Ethics and Efficacy by George Thrush, MArch '88 There is a meaningful difference between personal ethics, or those grounded in personal honesty and integrity and valued in all aspects of adult life, and professional ethics, which involve establishing and ranking criteria for how we value what we do. My concern here is with the latter—with what sort of work we ought to strive to make, and what values and principles should guide and inform that work. These seem the fundamental ethical issues in our field. It is difficult to approach these issues, partly because my career to date has been short and an atypical hybrid of teaching, program administration, practice, and public advocacy, and partly because there is little consensus as to what precisely constitutes moral and ethical issues in practice. Still, I have found much of interest in the potential connections between the concerns of some recent architectural theory and the efficacy of architectural practice. What has been the focus of much recent architectural theory, if not this question of what we should feel morally and ethically compelled to do? In the Summer 1995 GSD NEWS, which explored the uses and abuses of theory, K. Michael Hays defined theory as dealing in part with ". . . the socially constructed body, ecology, [and] the politics of spatial relations." Many contemporary theorists have examined recent concepts, methods, and practices of architecture—and found them wanting. An important concern of theory now is actual social relations, particularly those that seem to be oppressive; by exploring how the built environment might harm some or unjustly sustain the advantages of others, theorists try to measure the world as it actually is with how we might design to improve it. In other words, for moral and ethical reasons, many architectural theorists engage socially-constructed conditions lying beyond traditional architectural concerns. Presumably we discuss issues of gender, race, class, and culture because we think that they are not now responsibly addressed by those who create the built environment. So I agree with those theorists in the GSD NEWS who advocate concern for how theory might more effectively engage the built environment. What happens when the designer steps away, when the intention must now be read and interpreted by those who inhabit buildings? If responding to those kinds of questions is a goal of theory, then its purposes seem moral. But there remains an important question: has recent theory effectively influenced the built environment? I would like to suggest here that some theoretical energies need now to be directed toward professional practice, to strengthen the connections between the ethical concerns of theory with the realities of architectural practice. The sad fact is that the influence of architectural theorists has thus far been insignificant when compared with that of theorists in other professions. Legal scholars frequently challenge unfair laws, represent politically unpopular defendants, and see specific results, e.g., new legislation, from their intellectual work. Medical researchers and scientists routinely challenge assumptions about diseases and clinical procedures, and, as a result, doctors and other medical professionals alter their practices. The relationship between research and practice in engineering is especially strong; today's pure research translates quickly into tomorrow's products and techniques. But if current architectural theory has yet to influence society in powerful ways, its potential to do so seems to me great. I am currently testing this belief through my involvement in an urban design project in Boston known as the New Urban Ring. The New Urban Ring is a proposal to link the disparate communities surrounding Boston's historic center through transportation and civic spaces. It would connect South Boston, Roxbury, Longwood, Fenway, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, Charlestown, East Boston, and Logan Airport; it would also connect with existing roads radiating out from the city center. Specifically, the proposal calls for creating connections between neighborhoods by way of transportation, parks, and civic spaces. The idea—introduced in its current form in 1993 at a public charrette at Northeastern University—crosses several disciplines and many communities, and involves urban designers, architects, transportation planners, academics, politicians, business people, and interested citizens. Ultimately it deals with more than transit and structures. Those of us who have worked on the Ring hope that it will strengthen or create places for public and civic life, drawing together different cultures and neighborhoods through a more cohesive urban fabric and easing some of our society's growing fractiousness. Thus the Ring seeks to address, through changes in the built environment, some of urban America's most pressing problems: racial and economic segregation; lack of access to jobs, education, and recreation; a deteriorating civic realm; lack of public transportation; and, perhaps most important to designers, the increasing separation between the historically dense city center and the burgeoning suburbs of "edge city." In short, the New Urban Ring seems to engage, in a real place, precisely the moral issues RECENTLY addressed in SOME architectural theory. After theorists have identified issues, there remains the work of testing whether their concerns are relevant. For example, the questions of collective versus individual identity and of neighborhood community versus city-wide values are always present in discussions of the New Urban Ring. What kind of identity would a new ring of civic space have? What will the Ring look like? Should its civic spaces differ from models like the Boston Common or City Hall Plaza? How should they differ? Should the New Urban Ring's character be defined by the uniformity or cohesiveness of its parts, or by the differences and idiosyncrasies of its various nodes? And how, exactly, should we as designers respond to these questions? At the 1993 charrette, in which professional and community groups worked together to define the Ring, many people expressed concern that direct community involvement in design, if not properly structured, could lead to the formal disasters of the 1960s. But how does one provide structure without being authoritarian? Is a certain amount of "authoritarianism" actually necessary to achieve progressive ends? How do we achieve urban cohesion and social order and at the same time encourage and allow for diversity? These difficult questions are, of course, part of the on-going discussion in our democracy about the appropriate relationship between the individual and society, between personal freedom and the common good. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the New Urban Ring project is the distance between its power as an idea and its realization. There is no consensus as to some of its most elementary components; its route, modes of transportation, and physical character at street level have yet to be determined. And so far, although several new bus lines have been established, nothing has actually been built. But the project lives because of its power as metaphor. Political, religious, and social leaders worry about whether or not contemporary society's center will "hold"; the idea of a "ring" to resist these socially destructive forces is strong and persuasive. Indeed, the Ring seems to many of us capable of supporting various activities. It could serve, on the one hand, as the location for the kinds of commercial and institutional buildings that depend on the access and visibility provided by public transportation; as a link between communities, it would seem an ideal place for magnet schools and community colleges. In this way, new development might be organized to create lively centers of activity, to extend the dense fabric of the city center. On the other hand, the Ring could serve as the route for parades, foot and bike races, walks for charity—events that link people and communities through meaningful activities. If our professional morality and ethics are to evolve, we must try to reconcile our theoretical aspirations for a better society with the efficacy and power of practice. Involvement with the New Urban Ring project has made me recognize how separate these aspects of our profession have become. We need not only to write about injustice, but to devote our energy to identifying those social problems that changes in the landscape can reasonably be expected to ameliorate; we need then to craft our responses at a scale sufficient to make a difference. George Thrush is director of the architecture program at Northeastern University.