Moral Imagination: Rethinking the Relationship Between Aesthetics & Ethics in Architecture

In a riveting Dezeen article of March 2019 entitled: It’s time for architects to choose ethics over aesthetics, Christine Murray hits the nail on the head.

“What is the point of firmness, commodity and delight in the face of crop failure, nothing to drink, or breathe? Forty per cent of insect species are in decline; if we lose them all, we have no pollination – nothing to eat – and the entire ecosystem collapses due to starvation. What matters is now, not whether your stone facade is still standing at the fall of mankind,” she writes.

It is Mandela month. A month to focus on the social injustices in South Africa, and try to do something about them. Like the famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi states: You must be the change you wish to see in the world. That’s why as an architectural firm, we cannot turn a blind eye to the direct impact our industry has on the health of our communities. It is essential that architects around the world start rethinking morality in architecture as a matter of urgency.

Morality in Architecture

Morality in architecture is more than just the normal code of ethics all architectural firms adhere to. It asks of us to question the social, political and ecological impacts of every building we design.

But perhaps the first question is “Why?”. Why do architects have a responsibility to mankind?

Because it all starts with the design.

And apart from having all the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to design with a conscience, architects are essentially artists. Creative beings that are able to bring moral imagination to the table.

Before even starting the design of a building project, architects need to consider and plan for the following:

  1. The health of end-users.
  2. The health of the people working on the project.
  3. The current and future impacts on the environment.
  4. The impact on the greater community.

The above four points are all incredibly important within the topic of moral imagination. But the impact on the environment is perhaps the most unpopular one, yet within the context of climate change, it is the most important.

Ethical Aesthetics

Architecture is all about form and function. The “form” part, or the aesthetics of a design encompass everything that helps to create a pleasing appearance. In other words shape, size, texture, colour, balance, movement, unity, rhythm, symmetry, contrast, emphasis, proportions, space, alignment, patterns, decoration etc.

Why can’t we choose to design using aesthetics that address climate change?

Is it impossible to source local, natural, low carbon materials, or choose to reuse materials and repurpose existing buildings instead of tearing down and starting from scratch? No. Perhaps more time-consuming and more expensive but certainly not impossible.

It is time to bridge the gap between designing aesthetically and designing ethically and realise that through moral imagination they can be one and the same thing.

The Future of Architecture

Sadly, ethically-minded architecture is a choice and not a requirement. Architects need to win over clients to choose using regenerative design principles and ethical aesthetics.

While this is a mind shift we cannot achieve overnight (or alone for that matter), there is urgency here.

Murray writes in the same article: “At current rates of [global] warming, most places will become uninhabitable due to floods, wildfires, drought and heatwaves – triggering mass migration. War and famine will follow as we move inland and scrabble over resources. This is not happening in the distant future. Read the news: from cyclone Idai to the Central American caravans, Southern Californian fires to the war in Syria, the process has already begun.”

At Veld Architects, we are committed to fighting climate change one project at a time.

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