The moral obligation of a designer

By Arnaud Marthouret, ~5 min reading time.

 Image courtesy of  @kaboompics

Image courtesy of @kaboompics

Let’s get a little personal, shall we?

Years ago, I attended a world-famous design school, which shall remain nameless, that had just completed a brand-new shiny building the year before I enrolled. Said building was designed by a Tier-B starchitect. Not someone of the caliber of a Frank, Renzo or Zaha, but rather the architecture equivalent of a minor TV celebrity. Well known in the design world, but a virtual stranger to non-architects.

This architect was notorious for designing buildings which were colorful, playful and whimsical, but also equally painful to inhabit. From difficulty to maintain, to poor construction, without forgetting being highly uncomfortable to their occupants. At the time, this new design school building was the talk of the town and the reason I even knew the school existed in the first place. It was an exciting time to be part of a cohort of students who were pegged as a pioneering class in a visionary school. This new shiny building that I was to spend two years of my life in, alas, was no different from the architect’s previous designs, as my experience would later demonstrate.

It turned out that all the hype about the building was just that. The visionary culture the school seemingly demonstrated, was but a thin layer of shiny but fragile varnish, much like its flagship building was but a vacuous shell, colourful and playful on the outside, with nothing of substance to show for inside. The designers had spent so much time, effort and money into making the building look unique and radical, that they had completely forgotten some of the most important stakeholders in the process: the users, who were living in the building day in and day out, burning the midnight oil on a regular basis. We had to put up with suffocating, generic spaces, poorly lit and even more poorly climate controlled, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dark. It was never to be comfortable.


Up to code or up to snuff?

Needless to say that the building was up to code, but like many, many other buildings before it, it turns out that up to code is hardly a gauge of quality when it comes to the way we, little humans, inhabit space. It begs the question: what is the responsibility of the designer in those matters?

It is understood that when it comes to executing something as big and complex as a building, there are many moving parts to oversee and that some of it is bound to fall outside of the designer’s responsibility. Contractors, consultants and sub-trades all have a part of responsibility in the ultimate success of a building. However, when a building turns out to be a monumental pain in the ass, for reasons which can be traced back to the way it is designed, then the moral responsibility of the building’s failure to perform falls squarely on the designer.

This is where, we have the moral obligation to take ownership of the work we do. Mike Monteiro wrote about it when speaking about visual designers. I believe designers of buildings have the same responsibility. The responsibility of ensuring that what is being built is not only going to stand up for a long time, but is going to have a positive impact on its occupants. We now have a pretty good grasp of what constitute good, healthy environments for their occupants. Natural light, colours, acoustics, temperature, social interactions, access, vegetation, air quality, textures, materials, etc., all play a part in the way we perceive and gauge the quality of an environment. The science behind each and every one of these factors is by now well established. How is it that buildings that cannot accommodate their occupants in ways that are if not positive, at the very least neutral, are still being built?


Less Facebook, more Bruce Campbell.

Facebook has a history of causing damage to some of their users, because they fall between the cracks and are considered statistical outliers. These statistical outliers are people and what facebook does to them affect their lives. The same goes for architecture. There are examples of places where certain categories of users are completely forgotten and left to deal with spaces that make their life and work miserable.

This is not to say that there aren’t good buildings out there, because there most definitely are. But, I believe the tendency to cut corners because budgets are low and clients want their project completed yesterday. I get it, we’re often squeezed between a rock and a hard place and it’s quite stressful. However, there is hope.

By taking ownership of the value of your work and start pushing clients back when they insist on cutting corners and doing short-sighted or even indubitably dumb things, there is an opportunity to build an expertise in a particular niche where you can over time, become comfortable with defending your ideas and expertise, which in turn will be more valuable because now you stand for something and can demonstrate the value of your thinking tangibly. While it may turn some people off, it will also attract people that are aligned with your values and willing to pay a premium for your services.

Deep expertise in one area comes at the expense of unfit clients, a good thing to thrive for in my opinion. Not unlike a good horror b-movie, it’s not for everyone but those who like it are usually very engaged fans.

Strive to be the Bruce Campbell of architecture.


Further reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/14/communities.arts

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2007/jul/21/architecture


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.