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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/22/21

The Ethics of Architecture

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Paul Kelpe: (Machinery Abstract #2), 1934
Paul Kelpe: (Machinery Abstract #2), 1934
(Image by americanartmuseum from flickr)
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The Industrial Revolution transformed building from a craft using local materials built by hand into a mechanized process dependent on a global supply chain, and, at least in the West, is now built by hands manipulating machinery. Architecture purports to give this process meaning beyond the utilitarian, but when all construction, artful or not, is subsumed within capitalism, it is pursued with a greed that now imperils the planet.

Today, those who practice architecture's arts and sciences are engulfed within the Anthropocene, an epoch characterized by epidemic, species extinction, a human population ballooning towards eight billion, rampant destruction of habitat and, most pernicious of all, runaway global warming.

In these circumstances it is an intrepid author who braves the subject of ethics in the profession. The finer points of morality in this and so many other pursuits now have all the relevance of moving the deck chairs. The iceberg is visible, although slowly melting, and our fate is sealed. Yet the orchestra plays on. Now, Mark Kingwell offers us a diverting entertainment in, The Ethics of Architecture, 2021, the first volume in the Oxford University Press series, 'Ethics in Context'.

My context is as follows. I am an almost retired, recovering architect living at the Wildland Urban Interface in the foothills of California's Santa Ynez Mountains between two small towns: one, named Ojai, dependent on the tourism based on its spectacular mountain scenery and its intact early twentieth century, Spanish Colonial Revival shopping arcade; and the other, Santa Paula, reliant on the agriculture and oil of the Santa Clara River basin in which it lays. Both towns offer broad access to the Pacific coast some fifteen miles away in the City of Ventura.

The ethics involved in building replicas of the mission style architecture which originally arrived in California in 1769, with the Franciscans and their posse of Spanish troops, have lately been clarified. The statue of Fr. Junipero Serra, the founder of the mission system in California, and thus intimately involved in the genocidal destruction of the local Indigenous peoples, was removed from Ventura City Hall in 2020. His image has also been expunged from the County seal. But the architectural tropes that are the signifiers of the mission style remain much in evidence and will, at least in my mind, be forever associated with that genocide. Sixteen miles to the east, the eclectic architectural riches of Santa Paula reflect its history as the headquarters of the Union Oil Company and as the hub of the surrounding agribusinesses.

Kingwell suggests that the first question the ethical architect must answer is, "who do you work for". Ojai's arcade was commissioned by a Chicagoan glass manufacturer who made the town a part of his 'Romance of the Ranchos' fantasy - entirely distanced from both the local realities of the decimated, deracinated and impoverished indigenous people and the low-wage Latinx farm workers who labored (and whose decedents still labor) in the nearby orange groves. Entrepreneurs of early twentieth century oil exploration, and those who first destroyed local grasslands and riparian habitat - one of the last refuges of the surviving native population - to farm mostly luxury fruits and vegetables, were the clients who commissioned Santa Paula's array of finely wrought commercial buildings.

In lands as highly contested as the United States, the ethics of architecture are a weapon in the hands of competing interests. Kingwell acknowledges as much, when he writes, "All social space is suffused with meanings and agendas, the very stones and walls a kind of testament to the ongoing struggles for liberation and justice". The local small-town buildings to which I have referred are now besmirched by contemporary standards of wokeness. Their historical realities are deprecated as a part of a greater awareness of the horrific depredations of settler colonialism and of the price paid, in a society fueled, then and now, by fossil biomass and fed by an industrial agriculture that responds to profit rather than the need for human nutrition.

My context is more than the two quaint, historic towns that bracket my existence amidst the chaparral, at the very edge of the 220,000-acre Sespe Wilderness. It also embraces my proximity to Los Angeles, about seventy-five miles down the coast. To get there I drive through Santa Paul to Oxnard, a light industrial and farming community that runs between the Santa Clara River delta and the City of Ventura. The link road to the Pacific Coast Highway takes me across a richly fertile sedimentary plain, a portion of which has just been sacrificed to the Gods of Consumption as the site for an Amazon Fulfillment Center. The historic Sakioka Farm (the Japanese formed the second wave of Agricultural workers in pre-war California) was acquired by Amazon in 2020 and now a behemoth has arisen in the shape of two concrete tilt-up buildings laid end-to-end that stretch for half a mile across the plain. They are bordered by a hundred or more acres of graded and drained land that will serve as a car park for its workers and, who knows, perhaps as an auxiliary portal for Bezos' Blue Origin spaceship.

Fed by a supply chain that winds through China's emerging belt and road system which will then travel across the Pacific to the Los Angeles container terminal, where goods will be trucked up U.S. Route 101, this enterprise is a triumph of laissez faire, let-the-market-rule neoliberalism. The energy footprint of the building and its proposed contents is incalculable, notwithstanding the field of rare earth Chinese photovoltaics on the building's roof, backed-up by ranks of lithium cobalt batteries below, all built on the backs of open-pit mine workers oceans away. The engineers, construction managers, and perhaps an in-house architect, all checked their ethics at the door, as did the City Council that proclaimed this as a huge win for the people of Oxnard by adding nearly 1,500, soon-to-be-replaced-by-robots, low-wage jobs to the community.

All this is pertinent because my context, like that of the future workers at the local Fulfillment Center, and all the inhabitants of the surrounding region, is also one of frequent wild fires, floods, drought, water shortages, power outages, debris flows, and periods of extreme heat, all of which can be attributed to rising atmospheric levels of CO2. While Kingwell acknowledges levels of risk, predominantly in the global south "where large chunks of the earth's population daily face material challenges unknown to the rest of the world" he does so as a self-admitted, "global globetrotter of a certain vintage, luckier than most".

Primarily ensconced at the University of Toronto, which sits on land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca and the Mississaugas, the author is not entirely immune to the negative manifestations of late modernity. He prefaces his book with an essay on the impacts of Covid-19, provocatively titled 'Plague Cities of the Future', but the delightfully erudite and gracefully written chapters that constitute the main body of his work disavow any sort of existential alarm at the beleaguered condition of the planet - much of which is attributable to our predilection for pouring concrete (his favorite architectural material), our massive consumption of carbon laced fuels, our often extravagant lifestyles that depend on acquiring cheap goods from across the world, and for eating industrially farmed cheap food.

Ethical positions within the United States are in a constant process of reassessment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the arena of environmental justice. The industrial poisoning of front-line communities continues. As reported in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects (Architect, September 2021), the U.K. multi-disciplinary group, Forensic Architecture, has studied an area that spans Louisiana known as 'Death Alley' where plastic and oil processing plants produce some of the nation's most toxic air resulting in an abnormally high incidence of cancer, pulmonary and other diseases, amongst inhabitants of neighboring residential districts. These petrochemical facilities are predominantly built upon former sugarcane plantations where the informal graves of African slaves, who died in service to their putative owners, are now sequestered - creating a palimpsest of racism. As Jill Lepore reports, (The New Yorker October 4, 2021) African American graveyards are routinely developed for construction projects across the South creating what she calls an "apartheid of the departed". In 1990, the passage of the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) ensured some protection for the graves of Indigenous Peoples, but no such protection is afforded the graves of African Americans. The construction development process is initiated in a site evaluation, a process which architects customarily manage. As Kingwell suggests, any reasonable self-enquiry of "who do you work for" must embrace the goals of environmental and racial justice.

This country's infrastructure program is at least partly based on the enrichment of the design, engineering and construction industries which routinely use federal funds to create carbon bombs - projects which liberate massive amounts of greenhouse gases while creating new urban developments, roads, bridges, seawalls, and dykes - all hardened to mitigate the very impacts they propagate. This irony is largely missed on Capitol Hill and likely does not feature in any ethical enquiry undertaken by the professions who undertake the program's implementation. Ethics in Architecture is a timely reminder of the professional responsibilities of those charged with making the world a better place through their thoughtful interventions in the built environment. But as I have indicated, contemporary standards of mechanized construction, which involve catastrophic levels of embedded energy, like steel and concrete, use profligate amounts of industrially harvested wood, plastics, gyprock, and off-gassing synthetic polymers, renders almost all building antithetical to personal and planetary well-being.

The eighteenth-century liberal ideals upon which this country's political system is based, and to which all its citizens are expected to pay obeisance, were the philosophical justification of modernity as the epochal successor to the stifling hierarchies of aristocracy. But modernity was, and is, a project built upon the subjugation of the peoples of the global south and on the environmental rape of their lands. Understandably, as an elite, liberal academic, Kingswell seems entirely more comfortable discussing early twentieth-century modernism in literature and architecture than broaching the ethical dissonances afforded by the heinous legacies of the last six hundred years of Western civilization. He concedes that life is now '"shot through with commitment to the goods and services of the global economy" and that "we are capitalism made flesh". Yet he seems unwilling to delve too deeply into the historical conditions that created this condition.

Instead, the author gleefully embraces the notion of progress, the engine of modernity. He applauds the innovations which were built upon the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, began to be fully manifested in the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth, and were then refined under the fertile conditions of global war in the twentieth, and have now led us to the cusp of A.I. in the twenty-first. He is a fan of the future. He embraces a 'post-human' scenario in which we meld our biological selves with an electronic carapace that communes with our 'smart' environment.

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John Davis is a practicing architect in Ojai, California. He has taught Environmental Humanities at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and at Viridis Graduate Institute. He blogs on history and the environment at  (more...)

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