"Architects may, heaven save their mortal souls, have to work on Trump's wall"

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Otra Nation US-Mexico border wall proposal by MADE
US-Mexico collective MADE used the call for border-wall designs to propose Otra Nation, which would merge, rather than separate, the two countries

"Architects may, heaven save their mortal souls, have to work on Trump's wall"

For some architects, the decision not to bid for Donald Trump's US-Mexico border wall is easy. But Aaron Betsky questions whether working on the project is as unethical as it first seemed in this Opinion column.


"For us it is very simple. We are a small firm and we all agree. We are not going to build Trump's freaking wall. But other firms around town have more trouble with this situation. Maybe the principals want it, because they need work, maybe their bosses in other cities do, maybe even some of the employees want to go for it, but others would just walk out the door. It's a dilemma."

That was how one architect in my native Phoenix answered when I asked him last month whether his firm was going to submit a proposals for the design of the wall President Trump has promised to build "from sea to shining sea" between the United States and Mexico.

For most of the chattering class in architecture the choice is pretty simple. I did not recognise a single firm of design repute among those that in the end submitted their proposals to design the wall – other than those, like MADE Collective, who put their name in to showcase radical anti-proposals; in this case a free zone, Otra Nation, that would merge, rather than separate, the two nations.

I do not know of any instances of theoreticians – not even the rabid neo-classicists who love defending order – suggesting that designing the wall is a good thing.

For most of the chattering class in architecture the choice is pretty simple

So the case is a seemingly simple one. Just as doctors should first do no harm, so architects should not participate in this particular political gambit whose motives most of us find repulsive, to say the least.

Perhaps the sentiments that this very clear case have loosed might even convince the American Institute of Architects to adapt the long-mooted proposal to prohibit its members from building inhumane federal prisons that contain solitary confinement cells and other means of punishment most governments have also condemned.

But where do we draw the line? For years, very good architects have designed new border stations for the same agency that would oversee the wall and as part of the same attitude that we need to be watchful about who we allow in this country.

Designs by Smith-Miller Hawkinson, Julie Snow, and Jones Studio, to name just three examples, are excellent. They even make you proud of being an American.

Just as doctors should first do no harm, so architects should not participate in this particular political gambit

They create humane environments for workers and visitors alike, they respect the landscapes in which they appear, and they put a good face on the United States government's desire to protect its borders. Should architects participate in this programme now that the government looks to enforce its nativist, racist, and Christian-first policies by using such structures?

Some have gone even further. The artist Christo abandoned his long-standing plan to create one of his landscape curtains in Colorado because his client would, in effect, be the US government (most of the site is public land).

Though this seems like a stretch to me (and I suspect there are other mechanisms and motives involved), you could make an argument that collaboration in any form with a government that is actively seeking ways to discriminate against many of its own citizens, remove safeguards on our natural resources, and otherwise do evil, would be unethical.

This then takes us into even more uncharted territory. If it is not right to work for this government, then what about that of countries that are even more evil? Should architects accept commissions from governments or companies that are at least in part owned by much more repressive regimes, such as China or Russia? What about Turkey, now that it has taken yet one more step towards one-person rule after jailing tens of thousands of teachers (including architecture teachers) last year?

But where do we draw the line?

Activists have made a point out of saying that architects should not work for the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, but that is mainly because of the working conditions on the sites there.

I have not heard a great deal of protest of the many massive designs now going on in Saudi Arabia, a country that denies one half of its population, namely women, basic human rights, while supporting terrorist organisations around the world.

So let's say that you decide that you are not going to work for any government or government-allied company in a state that denies human rights, commits crimes against its population, or irreparably harms its natural environment. You are also not going to work in countries where construction techniques or working conditions do the same.

Instead, you are going to design away in your own country or Western Europe, perhaps in most of Latin and South America, and for a few other Asian countries. You will, of course, have to vet the situation every time, which is difficult, so perhaps you decide to just stick to private clients in the United States. Life is simple now, and you can continue your quest to be the next Palladio.

You can question just about every commission you could possibly conceive

But what do you know about your clients? I recently visited the office of an architect who was doing a humongous house for what has to be a billionaire. "Oh, we vetted him, his money is clean," he told me.

Really? Are you sure? What does "clean" mean? Is it not okay to work for a mining company but okay to work for a hedge-fund billionaire whose strategic investments have either propped up that strip-miner or put thousands of people out work?

Would you work for Walmart? No? What about some of the Walton family members who have taken the money they made by destroying small retailers and paying scandalously low wages to very good work in social causes and culture?

Do you think that the Ford Foundation has redeemed itself enough through all of its good work to design a project they help to fund, even though the ultimate source of the money was a racist, ruthless oppressor who paved the way to paving our planet?

Using your skills and knowledge in any situation to do good means working for evil people

Down and down the rabbit hole we go, until you can question just about every commission you could possibly conceive. At some point you either realise that architecture is indeed the world's second oldest profession, and you have to take the clients you can get, or you have to try to erect a more complex set of standards and trade-offs.

This is certainly what lawyers and doctors have done, but I do not know many people who admire the general state of their standards. At least they have tried – the AIA's standards have everything to do with the financial and managerial well being of a project, and nothing with larger questions of morality or ethics.

As an organisation, they promote a drive towards net-zero and racial inclusion, but not in the mechanics of the profession. Not that I blame them – where would you stop or start?

If you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, the answer might be: you start by using your skills and knowledge in any situation to do good. That means working for evil people, just as a doctor might save a dictator's life because it is the right thing to do. That, in turn, would mean that perhaps architects should work on the wall.

You either work for those who have the money and power to hire you, or you don't work

The difference between architects and doctors, however, is that each individual choice is not one of life and death. An architect can simply prefer not to, and save her or his soul. The problem then is that this choice may lead to a wall that would be worse, a prison that is more inhumane, or a building in China that is more wasteful of resources and enforcing of state power and than it needs to be.

You either work for those who have the money and power to hire you, or you don't work. If your clients have money and power they are, at least on some level, probably not "clean". Architecture is, always has been, and always will be, the built affirmation of the social, political, and economic status quo.

Architects will have to make hard choices within that situation if they want to do the right thing. They may even, heaven save their mortal souls, have to work on the wall.