Perspecta 53


On Thursday, April 13, Dean Berke announced, on behalf of the Board of Directors of Perspecta, the selected theme for Perspecta 53, titled “Onus”; developed by Caroline Acheatel, Paul Lorenz, Paul Rasmussen, and Alexander Stagge. Here is what they proposed for their issue. We look forward to its release in 2020.

More than any other profession, the ethics of architecture are elastic. In theory, the terms are rigid. Architects are trained and licensed professionals, bound to competently execute contractual terms for paying clients. Yet reality is blurrier. Although capitalism creates responsibility only between designer and client, the outcomes of this bond are pervasive. Much of the built environment is ostensibly designed for one client’s needs, yet its effects reverberate politically, environmentally, and culturally, affecting large swaths of the population in unexpected ways.

In the face of struggle between client-based responsibility and commitment to public welfare, where do the loyalties of the architect lie? What ethical burden must architects shoulder in the sheer act of building and what is the cost of contractual refusal? Lawyers operate under onus probandi. Doctors invoke the Hippocratic Oath. Architects exist in a comparative ethical purgatory in which designers often choose only to see their work’s broad reaching impacts if it fits their brand identity. In the face of this ambiguity, this issue of Perspecta’s stance is clear. Through the theme of Onus, we argue that in assuming the mantle of architect, designers must acknowledge and embrace the weight that rests upon them, shouldering holistic responsibility for the environmental, cultural, and political obligations that accompany any attempt to alter Earth’s landscape.

This burden is heavy, and many architects attempt to shrug it off, claiming expertise only in aesthetics. Other see this ethical hydra as beyond their scope of work. Defeated, they ask, how can a medium that is so infatuated with permanence hope to evolve, addressing and accommodating society’s pressing, yet ever changing, needs?

Indeed, it is true that traditional architecture operates on a temporal scale that is largely disconnected from social shifts and change. Architecture is often bound up in power networks and commissioned by the wealthy, thought of as a luxury good or as a panacea to the thorny problems of the developing world. It is clear that our medium, funded by those who are most powerful, has implicit obligations to those most vulnerable, but Balancing this burden is a gray area. Consequently, this issue examines these complex power dynamics, questioning how architects can prioritize their social justice obligations, or negotiate conflicting agendas.

Furthermore, architecture not only has a sense of ingrained social responsibility, but a political one. The timeline of architecture may be slower than the work of other disciplines, but in today’s charged climate, architecture is propaganda. Architecture’s language can reinforce or disturb political structures. Onus is placed on the architect to determine his or her political stance, in an era where remaining silent still denotes an ethical choice.

Moreover, considering the implications of the building industry on our planet can no longer be sequestered within the jargon of sustainability. As cities densify, as land subsides, and as coastlines exponentially dissipate under rising tides, architects must grapple with a climate future that necessitates new ideas about human settlement. At the same time, the final frontiers of our planet are eroding. Speculative ideas about cities in the Arctic, tourism on Mars, and a hyper-connected digital urbanism offer alternately terrifying and exhilarating promises to our species, but at what cost?

Finally, while architecture still maintains a monumental cultural obligation. Architecture once carried the burden of being the “great work of humanity,” a role it may arguably wear more lightly today. Yet the impact of form, aesthetics, and disciplinary dialogue still demands continuous discussion. Society doggedly seeks originality yet desires that regionalism be preserved. Confronted by this, what is the architect’s cultural obligation to place, identity, and local custom?

Collectively, the weight of these varied threads of accountability–to the Earth, to geographic cultures, to other species, to other people–seems paralyzing, requiring immaculately designed solutions to the world’s most indeterminate and painful challenges. But without this onus, what is our purpose as architects? As the writers, architects, and thinkers we hope to feature in Perspecta 53 reveal, the assumption of these burdens as part of life’s work offers the most acute opportunity for fulfillment, and the largest chance to subvert our world’s most ingrained injustices. Oft quoted Czech writer Milan Kundera rightly mused that an absence of burden “causes man to be lighter than air…and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”