The Responsibility of Architects

What is the obligation of designers when tragedy strikes their work?


Amy Schumer, Rafael Viñoly, Zaha Hadid, Bob Berkebile.

On July 23, John Russell Houser entered The Grand 16 theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and shot a dozen people, killing two and injuring at least nine others, before shooting himself. Amy Schumer's movie Trainwreck was showing. This week, the actress teamed with her cousin, Senator Chuck Schumer, to call for stricter gun-control legislation. "The time is now for the American people to rally for these changes," the actress declared. "These are my first public comments on the issue of gun violence -- I can promise you this: They will not be my last." Amy Schumer had nothing to do with the shooting but felt compelled to act, anyway.

As an architect, I don't often see my peers showing such a sense of obligation. In fact, frequently they dodge it.

In 2013, after London's "Death Ray" tower, Twenty Fenchurch Street, began frying cars on the street, the designer, Rafael Viñoly, blamed unnamed "consultants" and complained that architects can't be architects anymore. This week, we learned that the skyscraper also is causing severe downdrafts, enough to knock over food carts. So far, the architect has been silent.

Zaha Hadid has not been silent about Qatar. This May, the Washington Post reported that construction there in preparation for the 2022 World Cup could result in 4,000 deaths. Last year, when asked about the possible fatalities, Hadid, designer of the Al-Wakrah stadium, insisted, "It's not my duty as an architect" to be concerned about it. "I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it."

Was it Schumer's "duty" to do something about guns? As Paul Goldberger pointed out in Vanity Fair last year, "Hadid may be technically correct in saying that architects cannot fix this problem themselves, but her remark is utterly disingenuous because her fame alone can bring enormous attention to the problem." Celebrity gives both actors and architects extraordinary power to address the injustices that intersect their work, but too few architects do.

Bob Berkebile is a rare exception. On the night of July 17, 1981, in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency, an interior bridge collapsed, killing 114 people. Berkebile had designed the hotel. Within an hour, he rushed to the scene and spent the night helping to pull bodies from the wreckage. The architect was proven not to be at fault, but the experience changed him. "I began to think in a new way about the real impact of our designs," he has said. "I asked myself, 'Are our designs improving quality of life, health, and well-being, and the quality of the neighborhood, community, and planet?'" Eventually he founded the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment (COTE), which promotes buildings and environments that contribute to the "enduring prosperity of all living things." Now in its 25th year, COTE may be the building industry's oldest program dedicated to sustainable design. He also was instrumental in developing the US Green Building Council.

Like Hadid, Berkebile wasn't responsible for the tragedy associated with his work. But unlike Hadid, he not only recognized his duty to do something about the tragedy, he has dedicated his life to ensuring that architecture can have a more positive impact. That's a model more architects should follow.

Architect Lance Hosey's latest book is The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (2012). Follow him on Twitter: @lancehosey.