Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Declaration of Boston

At last June's AIA/ACSA Cranbrook Teachers' Academy (and by the way, if you want to see social class on the ground, there's no better hour than the trip from the Detroit airport to Bloomfield Hills and Cranbrook...), we spent a fair bit of time looking at whether architecture had an ethical basis. Once I got home, I looked at the AIA code of professional conduct, which is mostly about not cheating your clients and horning in on other architects' turf. But I also came across the Declaration of Geneva, which is an internationally used statement of ethical principles in medicine. I've made appropriate modifications in content but not in spirit, and have called it the Declaration of Boston. Here it is:

I SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to consecrate my life:
to the service of social justice;
to the stewardship of the environment;
to the protection of public health and safety;
to the promotion of aesthetic delight; and
to my clients’ organizational effectiveness.

I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity.
I WILL GIVE to my colleagues the respect and gratitude that is their due.
I WILL HOLD the welfare of the community as my first consideration.
I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after my client has died.
I WILL MAINTAIN by all the means in my power, the honor and the noble traditions of the design professions.
I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to preclude me from carrying out my responsibilities.
I WILL NOT USE my knowledge to violate human rights, civil liberties, or community well-being, even under threat.

I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely and upon my honor.

So -- who's ready to sign? And if you're not, what are your reservations about it?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stone geese, windmills, and fiberglass deer

In his blog post this week, Steven Munger wrote about the meaning of cast concrete lawn animals. He said in part, "Both of the articles, Bickford and Duncan, deal with semiology, how we read and interpret the world around us through symbols, and interpret these symbols as social constructs. "

As any student of non-verbal communication will tell you, there are very few people with so little ego that we don't care how others perceive us. And even without an audience, we're sending messages to ourselves as well. How many of us have a "power shirt" that we wear when we're going to a crucial meeting or interview? That's only partly there to impress the clients; more importantly, we feel more powerful merely putting it on.

So a concrete goose can signal "love of nature, but under control" in a suburban boxwood hedge, and a Van Heusen button-tab shirt can give us more confidence on some mornings than our college degrees. It seems likely to me that all of our objects carry meanings. (How those meanings are read by others is an entirely open question, of course, but we do intend something when we accessorize our bodies, our hair, our cars, our offices, our homes.)

In her book House as a Mirror of Self (a book based on nearly 30 years of her academic research and private consulting), Clare Cooper Marcus asserts that the exterior of the house (and our choice of the neighborhood it resides in) represents the messages that we intend to send others -- "I belong here," or "I've made it economically," or "I'm vivacious and unconventional," or "go to hell." She also believes that the interior of the house is equally laden, and that the further we go into the private regions of the house, the more we're "talking to ourselves" -- affirming the things we hope to be true.

My partner and I have this problem quite a lot. I have an image of myself as unconcerned with material things, and I try to keep my apartment as free from extraneous objects as I possibly can. My rule of thumb is that if I haven't used it in the past six months, I probably shouldn't own it. My partner (who lives four hours away) has an entirely different set of material connections -- she has many, many things that hold memories and meanings, and regularly accumulates more. So when she visits me or when I visit her, we're entering not merely the other's home, but the other's value system and identity.

All of this material meaning represents a problem of sorts for the professional designer. Unless you spend your career exclusively designing isolated vacation homes, all of the work that you do will affect the meanings of entire neighborhoods or communities. The Apple Store you'll be working on will become a paragraph in the short story that is the commercial Back Bay. The new academic building you're working on will be a phrase in the composition of the campus.

Architects are interested in buildings -- as designed objects, as technical solutions. That interest is what drove us into the field. But I think that it's not a generally shared interest. I'd argue that most people are interested in the story, and where they fit into it. The meanings we "send" are not the same as the meanings that are "received," just as the meaning sent by the plastic lawn deer wearing the Christmas wreath ("This suburban house represents living in nature, or at least nearer than I could in my old city apartment, and I attend regularly and carefully to the state of my belongings") is not the same as the meaning received by those of us in the more educated class ("this is a house occupied by a taste-deprived hick with too much time on their hands").

So how can your work make sense within someone else's story? Does it matter whether it does or not? How much do you want to change the story through your work? And can you read the story well enough to be able to make your paragraph comprehensible within it?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Notes on "Class"

In order to fully understand either Bickford or Duncan, we need to think about the ways in which they use the word "class." In everyday use, it's become almost meaningless -- if you're not homeless and you're not Bill Gates, then you're "middle class." If the word is to have any utility, it has to make finer distinctions than that.

In most academic work, "class" is used to mean not merely an amount of money, but more importantly an attitude and set of expectations toward money. So we might consider the terms "working class," "professional class," and "capital class." For the working class, money is drawn from wage income derived from (mostly) physical labor, and for the most part spent at about the same rate that it's earned. For the professional class, money is drawn from salary income derived from (mostly) information labor, and there's often enough left to invest for future needs like housing purchases or college tuition. For the capital class, money is drawn from income on investment, and with any smarts at all, most of it gets reinvested and becomes increased capital. (A side note -- "money" is used for transactions for goods and services; "capital" is used for investment to make more money.) My middle brother is a case in point -- he's a small building contractor who does spec houses and pole barns and the occasional commercial/retail building. He's the only millionaire in the family, but he's squarely working class in his view of the world. I have far less money, but I'm a member of the professional class in these terms (and to some extent in my attitudes as well, but more on that in a minute).

So Duncan's alpha and beta landscapes aren't a division between raw amounts of money but a division between a capital-class and a working-class culture.

There has been a lot of research on the ways in which class is transmitted through families through the language used, the economic habits taught, and external reinforcement by people who see a child as a member of a certain class and treat them accordingly. In one brilliant study done in the late 1970s, four teams of researchers were sent to four different schools in the same district during the same two-week period. The schools were neighborhood-based, which is to say that they were divided by social class since housing (as we've seen) is divided by social class. The researchers focused on fifth-grade, and during the two weeks they were there, the entire district fifth-grade was doing a social studies unit on Ancient Greece. You would expect , given a common curriculum, that the experiences in these schools would have been similar. But no. In the poorest school, the curriculum for the most part was "Sit down. Put that away. Be quiet." In the working-class school, the curriculum was procedural: "In order to do your project, here are the steps you need to follow." In the professional-class school, the curriculum was creative -- making drama masks, putting on plays, making sugar-cube models of the Acropolis. And in the capital-class school, the curriculum was strategic: "What do you think the Athenians would have done if Sparta hadn't been such a military power?"

In each case, the children were being trained to replicate their parents, to take on the same roles and attitudes and kinds of work.

And social class endures strongly. In his 2004 book Limbo, journalist Alfred Lubrano describes what it means to be a working-class kid who grew up and took a professional-class job. His dad was a Brooklyn bricklayer, but sent his kids to college (and for the working class, college is not a place to become a sophisticated thinker -- which is seen as both threatening and frivolous -- but rather economic preparation that allows your kids to work indoors and not get hurt on the job). So Alfred graduates from Columbia University's journalism school, and lives at home for a few months after graduation. One day, he gets a call that he's got a job offer. When his dad comes home, Alfred says, "Dad! I got a job!"

Dad's thrilled. "That's great. What paper are you gonna be working for?"

Alfred says, "It's in Youngstown, Ohio."

"OHIO?!? Where the fuck is Ohio?"

"No, Dad, it's not that far away. I'll be able to come home for holidays."

"How much they payin' you?"

"It's really good for a starting salary -- $18,500." (this was in the mid-'70s)

Dad looks Alfred square in the face, and says, "I make more than that. There's only two things important in the world -- money and your family. And you ain't gettin' either one of 'em."

Limbo is about half drawn from Lubrano's personal experience, and half from over a hundred interviews he did with other working-class kids who entered professions. And they're not at home in either world. They don't understand the unwritten rules that all of their colleagues seem to have internalized, but they've changed enough that their families seem somehow unsophisticated and uneducated, maybe even a little embarassing.

I'm in that boat, one of the people whom Lubrano calls "straddlers." My dad dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked as a machinist his entire adult life. I was the first of my family to go to a four-year college, and I hung around long enough to get a Ph.D. and stay in the college/professional environment. When I visit with my brothers, whom I love, we have almost nothing to talk about. I dwell in the world of ideas, and they dwell in the world of labor and the objects that it allows them to buy. But when I spend too much time with my colleagues at work, I sometimes get tired of the strategizing and office politics, and don't understand why we don't just DO something.

This is the kind of tension that both Bickford and Duncan intend to convey through their use of a simple, small word.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Client Relations

The question of which profession is most analogous to architecture is an interesting one, and one that occupied quite a lot of time at this summer's AIA/ACSA Cranbrook Institute. So let's pursue it. What other industries have "clients" rather than "customers?"

Social Services.

The word "client" comes from the latin word cliens, meaning follower or dependent. The Online Etymology Dictionary ( adds that "The ground sense is of one who leans on another for protection."

So as professionals, we protect our clients. We already know that from the health, safety and welfare components of our work, but architects also protect their clients legally and financially.

The question arises, though, whether we have responsibilities to "protect" those who are not our clients. Let's say we're designing a high school (the building type I know best). The client is the party with the checkbook -- the school district, and its State sponsors. So clearly we're required to protect their interests. But there are also innumerable teachers, students, parents, administrative assistants, and coaches who will inhabit this place. Some clients are good at acting as proxies for their ultimate users, and others are awful at it. And then there's the neighborhood surrounding the school -- we have indirect impacts on their lives, through issues of noise and traffic and fear of teenagers, but we also have a direct impact on their property values, whether positive or negative.

Bickford, I think, might argue that conceiving of design and planning as a client/professional exchange is one of the root causes of the spatial inequality that she describes, because it allows the privileged (those who have money to be a design client) to make decisions that affect many others.

So if a client is "one who leans on another for protection," then who protects all the non-clients?

Monday, August 6, 2007


On pages 357-358 of her essay, Susan Bickford expands on prior work by Hannah Arendt and Richard Sennett, two philosophers of public life, through the following passage:

The public is a place of risk, uncertainty, incompleteness. The outside, as Sennett points out, is a realm of exposure. This is true in the sense of stimulation and learning -- as in being "exposed to a diversity of opinions," exposed to complexity or unexpectedness, to that which is puzzling, different, or new. But exposure also has another meaning, one that has come to be overwhelming -- vulnerability, exposure to hurt and danger, unsafe because not inside... These two senses of exposure can blur into one another; to be exposed to the stranger, one who perceives the world from a different social location, is to be exposed to danger.

So how is it that the second meaning has become "overwhelming?" How is it that the privacy/safety desire so often overwhelms the social/growth desire? And have you seen the triggers to our "safety alarms" that Bickford identifies?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Me and the Things I Create

Dualism has a long philosophical history -- the notion that I am separate from the world, or that my mind and my body are independent, have been around for thousands of years. They are, however, not the only ways of thinking about self and other. Here's Eugen Herrigel, from the preface to his 1953 book Zen in the Art of Archery:

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull's-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.

Modern psychologists have dubbed this state as "flow:" the loss of the sense of time, the loss of fear or stress, the distortion of the senses so that the task at hand becomes incredibly easy. Baseball players say of a pitch, "It was as big as a beach ball." Chess players see not the board as it is, but the board as it will be in five moves. Musicians don't think about the positions of their fingers on the fretboard, they just let the music emerge. But the psychologists of flow agree with the Zen teachers -- that when flow happens, it happens because there ceases to be a "me" or an "it," merely an emerging condition that includes us and that we contribute to.

Design professionals learn all kinds of technical skills, from drawing and modelmaking to sizing air handlers to dealing with the building inspector. But those skills -- crucial as they are -- only matter when they become automatic, so that you can let them happen in the service of something larger.

I can imagine myself creating things -- like this blog post, for instance. Or I can imagine a world of things, some of which I participated in as a writer or as a reader or as a walker, and others of which I did not. I kind of like the second way of thinking, because it frees me from worrying about whether someone else (another "other") will like them, and allows me to appreciate things as they are.

Build your skills... but remember what they're for.