In the second of his series on the deadly sins of architecture, Robert Adam tackles conceit, which takes the bizarre form of designers pretending be members of the medical profession
When architects are feeling down at the mouth, they pretend to be doctors. They don’t go around asking people to cough or tap their knees, but they do claim the moral high ground that they assume is also occupied by the medical profession. Instead of being hated serial despoilers of treasured towns and cities, they want to be respected, important and above all they want everyone to think that they’re ethical.
As most people don’t like what most architects do, the friendly GP won’t quite fit the picture. It’s more like “trust me I’m doctor” as they amputate both legs. Architects will tell you that they must perform “radical surgery” on cities by cutting bits off and replacing them with shiny metal prosthetics. Or they will insist that they’ll improve your “quality of life” by giving you minimalist shock treatment.
By imagining that they have taken some sort of aesthetic Hippocratic oath, they fool themselves with the conceit that their fantastical schemes are really a dose of medicine for the good of a society. Sometimes they go so far as to claim that their sinister attempts at social engineering might save lives. Scared of being just the design department of the construction industry, they’ve created a monstrous delusion of self-importance.
As most people don’t like what most architects do, the friendly GP won’t quite fit the picture. It’s more like ‘trust me I’m a doctor’ as they amputate both legs
In the past few years, a dream opportunity has turned up that allows architects to assume new heights of moral righteousness. Now they can claim not just to be curing social ills or rescuing the aesthetically threatened, but to be saving the whole world. Delivering the planet from the very developments that are their stock in trade has become the religion of the architectural profession. Not content with regulations and guidelines, they take on a moral duty to go one better. All sorts of sexy-looking eco-bling, that probably does the planet no good whatsoever gets stuck onto buildings. Architects don’t check if making it, transporting it and maintaining it cancels out any imagined benefits. The purpose is less to save the planet than to make the architect look good and give them a comforting glow of self-satisfaction.
Propping up this fantasy self-righteousness are the high priestesses of smug who preach in professional magazines. A brilliantly circular doctrine of architectural morality as the path to true happiness is preached. The high priestess will tell you that she has been so virtuous with her designs that she has achieved nirvanah, and that if you haven’t been as virtuous as she then you can’t be truly happy. You might be going along with the sad illusion that you’re perfectly happy but you can’t be because you haven’t experienced the same levels of morally creative bliss. You won’t know until you’ve got there and if you don’t want to get there you’ll never find out. There’s no way out of this one.
But really we all know that architects are either business men or women pretending to be artists, or artists who can’t run a proper business. They do a job for money and do as they’re told or they don’t get any money and don’t do the job. And there’s nothing very ethical in architecture if you can’t do any of it. Philip Johnson, the famous American architect, got it about right when he said, “architects are prostitutes”. While they’re ready to rubbish the architecture of the past, which they don’t fancy just because a dictator happened to like it, today our ennobled architects do mega glass and steel jobs for some pretty dodgy regimes and don’t think twice. Architects’ ethics come from the chequebooks of their clients.
Scared of being just the design department of the construction industry, architects have created a monstrous delusion of self-importance
Architects may have more in common with the oldest profession than the medical profession but the doctor delusion is not just more respectable, it’s much more convenient. This way they can carry on doing pretty much what they like, pretend that they know best about what’s good for society and then claim that they’re not really doing it for cash or ego but for the highest moral principles. It doesn’t matter if nobody wants it or likes it – you know it’s good for them and you’re know you’re good for giving it to them. This is the perfect conceit.
But unlike doctors, architects don’t wait for their patients to come to them or ask them if they want to be cured. Of course not; there’s a good chance they’ll tell you they don’t want the cure and, worse still, they might even tell you they’re not ill.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects.