on site review 30: ethics and publics

original call for articles, written by Thomas-Bernard Kenniff, the guest editor for issue 30

In 1969 the architect Giancarlo de Carlo answered his own question of “who is architecture’s public?” stating that “everybody who uses architecture is its public.” His remark cannot, of course, be isolated from the period of the 20th century during which it was uttered, elevating the user of architecture above the passive subject of the welfare state and of Modern architecture that more often then not negated the “needs of the users”. Yet while highly contextual, his question and statement still echo to this day. Indeed, it has been common, in the last 20 years or so, to hear about an “ethical turn” in architecture and urban design. Social awareness, political engagement and ecological responsibility have become some of the central aspects of critical practices for which thinking and acting ethically are not dissociable from designing, making and interpreting the built environment. More precisely, it is because these activities always imply valued relationships to others that thinking about architecture’s public(s) inevitably raises questions about the value of our actions and their appropriateness.

Who is, then, architecture’s public? Is it a uniform public or many publics? Are these specific to one project, to a particular medium, geographically located or identifiable as a group (clients, users, municipal authorities, the general public, the design community)? Does each project generate its own public and how so? If we identify publics for architecture, do they know it and understand it, or do we have to explain what it is that our architecture and urban interventions actually mean?

What is, then, good design and who is it for? How do we attribute value in architecture and design and what do these expressions mean? Is value an economic construct or a cultural variable? Can these be separated? Do ethics play a role at all in the attribution and negotiation of value? What is the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in design, or between processes and products? Can they be meaningfully separated? Is ethical behaviour a process of negotiation, or is it an absolute?  Can working processes be codified (like absolutes), or are they ultimately about personal relationships and moral stances? Can the value of architecture be separated from its public? Or, in other words, can good design be separated from bad clients or bad users?

For issue 30 of On Site, we are looking for contributions that raise questions or highlight particular aspects of ethics and publics, both historical (as with De Carlo’s statement) or contemporary (as with the recent ethical turn). We seek projects and instances in architecture, art, urbanism or landscape architecture that directly address their publics, whether on the street, or in the mind.

Thomas-Bernard Kenniff’s introductory essay:

On Site 30: Ethics and Publics

Opening thoughts

The key ethical responsibility of the architect lies not in the refinement of the object as static visual product, but as contributor to the creation of empowering spatial, and hence social, relationships in the name of others. (Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, p. 178)

Like every spoken word, every line drawn is a social act. A division, a wall, a river, a connection, a window, a bridge, perhaps all at the same time like Michel De Certeau’s spatial narrative ambiguity. Every such act is social because it constitutes a proposal to redistribute social relations in space. Doubly so because it takes place within particular sets of social circumstances, modes of communication and production: a line drawn as threshold in a design studio, another drawn as a strategic security fence between geopolitical regions. The idea, I thought, is excruciating, inescapable, but in the best possible way. It forces us to take position, to take responsibility and to answer. The single most important question you can ask a design student, Kathryn Moore once told me, is “why?”, and then ask it again, and again.

It is with this idea in mind that the double topic for this issue of On Site was developed. Ethics and publics not as separate issues, but as inseparable aspects of any intervention, proposed intervention or interpretation of the built environment. Transformation and interpretation, from any disciplinary position, inevitably involves those two things. First, a deep sense of deliberation fundamental to any design act (either thinking before or thinking through action) whether a line, a room, a conversation, a critique or a text. Every design act, in this sense, constitutes the turning of values into form. Second, an inescapable relation to other people. No act can exist outside of the relations it involves with others (a fictional user, a real client, a new public, an audience, an already existing dialogue); no project is without its publics, invented or generated. Within the many disciplines that deal with the built environment there is indeed neither individual alibi nor social isolation.

Writing these notes from Québec City while new allegations are emerging from the Commission Charbonneau on corruption in the construction industry is revealing. With moral failure and criminal behaviour in both the public and the private sectors intricately tied to the transformation of our built environment, it becomes increasingly urgent to take position and assert everyone’s right to the city, however difficult, let alone the relevance of never to stop questioning what we are producing, how we are producing it, why and for whom. Still from the place where I am writing this, two seemingly unrelated issues appear highly relevant in this morning’s paper. The provincial government just published its controversial lists of values, re-opening the debate on the public display of religious symbols and raising valid questions on those spaces we qualify as public. Simultaneously, Québec City’s mayor, who has strongly supported the dialectic between good urban design and civic identity over the last eight years, is backtracking on the city’s sustainable mobility plan (elections are looming). The point is that, like the Commission Charbonneau, these two developing issues have potentially significant social, and thus spatial, consequences. The polyphonic landscape of spatial production, as Mireya Folch-Serra reveals, is “a dialogue whose outcome is never a neutral exchange.”

The call for articles on ethics and publics opened with Giancarlo de Carlo’s 1969 rhetorical question “who is architecture’s public” that he answered himself saying that the public of architecture is anybody who uses it. While the quote has to be understood in its historical context, as a humanist counter to the abstraction of Modernism’s universal Man or the “subject of the welfare state” (Adrian Forty), let alone the construction industry’s relationship with state-supported housing programmes, it is still relevant as a question for any project of transformation or interpretation of our current built environment. It forces our reflection toward those affected by our actions, their right to the city, and our modes of practice. As Jeremy Till suggests in the above epigraph, responsibility runs deep within design. Once we have accepted that the built environment has any degree of effect on social behaviour (and vice-versa) then treating design otherwise than a social act might amount to what Jean-Paul Sartre disparagingly called bad-faith. What the open call on these issues sought to capture was what might be called an “ethical turn” over the last twenty or so years. Quite positively, reflections on practice, responsibility, agency and representation are now common and fundamental. There is a rising interest in different modes of practice that integrate participation, and interdisciplinary methods that open up possibilities for collaboration; design acts are now seen as actors in larger networks rather than as end products.


The range of subjects that are addressed in this issue of On Site is telling of the importance of such reflection, whether it is at the scale of your own window or at the scale of war crimes. There is excellent evidence of the current significance of what Jane Rendell calls critical spatial practices in Cynthia Hammond and Tom Strickland’s piece exploring the assembly of unheard voices (human and canine) in the midst of urban development, as well as with Shauna Janssen’s account of the theatre of development dynamics in Griffintown. Relational art practices and their relationship to the built environment and communities are explored in William Kingfisher’s, Julian Haladyn’s and Michael DiRisio’s respective reviews, while Steven Chodoriwsky humorously explores the relationship between performer and public as architectural proposition. The idea of re-evaluating the idea of the Commons resonates with Jessica Craig’s piece on the Don Valley as terrain vague and Virginia Rincon’s article on infrastructure in informal settlements, both reminders that indeterminate territory and basic needs and services can be common grounds.

Sarah Walsh’s essay on Brockton and Corey Schnobrich’s piece on the publics of Occupy seem to question, in different terms, the failure of representation of both the city and its multiples publics. Adrian Blackwell’s account of a project for Guelph takes on a similar investigation by wondering how the paradoxes of public space might be constructed. Not dissimilarly, Reza Aliabadi’s reflection on his own residential designs questions the relationship between architecture and dialogue. The investigation of ethical and representation issues in design projects is at the heart of articles by Caroline Howes, Jeffrey Olinger and Novka Cosovic which take on the difficult task of transposing particular collective connections, institutions and traumatic experiences into architecture.

Joshua Craze’s series of notes questions whether buildings can be witnesses and rightfully points out the loss of voice potentially brought about by forensics, the subject’s capacity for response denied. Dick Avern’s inquisitive piece on 9/11 artefacts reads like the internal deliberation of one confronted with incommensurable questions.

The relationship between practice and social space is taken up by Duncan Patterson and Mariana Siracusa, albeit in very different ways, one reminding us about the relevance of quotidian actions using the simple window, the other on the connection between the assemblage of public space and the agency of its publics. Finally, Hector Abarca and Dustin Valen both touch on the possible ethical lessons of particular projects, one from a success story of social housing provision in Peru, the other from the remediated landfills of New York.


Tim Beasley-Murray writes that “dialogue bears the imprint of its own failure”, meaning that, quite positively, dialogue fails to signify completely because it leaves room for response. The call for articles that went out was more the messy text of a conversation between Stephanie White and myself than a cleanly wrapped call. One that indeed generated some reflection and exchanges on the ethics and publics of On Site. The proposals that came in covered a wide range of subjects in the best possible messy way. Some with more direct relations to ethical dilemmas and aspects of public representation and others that teased out the latent ethical and representational issues within projects and processes. What stood out was the degree to which each piece dealt with critical self-reflection and set up their own particular capacity for response. That is, how each would raise specific questions about assumptions, methods and hypotheses, courageously failing to signify completely. Whether it is in inviting critical reflection on ethical dilemmas at varying scales, or inviting a performative yawn/bark in the best dialogical way, the words and lines assembled here are begging for response.


Folch-Serra, Mireya, “Place, Voice, Space: Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogical landscape”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 8, 1990, pp. 255-274

Forty, Adrian, Words and Buildings (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000)

Till, Jeremy, Architecture Depends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009)

http://www.francisalys.com/greenline/     The Green Line   Sometimes doing something poetic can become political    and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.     Jerusalem 2004  In collaboration with Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, and Julien Devaux  17:34 min


The Green Line

Sometimes doing something poetic can become political

and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.

Jerusalem 2004

In collaboration with Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, and Julien Devaux

17:34 min