Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Back to Basics" by Christopher Charles Benninger (2008)

It is an honor for me to be allowed to address a committed group of my professional peers. We come here today out of both hope and concern for the future. We live in the new economy based on the “bottom line!” The bottom line means profit! No matter what unique selling point city builders advertise, be it green buildings or high tech environments, the bottom line is harvesting the maximum profit, even at the cost of the public good! Giving lip service to corporate responsibility is part of the new public relations strategy, while the reality is cutting costs and increasing Floor Space Index at the cost of society. This “new economy” has generated a new value system and a “new architecture”!

Like all living creatures architects are driven by survival and the urge to dominate. There are two paths the profession can take while recognizing these urges:
Architects can push their own value based professional agenda, creating the “best fit” between their own agenda and that of the new economy, or;
Architects can degrade themselves into a vocation, where their skills are offered to the captains of industry to reach the “bottom line.”

Willy-nilly architects are taking the second course, perhaps without even realizing what they are doing! Young professionals watch their peers in the IT and management vocations jump to high salaries soon after graduation. They see their own classmates joining MNCs and bringing in large salaries. What they do not realize is that they are comparing themselves, comparing professionals, with skilled workers practicing vocations! They are comparing professionals with people whose job is to placate their bosses and their clients. As professionals, there is a “little birdie in our heads” telling us that this is “good for society and that is unsustainable.”

We must get back to basics and ask ourselves fundamental questions. What is a professional? What distinguishes a professional from workers in vocations? What is vocational education and what is professional education? At the same time, let us not fool ourselves. Vocations are needed and we must respect them. But we have chosen a more difficult and a more arduous path in life. As professionals we “profess values” and we are bound to them. This means that we have a professional credo (or I BELIEVE) that there are fundamental values and principles that no professional can breach. We have an unwritten code of practice which we have to stick by! As professionals we have locked ourselves into this belief system, and we have to navigate our work within it.

The most important characteristic of a professional is his or her intellectual honesty. All professionals, be they architects, lawyers, doctors or accountants face a continuous and painful internal “dialogue with self,” challenging themselves to be truthful to their core principles.

The worlds’ most respected accounting firm went bankrupt and closed its doors within days after it was revealed that it put the bottom line of its clients before its professional duties to society. As corporate auditors they cooked up annual reports to wrongly project an energy company (that was in huge losses), as making huge profits. While doing this the corporate managers quietly sold off their worthless shares at inflated prices. Their vocational book keepers, software operators and managers all kept quiet! No one blew the whistle until millions of workers lost their future pensions when their retirement funds were brought down to bankruptcy along with Enron as the true share values were exposed! All of the vocational managers, software engineers and book keepers quietly shifted to new jobs. The professionals, the auditors, ruined their careers and professional reputations. Why? They lost their professional creditability when they sold out their credo, their professional values, and their intellectual honesty to an employer to help reach the “bottom line” at the cost of the society to whom they must ultimately answer! They put the bottom line above the SOCIAL CONTRACT that binds all professionals to serve society. They put those who pay their fees above the greater interest of people.

Clearly, the Satyam case belies the same lack of whistle blowers who would put their professional reputation above the crass desires of their bosses. At least one hundred colleagues of the owners would have known what was going on for the past ten years. They would have kept quiet and played ball with the cheats justifying themselves as mere cogs in the bigger wheels! Architects, lawyers, accountants and doctors cannot fool themselves in the manner that managers, IT workers and book keepers can. The bottom line for a professional is his own heart and mind. “Can I live with myself is the first and the last question?”

Like those in vocations, professionals also have technical responsibilities, procedural responsibilities and duties to increase their awareness and knowledge continuously. Like vocationals we have to answer to clients, employers and seniors. Like vocational employees we have to deliver cost effective solutions that meet performance standards. But we are not just producing deliverables and making something bad work better, or something that begins with the wrong assumptions reach optimality within a flawed problem solving environment. We always have to go back to question the underpinning assumptions and the beginning points. If these beginning points do not fit within our credo, or if our clients really do not want professional advice, but merely want vocational servants, then we have to opt out! Quit!

We must be clear about ourselves! We are not a service industry. We are not delivering goods and services at the doorsteps of our clients. Profit is a business bottom line, but we are no more “in business” than is a heart or a brain surgeon. Like surgeons we have to put the hard facts before our clients and tell them the correct path to follow to reach the best outcome. What we tell clients may not be sweet words. The procedures we recommend and the technical mechanisms we propose may not be what they want to hear. Our deliverables are the physical manifestations of our professional values and advice. Architecture must be our mirror of our Social Contract with society.

Many young architects, interior designers and other professionals in the construction industry are opting to work under non-professionals in MNCs, real estate firms, and investment companies where their personal bottom lines rule over their professional bottom lines! Often we see young professionals with two or three years of professional work opening small practices, wherein they lack both the experience and the confident maturity to convince clients to change their concepts of what the bottom line is. When dealing with life threatening medical challenges patients seek the most seasoned professional advice. For a common cold they go to an MBBS at the corner store. They tell the young doctor what their illness is and ask for the prescription they think is right. They are happy with the young doctor! He does what he is told to do! Young architects and designers must realize that they too are prey to business whims and preconceived needs. They lack the creditability to be taken seriously when balancing social costs and benefits before clients. They may lack the finesse to illustrate options where the public benefit assumes a factor in bottom line calculations.

Senior architects need to create career options within more established professional firms making it economically gratifying for young professionals to spend a decade preparing for private practice, or even a life long partnership within a branded design house.

Neither is our educational system, nor is the design profession, addressing this issue. It is high time we get back to basics and save our profession.

* Professor Benninger practices architecture in Pune, India and in Thimphu Bhutan, where he is designing the National Capitol Complex. He began his career teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design prior to shifting to India where he began the School of Planning at CEPT in Ahmedabad. This lecture was given to an association of graduates in Bangalore in April 2008.


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