The end of this year, more than others before, feels like the weary denouement of a John Ford Western.  Picture the worn-down gunslinger, half-asleep on the deep-shadowed veranda of his shack.  A Winchester carbine slung into the dust and an empty bottle of rotgut rolling on the ground beside him.  The air is dead calm and the only movement is a wisp of smoke from a roll-up between his Virginia-stained fingers.
Why all the talk of drink, firearms and baccy?  That’s where those Western types find solace, but couldn’t be further from the “ESG” values currently sweeping across society …
But first, consider that there’s always been a tension between magazine articles which tackle the social aspects of architecture such as the client’s brief, the user’s experience the public’s reaction to it – and those which discuss the architectonic aspects of a building such as the concept, parti, aesthetics, materials and detailing.  Somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words isn’t enough to do justice to one aspect of a building, far less all of them.

Critical analysis should cover how it works, how it looks, how it was put together, the story of the client, of the architect and the users too – yet the current climate places an emphasis on the moral and ethical side of architecture. That's a welcome change from the days of the icon and the "starchitect", but taken to the extreme, it could grow into a rejection of architectural values and an attempt to react to the obsessions of the wider world.

Environmental, social and governance issues – the ESG acronym at the start of the piece – aren’t in themselves architecture, yet because they have a powerful impact on society, we can’t ignore them. They exist in architecture as reactions with (or against) which individuals work. Following that to its logical conclusion, it would be easy to draw up a blacklist of projects you wouldn’t work on.  Perhaps some of us have done so already.
“Sin stocks” is a catch-all term for stock market companies which process tobacco, organise gambling and manufacture firearms.  Those corporations are occupied doing things of questionable morality which make them large profits. You could easily extend Sin stocks to include alcohol, and thus rule yourself out from working on distilleries and breweries.  Although in so doing, you’d be ignoring a field which has a long tradition in Scottish architecture and in which we've led the world from the era of Charles Doig who introduced the "pagoda" or cupola ventilator, to the new crop of 21st century distilleries.
There are endless Left Wing/ Right Wing debates about the provision of private healthcare and private education. Arguably it’s a personal matter but one with public implications. Keir Starmer spoke about this recently on Radio 4’s Political Thinking podcast, and briefly touched on the tension between universal provision and personal choice. While your own political affiliations and voting intentions are one thing, should those spill over into your job and affect the projects you work on?  In practical terms there isn't much difference designing clinics and hospitals for the public or private sector, since they'll all have to meet the HTM's (Health Technical Memoranda) and ultimately be signed off by HIS (Healthcare Improvement Scotland), but the client's motive is very different.
Politics, as Donald Trump put it, is a swamp.  There’s a real risk in getting involved in politically-sponsored projects. I saw it on the small scale in an urban regeneration scheme ten years ago where the councillors weren’t at all interested – until grant funding appeared on the table. After that, the “elected members” were all over it, keen to take credit for something they’d had little to do with. On another project, we worked with a government department and made good progress on a pilot project until one day, with no warning, the minister in charge cancelled it.  Having politicians for clients – even local politicians – is dangerous.

Money is another of the things which we shouldn’t speak about in polite society. Recently someone suggested that the Edinburgh investment partnership Baillie Gifford should be hit with additional taxes, over and above what they already pay.  That seems fine, if you’re suspicious of capitalism – but Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust was one of the biggest investors in Tesla. Hence the counter-argument is that profit is a pay-off for doing the right thing environmentally.  There are two sides to every coin.

On the flip-side, coal and oil companies have become hugely unpopular in recent years, but having worked in Aberdeen I saw that subsea technology firms engineer jackets for wind turbines as well as for oil production platforms, and the energy giants like BP are interested in solar cells as well as natural gas. “Just transition” is the popular term, yet green-leaning architects might avoid working there altogether, hence missing out on the chance to speed the very changes along that they want to see happen.  Life can be contradicatory, paradoxical, sometimes even perverse.

So what does that leave? Public services, such as health and social care, plus social enterprises, housing associations and community groups. Is everything else morally questionable? Living in a state of constant outrage is tiring, but do you have to make a pact with the Devil before you go into practice?  Should you set your principles aside?  Before you become disillusioned, wretched even, about the monsters which have come to live in your soul, there’s another way to look at the morals and ethics of architecture.

The central thesis of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" is that our individual need to fulfil self-interest should result in social benefit.  The projects we work on, and the clients we work with, enable us to build and also to earn ourselves a living.  It could be said that we should act with enlightened self-interest, which is a much bigger philosophical bargain than simply abiding by the ARB Code.

Over time attitudes change and people change, too. In the documentary “From The Sky Down”, Bono declared that U2 started off as 16 year old punks after seeing The Clash play in Dublin. A couple of decades later, there came a time when he and his bandmates realised that they had become the enemy. The same happened over the years to the tobacco firms, arms dealers, gambling companies and bankers – all of whom were fairly respectable in John Ford’s time.  Maybe it happens to us all, eventually.

But let's be positive, since it's the start of a new year. Things can only get better, in the immortal words of Prof. Brian Cox's song.  So we live in hope that Chuck D becomes the next American president, rather than Donald Trump. The less said about the British prime minister, the better.  All the best for 2022…

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