and economics

 10. Ian Barbour                                  Ethics and the environment

  ....to PRACTICE and DOING                      

           Chart 2- Built Environment Ethics texts  


1.      Peter Fewings                              The whole construction project and ethics

2.      Francis Ventre                              Standards, legislation and ethics

3.      Tom Spector                                 Project milieu and ethics

4.      Colin St John Wilson                    Particular situations and ethics

5.      Gideon Golany                              Environmental order and ethics

6.      Nicholas Ray                                 Attitudes and virtues

7.      John Short                                     As if people matter

8.      David Watkin                                 What architecture truly is

9.      Karsten Harries                             The ethical function of architecture

10.  Josef Kleihues                              'Architecture as...'

              .....to BEING AND MEANING



The comments below will show a path from the core concepts of the Christian faith, through the life of the formative Christian community to practical living and professional work in a built environment context.                                                                                                                        

HA Williams - Resurrection and ethical possibility

In True Resurrection (1972) Williams' standpoint is the resurrection of Christ, together with new ways of creative, ethical and good living which flow from it. Some specific points are these:

  • Living goodness must be the result of renewed creativity, and will manifest itself in terms of actually creating values which are new.
  • The task of ethics is to have the daring to make creative values by living them
  • Ethical insight, like resurrection, is not a static, unchangeable standard but something which grows and changes as fresh situations call forth fresh creative evaluations

Here and now we are able to live the new possibilities of resurrection life. Specifically:

  • An artist, at first painfully aware of an utter emptiness and impotence, finds his imagination gradually stirred into life and discovers a vision which takes control of him and which he feels not only able but compelled to express. That is resurrection.  
  • Or a scholar or scientist as he pursues his research finds a favourite theory breaking up in his hands.... Then a new, more adequate theory gradually takes shape in his mind which makes him more at home with his material even than he was before. That is resurrection.

Architecture is not far from art, and building technology not far from science. Resurrection can come in the built environment context. But often 'we do not recognise resurrection when it comes to us. The presence of the Eternal Word is unnoticed'.

Hans-Ruedi Weber - Christ working on us

In Living in the Image of Christ (1986), Weber relates our new ethical creativeness to the nature of Christ. We are called into Christ to be embodied into his wisdom, his crucifixion and his eternal creativity, not primarily as homer faber, to do something, but as imago dei, to be something.

  • The primary Christian vocation, particularly of the laity, is to accomplish responsibly our human vocation, to be partners of God in the ongoing work of creation. Human failure and mismanagement in this brings about 'reverse creation'. But 'God trusts you! Decide and act, knowing that God has power to correct and overrule your ambiguous and sometimes downright foolish choices'.  
  • Christ crucified, is a mirror in which we see firstly our own moral behaviour within the structures of society in which, as laity, we have to live. In addition, we see the structures themselves and their ethical or unethical natures. While we cannot build God's actual kingdom on earth, 'together with people of other faiths, Christians are called to seek alternative structures which are less oppressive for the powerless and less destructive for the earth which has been entrusted to us.'
  • Christ is artist and we God's poems, 'created in Christ Jesus for good works'. God made us his artwork, sculptures moulded out of living flesh, kinetic art which is to become active- communicating something of the design which God envisioned for us and creation. Weber says, 'For me the most moving visual representation of Christ the artist comes from the northern portal of the Cathedral in Chartres '. There, on an arch, a thirteenth century unknown sculptor in a series of sixteen reliefs, has shown the pre-existent Christ, the creative logos, at work.

In these insights, Weber himself shows the relevance of his Christian Ethics to built environment.

Stanley Hauerwas - ethics in the Christian community

In The Peacable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics  (1983) Hauerwas sets the consideration of ethics at the heart of the Christian community, the company of those who are empowered by the resurrection (Williams) and are conformed to Christ (Weber).

Some particular points are:  

  • Christian ethics is more concerned with who we are than with what we do.
  • We know who we are only when we can place ourselves - locate our stories - within God's story
  • Christian ethics must serve and be formed by the Christian community, a community whose interest lies in the formation of character and whose perduring [permanent, durable] history provides the continuity we need to act in conformity with that character.
  • Christian ethics is a form of reflection in service to a community, and it derives its nature from the nature of that community's convictions
  • The Christian tradition holds us accountable to a body of people who have been formed by the life of Jesus. By learning to make his life our life we see we are free just to the extent that we learn to trust others and make ourselves available to be trusted by others. Such trust is possible because the story of his life, by the very way we learn it, requires that we recognise and accept the giftedness of our existence. I did not create myself but what I am is made possible by others.    

The point on trust is absolutely relevant. Christians are in the community centred around Jesus, where permanent convictions are nurtured. That gives the freedom to trust and be trusted and is what we given to take from the church community to the built environment world.

Frank Wright - discovering goodness

In Exploration into Goodness (1988), Wright is concerned with the formation of individual good character

  • Goodness, he believes, is spontaneous. He tells a story of Muslim quarry workers - part of our widespread Built environment community.

Early one Sunday morning Donald Nicholl was out running not far from Bethlehem . As he descended the steep path said to be the track along which Mary and Joseph travelled, he met four Muslim workmen making their way to the quarry above. They were walking in single file. He just shouted a greeting, but by the time he reached the last, after only four or five seconds, the latter had taken a large handful of raisins out of his lunch bag and pressed them into Donald Nicholl's hand saying 'You are sweating'. Donald could only shout, 'Thank you'. Later a Muslim friend said to Donald, 'The man must have been faithful over many years in the practice of his faith...'

  • Goodness involves vulnerability. 'Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being burnt by the flames?'
  • Goodness involves letting oneself be invisible. When steering ICI through difficult times, its MD John Harvey-Jones said that in the company people should enjoy 'the freedom to be honest about what needs to be done, freedom to participate in decision-making'. This is a risk for management but one worth taking.
  • Goodness is responsive, not coercive. 'The dawning of goodness in us has been a response to the goodness we have seen in others' and 'You only exert influence in so far as you are not trying to exert any influence at all'.

Wright says these things in the light of his wide experience in adult Christian formation. The church and similar faith communities are where we mentor one another in goodness, whether we are quarry workers or managing directors of international companies.

Mary E Mills - Biblical narrative ethics

In Biblical Morality: Moral perspectives in Old Testament narratives (2001), Mills develops her study of Old Testament ethics through the examination of selected characters, plots and time-place situations. This is pretty much what happens in building. Characters with varying moral qualities become involved in projects, some of which can be very tangled, and all of which are subject to the circumstances of when and where they take place.

Mills reflects at length on the complex stories of Abraham and David.

  • Abraham is a man of faith but also at different times a trickster, a savage parent and an unworthy husband. As the founder of the people he is a good benefactor to those who will follow but in other respects he is ethically dubious.
  • David is both a 'golden boy' and an 'abusive male'. This duality runs through both his kingship, including the founding of the city of Jerusalem , and his family life. At the cosmic level, God presides over the story and still values its hero. At the community level the story provides a model of the need for discernment over the choices facing human beings.

I will mention here just one example of 'plot':

  • The Joseph story is analysed in terms of houses and households in which a variety of events take place: in the father's house, outside the father's house, in Potiphar's house, at the house of prison ie house of Pharaoh, and the house of Joseph. Mills encapsulates the substantive moral point thus: The reader is encouraged to read events both as short term affairs and with regard to their long-term consequences.

How relevant this is to building and built environment. It is an ethical judgement on what time scale we choose to work on, both in terms of human relationships and relationships with resources and environments.

Also relevant to built environment is the story of Job:

  • [Job's first] world is home, and he is now banished from it, seemingly for ever. As he sits on his dung-heap he can be described as feeling place-bereaved. As he senses the gap between past and present to be that between two parallel worlds, only one of which is currently available, Job laments his social and cosmic exclusion ... home is elsewhere. But his farewell to the past opens up new worlds.

It seems to me that an essential moral question for town planners and others is 'Where is the dung heap, who is sitting on it, what are they thinking and where are they going?'

We become people of Scripture, of the Word, when we relate it to our own situations.  

Timothy Sedgwick - Sacramental ethics

In Sacramental Ethics (1987) Sedgwick complements Mills' perspective on the Word so that together, in Word and Sacrament, they become our bridge to the practical world of building

  • A sacramental understanding of worship is expressed in the meaning of the Christian word for worship, liturgy, which comes from the Greek leitourgia, a compound of leitos, public, and ergon, work. Liturgy originally referred to public works done at private cost, such as the building of a road. Leitourgia was used for the services in the Temple and subsequently in the ongoing life of the Christian community, one liturgy in all times and all places.   {adapted)
  • Christian ethics arises in the discrepancy between the sense of redeemed life, celebrated in worship, and the actual relations that constitute daily life. The task of ethics then is to envision the Christian life in terms of the particular relations and conflicts of daily life ... Ethics is sacramental as it signifies and deepens the meaning of Christian faith in the world.
  • We have our idols as did the Israelites: money, social status, our family, tribe, profession or nation. As we define ourselves by these we lose ourselves. It is only in relationship with God as the ground of all life that we are given life.

From a sacramental perspective, it seems to me, we build ourselves into God and God into our work of road-making, temple-building and every other aspect of Built Environment.

Helen Oppenheimer - good building work

Following on from the sacramental perspective, Oppenheimer in Making Good (2001) brings us to a consideration of what good building work is, aesthetically and morally:

  • It is continuous with the work of God. In our complex universe there is no need to make rigid distinctions between God's work and ours, nature and art. One cannot always separate city and countryside ....They shade into each other and it is better to go on looking for 'both/and' ... The beauty of a city cannot be detached from the beauty of its weather: sunshine, mist or even snow. A famous High Street is enhanced, as a townscape, by a tree between the houses...
  • It is more than may be commonly accepted:

Beyond aesthetic there is beautiful

Beyond duty there is goodwill

Beyond fairness there is magnanimity

Beyond acceptability there is excellence

  • It is varied: To call something 'good' is to commend it morally, aesthetically, practically or in some other way
  • It is for others to choose: The 'making good' which comes at the conclusion of building works is not laying foundations but putting the site in order. The people who are going to live in the house may judge that the destructive chaos was worthwhile.
  • It is the ultimate ... the Christian hope is not an illegitimate prop to morality which needs to be removed so that the building can be seen properly, but the keystone of the arch.

Oppenheimer's analogies make the relevance of her points to building obvious.

GF Woods - Ethics and technical standards

In A Defence of Theological Ethics (!966), Woods usefully refers directly to physical and professional standards, a hardening up of Oppenheimer's goodness.

On physical standards he says:

  • A standard was originally something that stands, like a pillar or post that stands upright
  • The Royal Standard Yard is a beautifully made metal bar which is stamped with the Royal Arms but the bar is not the standard. The standard is elusive, related to its physical expression but not the same thing.
  • The central enigma is the nature of a standard which is in some sense other than all its expressions and applications [eg a Christian standard] but devoid of meaning when taken in total isolation from them

Woods comments extensively on professional standards:

  • Professional codes of conduct seldom offer a whole system of professional ethics but they express a more practical and pragmatic approach ... to the standards which should characterise members of a profession.
  • A great deal of the best professional work is done by those to whom the observance of high professional standards has become second nature. They maintain a high standard of professional work without any conscious concern about the standard which they are upholding.... The labour of finding suitable expressions of the standard and of deliberately devising appropriate applications is more likely to be a conscious burden in moments of doubt and hesitation.
  • A person is not a professional before he decides to accept the established professional standards. It is in his acceptance and practice of them that he becomes a professional.
  • Each flash of insight into the real meaning of being a professional is a moment of fascinating growth. Professional being is coming into being; the creation of a professional is taking place

His comments on theological facets include:

  • The moral standard may be best understood as the creative will of God not subordinated to the human will but an expression of it
  • The process of discovering the creative will should be continuous ... the source of moral progress in the world they inhabit
  • It is the same God who wills to create, to repair and to perfect

It is immensely encouraging to find that a theological ethicist has reached this depth of practical detail.

Philip Wogaman - Ethics and economics

In Economics and Ethics: A Christian Enquiry (1986) Wogaman comments on the vocation of the economist, not a built environment profession specifically but one that powerfully determines and interprets built environment scenarios.

  • Economists exercise their professional responsibility most seriously when they help clarify technical questions in such a way that non-professionals can participate along with them in the debate over the best economic policies to be pursued and in such a way that other valid sources of knowledge will be brought to the fore, not obscured.

He sets out a series of priorities to govern economic thought and activity. Although there are no direct references to it, built environment is part of the overall scenario into which they fit.

  • PRIORITY 1    ADEQUATE PRODUCTION The production of wealth is what economic life is all about. This is the foundational, basic priority but not 'first' or 'highest'. While the production of necessities should generally be given priority over luxuries, where the two conflict, careful consideration of circumstances is necessary. A proper balance needs to be struck between the production of capital goods and goods for consumption
  • PRIORITY 2    EQUITY AND SECURITY Wogaman considers how differences of wealth and income matter. He encapsulates his position thus: 'To be in community is to share in its burdens and responsibilities, to make one's contribution to the welfare of others, but also to receive the contributions of others with gratitude and without shame'
  • PRIORITY 3    EMPLOYMENT AND EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY After a challenging discussion, Wogaman concludes: Employment is a right and a need of everybody, if they are to be what God intends them to be. It is a mistake to trust the free market by itself to attend to this need adequately. Public and private sectors alike are important. Similarly educational opportunities have to be for all. In the case of higher education it must be recognised that the community as well as the individual student is the beneficiary.
  • PRIORITY 4    CONSERVATION Dilemmas arise when there are choices concerning the use or development of natural resources on one hand, and conservation of them on the other. Wogaman offers two principles. The first is that appropriate account should be taken of the interests of the present and those of the future, and the interests of humanity and those of nature. Second, when outcomes are uncertain, dilemmas should be resolved conservatively.
  • PRIORITY 5    A NEW WORLD ORDER Nothing can be viewed in just national terms. All nations belong to the same world and the world, in Christian terms, is God's.

All five priorities contribute to and challenge our understanding of ethics and values relative to built environment.  

Ian Barbour - Ethics and the environment

In Ethics in an Age of Technology (Volume 2) (1992), Barbour brings us to environmental values as a part of an integrated system of nine value components:

Individual values                      Social values                           Environmental values

Food and health                      Social justice                           Resource sustainability

Meaningful work                      Participatory freedom             Environmental protection

Personal fulfilment                  Economic development          Respect for all forms of life

On each of these, Barbour goes into immense detail, scientific, philosophical and multi-religious. Particularly with environmental values much has happened in the twenty years since Barbour delivered the Gifford Lectures of which this book is the record. Rather than get involved with the vastness of detail, I want to pause on his final credo.

  • New visions can provide the motivation and direction for creative social change. Moral exhortation seldom inspires action among those who are reluctant to change. Visions, on the other hand, present positive alternatives in an imaginative way. They summarise a set of values, using concrete images rather than abstract principles. Visions of alternative futures offer hope instead of despair, a sense of the possible rather than resignation to the inevitable. Dom Helder Camara said: When we dream alone it is only a dream. When we dream together, it is no longer a dream but the beginning of reality'.



The comments below will show a path from the concrete realities of the building project, through the varied locations and situations which affect ethics, to more fundamental matters of personal conduct and the meaning of built environment itself.

Peter Fewings - the whole construction project

Fewings leads a post-graduate programme in Construction Project Management. His book Ethics for the Built Environment (2009) traverses in a very comprehensive way the whole process of construction projects from design and planning to practical site management. He asks of every part of the process what the ethical considerations are. His topics include:

  • Planning ethics
  • Sustainability ethics
  • Business ethics and corporate social responsibility
  • Discrimination and human resource ethics
  • Ethics of construction quality, safety, health and welfare
  • Contractual ethics and good faith
  • Trust and relationships
  • Bribery and corruption
  • Professional ethics

These chapters together with an equally comprehensive set of case studies provide an ethical toolkit for every Construction Project Manager, working in the UK or internationally. It is absolutely hard-nosed.  

The importance of Fewings' contribution, in addition to its primary role as a text book, lies in the ethical significance of every major consideration and every small step in the construction project process. No one can say 'I have no ethical responsibility'.

Francis Ventre - standards and legislation

Every building project involves the upholding of standards, some of which are embodied in legally binding regulations. Both the formulation and implementation of legislation is, at least in part, an ethical matter.

In his paper Regulation: a realisation of social ethics Francis Ventre, (1990) in Ethics and Architecture (ed Capelli et al) maintains that there is a strong argument for moving ethical discussion toward the institutions within which all professionals - both the morally aware and the ethically obtuse ' must operate, that is towards standards, regulations and legislation.

Regulations, broadly considered, are the means by which societies, using the coercive powers of government, mediate the private actions of individuals... Design and construction are, in short, regulated industries and building regulations reflect, however imperfectly, a society-wide understanding of what that society expects of its buildings and their environs.

The range of legislation is illustrated in the following list from the United States:

Date     Objective                                                          Initiators

1880     Curtail typhoid and noisome nuisance                  Sanitary engineers, public health physicians
1890     Improve housing and health                                 Housing reformers, plumbers
1900     Prevent conflagration                                          Fire insurance underwriters
1920)    Confine fires                                                      Fire services and underwriters
1975     Energy conservation                                           Resource conservation groups
1978     Historic preservation                                           Local and architectural history interests
1980     Accessibility for handicapped                              Architects, disabled citizens, gerontologists
            Indoor air quality
1990                                                                             Office worker unions, health organisations


It is these non-designers who have established and now maintain the rule structures and modes of discourse within which design is done.  

Ventre looks for a 'meta-narrative' within which the entire society acts as a collective client.

The rules for tomorrow's design and construction are yet to be written. But these rules most certainly will be written, whether by enlightened and sensitive designers intent on the creation of environments that enhance human potential for knowing a good life or by others who do not share that aspiration.

Tom Spector - project milieu

In The Ethical Architect (2001) Tom Spector talks in terms of the multi-facetted milieu of a building design or project

First he gives strong endorsement to the Vitruvian concepts of firmitas, utilitas, venustas, durability, convenience and beauty and their descendents as enunciated by Henry Wotton 'Well building hath three conditions  Commoditie, Firmenes, Delight -   While the Vitruvian/Wottonian definition of architectural values leaves the door wide open for conflict, yet, in Spector's view, it remains the most durable guide to practical design ethics. The good is found through wrestling with the dilemmas and conflicts.

Spector goes on to consider the ethical importance of a building's context. As architecture is the most context-sensitive of the arts he finds it perplexing that modern buildings so often make poor neighbours. Because context is not concerned with what goes on inside a building, he does not consider it has the same importance as the three Vitruvian/Wottonian values.

A further ethical consideration is the matter of styles, of which there are many. Here, in Spector's view, the task of morality becomes not so much to construct a universal tent covering everyone as to convince others to come in under the tent they find most hospitable. This, he believes, is exactly how a style operates.

Drawing his threads together, Spector argues that by considering the architect's ethical milieu as one in which the desires to be both a conscientious professional and a good designer are inextricably conjoined, the full bite of the ethical problem emerges.  Realistically, architects can expect to experience certain unease about their decisions, but this unease is not necessarily a bad thing. The moral complexity implied in a plurality of values is one of the things that makes design a source of fascination and allows it to be such a marvellously supple contributor to contemporary life. By personally facing the dilemmas and distancing themselves from ethical models of impersonal rationality, architects' ability to design becomes more closely aligned with personal development than with mechanical skill.

Colin St John Wilson - particular situations

From the plurality of values discussed by Spector, we move to Colin St John Wilson's essay on ethics in Architectural Reflections (1992) where he comments on the importance of perceiving the potential good in each architectural situation

The concept of the ethical proposed here is not that of the censor but of a creative force directing the agencies at work to their proper end, and drawing upon whatever is their intrinsic good to make possible a form of life that is wanted. This follows Wittgenstein for whom ethics was 'the enquiry into what is valuable or into what is really important.... into the meaning of life, into what makes life worth living, the right way of living'. It is the role of the ethical to pursue that which is most fruitful in the weaving together of innumerable patterns of operation in daily life.

Architecture is incontestably one of the practical arts, whose obligation is to serve ends other than itself. Every need for a building carries its own ontological code within it, and it is the task of architecture to draw out the intrinsic qualities and virtues of that appetite and by so doing give form to a form-of-life, 'a local habitation and a name'.

Gideon Golany - environmental order

From the particular building, we move to the environment in the widest sense. In Ethics and Urban Design (1995) Gideon Golany used scenarios from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to discern the moral relationships between environmental, social and built phenomena  

Ethic, Golany says, is the norms and standards constituted by a society to retain order and healthy management in its social and environmental setting, the discipline by which we measure what is good and bad, right and wrong, and define moral obligations. It is a group of moral principles or a set of values that is essential for human physical and mental survival. As such, ethic applies to community and individual behaviour as related to the code of urban setting, to the norms by which we create human-made environment, and to the way we treat the natural environment.

Golany enables us to perceive the healthy order of which he speaks in the context of early times:

'         The creation of the village was a result of humankind's growing maturity. Sociologically, people needed social progress and security. The village also provided a place for worship and in some cases an altar was built first and later the village grew up around it. Here, too, the village provided a place for assembly, ceremonial gatherings, and celebrations. Economically, the village strengthened a sense of mutual responsibility, a spirit of cooperation, and an appreciation of common interests. Politically, tribal leadership was strengthened through the village's new collective labour experience...  

'         On a larger scale, urban environmental ethics is the product of two generations of factors that may or may not be fused with each other through urban development. The first is the culture of urban residents by which they conduct their behaviour according to the norms and standards throughout their urban life, and which give ethics their urbanity. The second is the urban designers' input when they designed the neighbourhood and the city. This input was dictated by their professional norms, standards and values, based on their professional beliefs, which determine their ethics. Urban environmental ethics is the product of these two ethics. Indigenous urban design evolved as a system of 'urban design without the designer', and was in many cases successful in establishing urban harmony.

'         In order to secure the continuity of the [ Nile ] irrigation system, a social system developed that, sooner or later, led to the subjugation of large masses of people in order to operate it. Though irrigated agriculture is intensive and provides more than one crop cycle throughout the year, there were still periods during the year when most farm workers were unemployed. During these times, these labourers were used to work on other projects. It is my opinion that the monumental buildings, great temples and the pyramids were the by-product of this system... A good description of this system is provided in the Old Testament concerning the four-hundred-year stay of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt .

Nicholas Ray - attitudes and virtues

Nicolas Ray's text Architecture and its ethical dilemmas (2005) is a collection of conference papers. I have chosen four of them for comment here, all relating to attitudes and virtues..  

In his paper Practical wisdom for architects: the use of ethics Andrew Saint is concerned with character. Quoting the now legendary Arthur J Willis, he points out that in traditional contracts, although the architect is appointed by the client, he has a very real responsibility towards the building contractor, and must act quite impartially between the building owner and the contractor... To maintain this impartiality will require tact and strength of character and will provide the greatest test of the architect's integrity

But, Saint continues, for students and lovers of architecture, and among a fair proportion of architects in practice, a separate undertow of issues affects their thoughts and actions. What is architecture for? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? (Almost certainly not to make money.) Why is it important? What should it be like and look like? These are the big questions the responses to which are in some ways affected by character..

In his paper Responsive practice Giles Oliver comments on the two lenses through which public sector architecture is to be seen and on the personal qualities, particularly that of listening, which are therefore needed. In relation to a National Health Service scenario there are two distinct lenses. The first is the managerial lens, which seeks economies in cost, such as lease plus agreements, lower heating bills, fewer ambulance transfers, efficiencies in administrative staff numbers. The second is the lens of health care, which seeks a holistic response to the citizen's health care needs, both preventative and allopathic [curing disease], and meeting these on demand, equitably. Such incommensurable values twine together into the fabric of 'public sector values'. As architects ... we are immediately faced with ethical tensions and conflicts.

In life, there is considerable satisfaction in bringing a personally developed skill into play with others, in dialogue and through enquiry which involves close listening. Rather than welcoming the way the 'other' affects and changes our choices and actions, the 'other' becomes a threat. Architects are trained in the skills of persuasion rather than relationship building ...

In his paper On being a humble architect Sjoerd Soeters comments on the need for respect and agreement on basic values. He says, we should not work for people we do not respect: if you cannot identify with the aims of your client you should not accept the commission. My office turns down jobs where we find it will be impossible to relate new buildings to open spaces satisfactorily, where we cannot make a decent urban pattern or relationship of buildings to landscape. We are not content to design individual buildings that stand beside the highway calling attention to themselves...

In her paper Moral imagination and the practice of architecture Jane Collier is concerned with responsibility. Responsibility is always both individual and collective. In the case of architecture it is individual, for instance, when it relates to the aesthetic quality of the architect's work, but collective when it involves the joint action of designers, planners, builders and project managers in the inception and completion of a major project. Responsibility is thus implicated in the excellence of architectural practice, not simply in the narrow sense of competence and fulfilment of duties to uphold the interests of clients, but also in the wider sense of responsibility for the 'footprint' created by the shaping of the built environment now and its implications for the future.... Responsibility for the future is the crystallised essence of all responsibility.  

John Short - as if people matter

A fundamental human question is, 'What is a good city?' John Short's answer is in the title he gives to his book The Humane City : Cities as if People Matter (1991).

We have, he says, tried to run cities as if:

  • only capital matters - Capital is footloose and constantly searches for high profits. The scramble by capital away from declining sectors has enormous social costs for stranded workers and abandoned cities.
  • only professionals matter - Professional groups have taken over responsibility and gained too much power. There is a strong belief that someone else will fix things, and we have too much deference for professional groups. Good solutions lie not in dispensing with experts but in proper utilisation and democratisation of their skills.
  • only some people matter - As Colin Ward says in The Child in the City, '... the city exists for one particular kind of citizen: the adult, male, white-collar, out-of-town car user.'

Put positively, Short's message is that 'the humane city is the built form of the caring society'. That comes about through, in part:

- Community involvement at both the formulation and implementation stages of planning

- Original thought - Short tells his own story of political geography undergraduates who tended to produce dull, mediocre, uncritical work until set free, empowered, to choose, research and write on subjects of their own choice; when that happened everyone did well or excellently.

David Watkin - what architecture truly is  

In Morality and Architecture Revisited (2001) David Watkin asks where true architectural morality is. He answers that it is in individuals and freedom, and in the mysterious origins and the importance of 'style'.

Morality is not in being a mirror for other things. It cannot be explained away as a consequence or manifestation of something else, whatever happens to interest the particular critic most: whether religion, politics, sociology, philosophy, rationalism, technology, German theories of space, or of the spirit of the age.

Three of the most persistent explanations of architecture - in terms of (1) religion, sociology or politics; (2) the spirit of the age; and (3) a rational or technological justification - can be seen as respectively English, German and French. Cowling argued that the liberalism on which the modern world prided itself was in fact a rigid, moralizing orthodoxy, frequently narrower in its prescriptions than the religious certainties which it had replaced.

 Lutyens was one of the two or three most brilliant and successful architects England has ever produced, yet he completely ignored all the then current orthodoxies and conventions. I add this from Lutyens himself:

Styles, however, are no lie if looked at fairly as the recorded and often ill-recorded experience of men's endeavours. Among the most beautiful inhabitants of the world in which we live, you might place trees, and among trees the beech. How comes the beech to be? Created out of itself by the blind energy of its sap - no two trees are alike - yet all are akin and true to style. One may not appreciate style, but the experience of 3000 years of man's work - creative work cannot be disregarded unless we are prepared for disaster.

Karsten Harries - the ethical function of architecture

In The Ethical Function of Architecture (1997) Karsten Harries develops his belief that architecture has a specifically ethical function in that it calls us out of the everyday, recalls us to the values presiding over our lives as members of a society; it beckons us toward a better life, a bit closer to the ideal. One task of architecture is at least to preserve a piece of utopia, and inevitably such a piece leaves and should leave a sting, awaken utopian longings, fill us with dreams of another and better world.

... we have learned to be suspicious of all architecture that confidently embraces architecture's traditional ethical function. Any architect who today wants to address that function must be aware that he does so without authority, that he is a bit like the fool who says what he thinks needs to be said but can only hope that others will listen.

The ethical function includes the recognition of spirituality. Harries quotes Hans Hollein:

Architecture is a spiritual order realised through building.

Architecture - an idea built into an infinite space, manifesting man's spiritual energy and power, the material form and expression of his destiny, of his life.

From its origins until today the essence and meaning of architecture have not changed. To build is a basic human need. It is first manifested not in the setting up of protective roofs, but in the creation of sacred structures, in the indication of focal points of human activity - the beginning of the city.

All building is religious.

Although much of the world's building and architectural effort is concerned with homes and housing, nevertheless there is an essential homelessness in the ethical vision:

To be genuinely at home in this world, we have to affirm our essential homelessness, a homelessness illuminated by shifting ideals of genuine dwelling, figures of home and precarious conjectures about what it might mean to dwell near the centre ... every attempt to step into the true centre, to come home... more especially to make the house into such a home denies the true ec-centricity of human dwelling - an ec-centricity that needs to be thought in relation to a centre, but a centre that withdraws whenever we seek to seize it.

Joseph Kleihues - 'architecture as...'

Joseph Kleihues' piece Architecture is Rare in Ethics and Architecture (ed Capelli et al) is special because its layout as blank verse indicates clearly that it is addressing the way we can think, almost the way we can believe. While he doubtless advisedly speaks of 'architecture', I think his thoughts apply across the whole built environment field. Architecture/built environment can be humourless, malevolent, even nothing. But it can also encourage people and renew places.

            usually humourless, now and then even malevolent.
Architecture will be talked into nothingness;
         the mediocre consensus will have the last word against architecture
Architecture is rare:
Architecture as encouragement
            against an increasingly administered world in which client and architect
            increasingly relieve themselves
            of responsibility and commitment
Architecture as contradiction
            against unpolitical technicism and an instrumental way of thought,
            where planning and building are perverted into routine.
Architecture as example
            against a superficial belief in experience and function and a utilitarian
            rationalism  which negates all poetry
Architecture as poetry
against the blind order of arrogant expediency
Architecture looking back
humble and enthusiastic
Architecture as learning
in the classical landscapes, from
Nepal 's mountain villages and from
            Las Vegas
Architecture as renewer
            in dialectic with Alberti, Palladio, Schinkel, and all the saints
Architecture as a possible category of the new
            recognizing what is always the same within always new wrappings
Architecture in search of broadened autonomy
            distoning lovingly, gathering attributes... against and separate from the
            moral terror of pure reason and empirical realities, withdrawing from the
            market's wear and tear
Architecture as yearning
            also as pleasure on the participant's part



The following are examples of specific cross-links which can readily be found between the two sets of texts:

  1. Golany and Barbour are concerned with environmental ethics
  1. Golany and Mills refer to the Egypt/Joseph narratives of the Old Testament
  1. Mills' comments on Job led us to ask 'Where is the dung heap and who is sitting on it?' is an embodiment of Harries' assertion that 'All building [and therefore planning] is religious'.
  1. Woods and Ventre are concerned with legislation and regulation as an expression of ethics.
  1. Wright is concerned with the good person and Short with the good city, while Oppenheimer alludes to the good building.
  1. Harries' necessary intellectual homelessness contrasts with Weber's home within the Christian faith community
  1. Williams' speaking of an artist's - or architect's - imagination gradually stirred into life and discovering a vision which takes control of him and which he feels not only able but compelled to express resonates with Wilson's belief that it is the role of the ethical to pursue that which is most fruitful in the weaving together of innumerable patterns of operation in daily life.
  1. Kleihues' contribution both in the form of verse and specifically affirming architecture as poetry, links with Weber's observation that 'Christ is artist and we God's poems'

More generally, reflection on the texts suggests that:  

  1. The Christian ethics texts place a strong emphasis on individual persons being nurtured in a faith community, whereas the Built Environment texts are generally more impersonal
  1. Both sets of texts illustrate the concept that ethics can be informative and challenging without being narrowly prescriptive. This is related to Spector's reference to the unease necessarily present in architectural ethical decision-making and Watkin's dissent from moralising orthodoxies. Williams is similarly emphasises that ethical insight, like resurrection, is not a static, unchangeable standard but something which grows and changes. And Collier distinguishes between the narrow responsibilities of professional duty and the broader responsibility of making a good architectural footprint.
  1. We live simultaneous pilgrimages, our Christian life and our Built Environment life. Certainly in the case of built environment professionals the pilgrimages together define a large part of who we are. Our integration in our own lives and work yields our contribution to the ethical and the good.
  1. Both pilgrimages have practical and spiritual termini. That perhaps is a fundamental of human life that we constantly journey between these two. Harries specifically draws attention to the spiritual function of architecture. Sedgwick says that such practical/spiritual  life is intrinsically sacramental in nature
  1. Texts cannot live our lives for us but they are like fragments of a mirror in which we can see parts of ourselves. When we put the fragments together as best we can, we begin to see our whole selves, the life we live, the work we do, the God whose presence we sense.
  1. Texts are friends for the journey. Each reader must find their own selection. This paper includes just my selection



Barbour, Ian (1992) Ethics in an Age of Technology London : SCM Press   

Collier, Jane (2005) Moral imagination and the practice of architecture in Ray, Nicholas (ed) architecture and its ethical dilemmas 

London ; Taylor & Francis

Fewings, Peter (2009) Ethics for the built environment London : Taylor & Francis

Golany, Gideon S (1995)  Ethics and Urban Design  New York : John Wiley & Sons

Harries Karsten (1997) The Ethical Function of Architecture  London : The MIT Press

Hauerwas, Stanley (1983) The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics London : SCM Press

Kleiheus, Joseph Paul (1990). Architecture is Rare in Ethics and Architecture ed John Patelli et al University of Pennsylvania :

The Graduate School of Fine Arts

Lutyens, Mary (1980, 1991) Edwin Lutyens London: Black Swan Books

Mills, Mary E (2001) Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives Aldershot : Ashgate

Oliver,  Giles (2005) Responsive practice in Ray, Nicholas (ed) architecture and its ethical dilemmas  London ; Taylor & Francis

Oppenheimer, Helen (2001) Making Good London : SCM Press

Patelli, John et al (eds) Ethics and Architecture University of Pennsylvania : The Graduate School of Fine Arts

Ray, Nicholas (ed) architecture and its ethical dilemmas London ; Taylor & Francis

Saint,   Andrew (2005) Practical wisdom for architects: the use of ethics in Ray, Nicholas (ed) architecture and its ethical dilemmas 

London ; Taylor & Francis

Sedgwick, Timothy F (1987)   Sacramental Ethics Philadelphia : Fortress Press

Short, John (1991) The Humane City: Cities as if People Matter   Oxford : Basil Blackwell

Soeters, Sjoerd (2005) On being a humble architect in Ray, Nicholas (ed) architecture and its ethical dilemmas  London ; Taylor & Francis

Spector, Tom  (2001) The Ethical Architect   New York : Princeton Architectural Press

Ventre, Francis T Paul (1990). Regulation: a realisation of social ethics in Ethics and Architecture ed John Patelli et al

University of Pennsylvania : The Graduate School of Fine Arts

Watkin, David  (2001) Morality and Architecture Revisited   London : John Murray

Weber, Hans-Ruedi (1986) Living in the Image of Christ Geneva : WCC Publications

Williams, HA (1972) True Resurrection London : Michael Beazley

Wilson , Colin St John (1992) Architectural Reflections: studies in the philosophy and practice of architecture London : Butterworth

Wogaman, J Philip (1986) Economics and Ethics London : SCM Press

Wood, GF (!966) A Defence of Theological Ethics Cambridge University Press    

Wright, Frank (1988) Exploration into Goodness London : SCM Press


Home Page




' copyright www.building-theology.org.uk