What are our rights and responsibilities as architects? How do we keep the needs of community at the forefront? Tania Davidge considers what it means to be a good architectural citizen.
As we emerge from our pandemic lockdown, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good citizen. During lockdown, my daughter found herself at Elsternwick park as anti-lockdown protesters were confronted by mounted police. The protestors claimed that lockdown infringed on their rights as citizens, that COVID-19 is a hoax, that 5G is spreading the virus and that Pete Evans knows the truth, among other things. Luckily, my daughter is quite pragmatic and made it home safe and sound. But I found myself thinking about the protestors with mixed feelings. I believe in our right to protest. However, I place serious emphasis on science and, to be frank, science is not on the side of these particular protestors. In fact, it is nowhere in the vicinity.
Placing value on scientific evidence dismisses many of the protestor’s concerns. Which still leaves us with the question of our rights as individuals. Individual rights are rights we need to be careful with. They require thinking about because the answer is not always black and white, and it is not always easy. Individual rights do not automatically trump other rights. A primary argument of the anti-lockdown protestor is that lockdown restrictions have infringed upon our individual rights. In one sense this is true; however, much of what the anti-lockdown folk are protesting about tips the balance too far towards individual rights and disregards the common good.
Our democratic society is held together by carefully balancing our individual rights with the common good. It is in this context that it is important to think about what it means to be a good citizen.
What is good citizenship?
Good democracy is founded on good citizenship. Belonging to a country, being a citizen of that place, comes with rights – but it also comes with responsibilities. As individuals we have certain rights, but our civic bonds are shaped by a sense of community, an understanding of public benefit and the common good. We have rights but we also have a responsibility to the community. Because who are we without community?
Citizenship requires participation. This is not only enacted through formally structured forms of democratic participation, such as voting, joining a party, or objecting to a planning permit (yes, this is a formal democratic process!). Good citizenship is defined collectively through participation – and this participation can take many forms. Over time, one letter to a politician may turn into many. A single signature on a petition can become one of thousands. An individual following advice from health professionals during a pandemic shows support for that message and care for the broader community. And, when enough people follow that advice, we save lives and ease the burden on our healthcare system and the people who keep it running. None of this absolves the government of its responsibilities to us, as citizens. In turn, the government has a responsibility to be mindful that, collectively, we are giving up freedoms and to show respect in their custodianship of our freedoms.
What does it mean to be a good architectural citizen?
Being an architect also comes with rights and responsibilities. When we register, for example, we have the right to call ourselves architects. But where do our responsibilities lie? Is it enough to design and deliver a project that is on time, on budget and meets the needs of the client? I would argue, as we have a responsibility to our clients, we also have a responsibility to our community – both our architectural community and the broader community.
Who gives architects guidance on being good architectural citizens? The Architects Act in Victoria tells us that an architect needs to be a “fit and proper person”. This consists of not having been convicted or found guilty of an offence, complying with court orders and regulations, and remaining solvent and free from disciplinary action. The Act gives top level guidance on good citizenship but not much guidance on what it might mean to be a good architectural citizen on a day-to-day basis.
Recently the Australian Institute of Architects amended its Constitution. The Constitution now includes a Statement of Recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia – a clear act of good citizenship. In addition, the Constitution states that the Institute’s principle purposes are to (i) advance architecture; (ii) advance education, culture and social or public welfare, through architecture; (iii) advocate for the profession; and (iv) encourage education in architecture. The idea that architects can and should advance social and public welfare through architecture is compelling and speaks of good citizenship.
Thinking about good architectural citizenship more broadly, I would argue that architects have the responsibility to leave architecture in better shape than we found it and a similar responsibility to the community to leave the built environment in better shape than we found it.
How this plays out on the ground is complex, but navigating these issues is imperative. The pandemic has shown us that the market will not help us chart a course through our current crisis, but our values need to guide us as we take the opportunity to make change for the better. Will architecture come through this as a stronger profession or one weakened by the economic instability we are living through? The right choice is not always clear cut, nor is it easy. However, if we make the right choices we can leave the profession in a better place.
As employers we can structure our practices transparently to address pay inequity, diversity, sustainability and social impact. We can put processes in place to ensure we are accountable to meet our goals in these areas, because talking is not enough. To achieve our goals we need to be able to measure impact. We can set our fees fairly and equitably. We can drive the work we do to enable us to educate our staff, engage with community, and volunteer our time for causes we care about. We can choose not to undertake certain types of work. We can work with consultants, clients and stakeholders who align with our values, and we can make sure that we give our employees the encouragement, opportunity and training that allows them to participate in those values. We can call out unfair practices and those that are detrimental to the future of our profession.
As an employee it is often more difficult to set the agenda. Not everyone is in a position to walk away from a job in protest. However, change that is driven from the bottom up can be empowering and inclusive. As employees we can drive change and value through participation in office culture, with the broader architectural community and through the work we do. We have a say in the materials that are used, how projects are sited, how a building interfaces with the street, whether the windows are operable, and how a project might meet sustainability and accessibility goals. We can educate ourselves and seek training in areas we care deeply about. We can find people who share our values and collaborate with them. We can make a difference in so many ways by identifying where we can make change that supports the values that are important to us and acting to advance that change.
How do we design with community in mind?
Beyond our responsibilities to our profession we also have broader responsibilities. The work the architectural profession does touches on many aspects of daily life. Who designs our cities and how we design them impacts the people who use them, how they use them, and whether they are able to use them. Our cities should be accessible and welcoming to all of its citizens in all their diversity.
Architects are in the business of shaping the built environment. Not only do architects need to be good citizens but the buildings we design and the places we make need to be good citizens as well. Our buildings need to give back to the community. We need to place people and community first when we design. Sometimes this is as simple as designing an alcove for a well-placed tree. Making a fence with gaps that let the flowers grow through. Designing fences that allow us to see the lights in living room windows at night so we feel safe walking in our suburbs after dark.
A building should be imagined, designed and delivered as part of the community it is housed in. We can choose materials that are sustainable, renewable and made to last. Materials that are detailed at human scale to develop human connection at street level. Balconies from which we can chat to our neighbours. Shared facilities, services and gardens. Buildings that meet a brief but offer nothing else to the community are not acceptable examples of good citizenship.
Buildings that are designed with the character and nature of their locations in mind are buildings that help connect people to place. Even a private residence has a public face. We need to make places where people want to live and places where people feel they belong. Good design is not only functional; it creates places that give back to the community.
And we can invite communities to participate. How can we change the processes that shape the built environment so that they engage and foster community? The new Victorian Local Government Act requires councils to deliver meaningful and informed community engagement. No one is sure how this will play out at this moment in time, but we should ask ourselves, “What opportunities will this offer our profession?”
How can we make real change?
To be a good architectural citizen requires us first to be good citizens. It requires us to be generous and patient. To have integrity and to live our values. To be willing to bring people along for the journey and be able to listen to others in a way that makes them feel seen and heard. To have empathy so we can develop trust. Trust and empathy underpin our ability to build community. We need to recognise that as we have rights, we have responsibilities. Our profession is one of privilege and power – it can exclude as easily as it can include. It is our responsibility to use this position to support and empower voices less powerful than our own and create a space for those less powerful than ourselves to speak.1
To be good citizens, we need to participate and we need to act. Often our aims for change are lofty and the action required to achieve them may seem overwhelming. In the face of this, we need to look for the small wins because it is from the small wins that we make change. Momentous change does not happen overnight, but it does leverage small actions. Start by identifying how you would like to make a difference and then work out what one small thing you might do today that will set you on the path to achieving your aims. Perhaps you could sign a petition, offset your carbon or volunteer some pro bono services? The first step creates a platform on which you can build. And from this platform you can invite others to join you. Because good citizenship is all about the collective good, and together we build community.
This article is written with many thanks to the people who have been willing to talk politics and values with me over the past three years. You know who you are, and I know that you care.
Tania Davidge is an architect and co-founder of the architectural research practice, OoPLA.
- With many thanks to Alison Cleary for reminding me of this particular point. It is a very Parlour point.