Can architecture be good in the ethical sense of the word?
Norwegian architect Reiulf Ramstad’s answer is a resounding yes. For him, good architecture is not about aesthetics or meeting the shifting opinions of design quality, and should never focus on egos or budgets. All of these certainly play a part in the work of architects, but at the Alaska Design Forum’s Feb. 15 lecture at the Silverbow, Ramstad showed that having a firm ethical foundation can be the factor that makes great architecture out of good.
Ramstad’s ethics direct him to respond, through his architecture, to real human needs. Not only physical and practical needs, but also existential. As he says, “Human wellbeing is always the bedrock of architecture.” Human well-being. Some believe that an individual’s well-being is determined by that person alone, removing others’ responsibility. If a person is unhappy or in need, it’s their own fault. Others, like Ramstad, believe that each person has an effect on the well-being of those around him, and each of us actively chooses whether that effect is beneficial.
Architectural design supports Ramstad’s view. We all know that some buildings are intentionally designed to create an uncomfortable existence for humans. Jails of course, but government buildings through history have also been designed to intimidate. On the other end of the spectrum, though it’s still debated whether education is a human need, most countries agree that it’s a requirement for human well-being and that school design can promote or block that goal.
Ramstad’s work, though diverse in form, is held together by a clear vision: “The architect must be mindful of the entirety at every stage.” This entirety starts at the scale of the individual human but looks toward the scale of the site, neighborhood, city, state, nation and planet as well. Architects who don’t acknowledge the importance of all these scales, for each building, cannot create authentically good architecture as Ramstad defines it. This may seem like an unrealistic, grandiose goal, but most architects make the effort already, in my experience. Dedicating themselves to seeing the big picture consistently, and making it part of their own design ethic, is not a big step.
It’s hard for me not to re-scale these concepts, myself, from the size of buildings to the size of societies. Does a nation’s architecture reflect its ethics? What if a simple, national goal was the well-being of every citizen? It’s easy to idealize the Scandinavian societal structures, the “Nordic Model.” Though I’m sure there are negatives to it, this model has shown that societies can thrive economically if they focus their government’s work at the level of the human being. Ensuring for their citizens what is good for every human – food, shelter, health, safety, stability, equality, education, work – appears to result in stable economic and social states where the majority has a high level of well-being. Focusing a government’s work on private businesses, hoping they will ensure human needs are met? That doesn’t seem to work as well in practice. There are few ethical barriers, in either religious teachings or philosophical thought, to helping others. Yet there are so many pitfalls, both ethical and real, in expecting someone else to do it, especially when a profit is involved.
I once heard that a person’s ethics can be defined by the things they won’t do, even if no one is watching. There are many “shoulds” in a person’s life that are hard to accommodate in reality. With the number of decisions an architect must make when creating a building, is it fair to require that every decision meet an ethical standard of what “should” be done? Maybe. Maybe not. My tendency towards pragmatic ethics is showing. But it was enlightening and encouraging to see the work of Reiulf Ramstad. He is making the attempt and succeeding. The profession of architecture, Norway, and certainly the well-being of the people who experience his buildings are the greater for it.
• Sarah Lewis is a local architect and freelance writer.