Chapter 3


Ian Davis

In 1624, Sir Henry Wooton (1568-1639) suggested that there was a moral imperative in the art of architecture: 'The end is to build well...well building hath three Conditions: Commodity, Firmness and Delight.' These conditions still relate to the challenge facing any designer to satisfy and integrate social, technological and aesthetic requirements, in order to produce a holistic approach to architecture and physical planning.

Potentially, such criteria relate closely to the application of Christian ethics in social, economic, legal, political, environmental and philosophical terms, both in the design process and in building performance. However, 'potential' is an appropriate word in view of the fragmentary attention to ethical matters aside from a continual and frequently self-serving debate on professionalism and the contractual obligations and liability of architects to their clients and builders. In the United Kingdom, the issues of professional responsibility and ethical concern came into sharp focus in 1993, when the Government declared its intention to abolish the legal protection of the description 'architect'. If this change had occurred, then anyone, trained or not, qualified or not, would have been entitled to use this designation. A fierce debate followed on a wide range of themes: professionalism, Úlitism, the demands of a free market relative to public service, and an ethical concern for public protection. As a direct response to pressure from architects and consumer groups, the Government unexpectedly abandoned the proposal. This result highlighted conflicting ethical issues: firstly, it was seen as a victory for the consumers of architecture, who would continue to enjoy protection from charlatan designers; and secondly, it was seen as an example of the power of professional self-interest, masquerading as ethical concern for the public good.

Ethical issues

The symptoms of the disregard of ethical issues can be found in the areas of writing, education and the assessment of competitions. Until 1994 at least, no book has been specifically devoted to 'ethics and architecture'. A further symptom concerns a major educational gap, since the subject rarely figures directly in the curriculum of architectural schools, although it is more prominent in planning education. Further evidence of neglect can be noted when a major architectural competition is assessed, whilst there is no shortage of comment on technological, stylistic and conceptual issues, it would be an exceedingly rare event for an assessor to comment on relevant ethical dimensions. This omission could include such 'incidentals' as the selection of non-renewable building materials, the social consequences on the population displaced by the proposed new building, or even the likely well-being of the occupants of the proposed competition entry.

However, despite this apparent neglect, there is no doubt that architectural ethics has been considered by many responsible designers since the mid-19th century, particularly within the arts and crafts movement (see P. Davey, Arts and Crafts in Architecture). This tradition still continues in the work of certain responsible architects. (See B. Mikellides, Architecture for People, and R. Maguire, In Defence of Modernism.) But in the absence of detailed documentation, or effective patterns of accountability of architects to their public, the concern remains fragmentary.

An incentive for a new awareness of the subject has come through the recent barrage of criticism (much of it coming from a broadly ethical position). This has assailed architects from various directions: from the Prince of Wales, planning officers, unsatisfied occupants of new buildings, and their vocal, unhappy neighbours. Such critics share a conviction that the consumers of architecture and physical planning deserve much better service from the relevant professions (P. Dearnley, 'No Mean Cities - Christian Perspective on Urban Planning and Policy'- Chapter 5 and C. Caddy, 'A Christian Planner and Development Control' - Chapter 6)

There is one area of planning and architecture where ethical issues have been central: the debate on urban planning and public housing policy. In Europe and N. America, a series of influential studies was produced from the 1960s which challenged many utopian architectural and planning ideologies for the provision of new towns and mass housing with a strong social and ethical critique.

These culminated in the United Kingdom in 1985, when Professor Alice Coleman of King's College, London, developed a hypothesis, tested through the analysis of 10,000 dwellings, that linked social malaise (expressed in urban vandalism, criminal activity, litter and children in care) to the design and layout of public housing estates (A. Coleman, Utopia on Trial). Since the underlying philosophy that influenced planning concepts and the design of high-rise and low-rise dwellings was heavily dependent on the ideas of leading architects and planners of the day, her study was inevitably vigorously opposed by the professional establishment. However, criticism from lay persons, official sources and academic researchers was influential, and it is clear that social concerns are now much higher on the agenda of the design process. The critique may have contributed to the sharp decline in the creation and maintenance of the public housing sector, which has been vigorously opposed in policies of successive Conservative governments with a commitment to the virtues of home ownership and growth in the private sector.

Architecture and Christian ethics

The roots of an understanding of Christian ethics and its relationship to architecture lie deep within three great biblical doctrines.

1. Creation. God has created a world of abundant resources for our well-being and aesthetic delight.

In recent years, there has been a renewed concern to promote a 'green architecture' that avoids wasting precious natural resources. Christians believe that God has provided and continues to sustain his creation with adequate provision (land, energy sources, building materials, skills and labour) for all habitation needs. But this abundance does not offer a licence for profligate waste. In practical terms, the desire to apply Christian ethics may need to exercise increasing influence on decisions about the specification of non-renewable materials, on how to avoid wasting land in locating a building on a site, on land-use planning and energy conservation.

As well as conserving and managing God's creation, designers will continue to recognize the wonder and diversity of creation as a primary inspiration for fertile design ideas in terms of colour, tone, form, texture, structural strength, etc.

The concept that 'Man does not live on bread alone' (Matt. 4:4) is not only a reminder of the spiritual dimensions of life; it can also refer to the realm of aesthetics, beauty and delight, since the giving of pleasure is an essential part of Christian loving. Goodness is concern expressed in action; action without love is morally meaningless, and love without action corresponds to faith without works. Christian architects should therefore be even more concerned than any designer coming from a humanist stance to create wonderful structures that bring joy to their users and viewers, as well as to designer colleagues.

But an important question concerning Christian ethics remains to be resolved in the complex field of beauty and taste. This concerns the 'accessibility' to the untrained eye of the architectural language that is used. (N. Rank, 'To what end do we build?' - Chapter 10)

Thus, the doctrine of creation embraces the goodness of a loving God as He gives gifts to men and women, including all creative gifts necessary to design, build and manage the built environment for the good of present and future generations.

2. The image of God. The doctrine that humanity is made in the image of God has some important implications for architecture. The design and ambience of buildings need to reflect this truth.

Vital links need to be established between designers (including the expanding range of professionals involved in the production of buildings), the 'producers' of buildings (including builders and persons with craft skills), and the occupants of buildings. Such relationships need to lead to mutual trust, the sharing and delegation of creative gifts, the development of patterns of accountability, and the detailed participation of users with the producers of their physical environment (R. Macleod, 'Christian Belief and the Built Environment' - Chapter 2).

There are encouraging signs of a more positive approach towards a socially responsive architecture. For example, the rapid growth in the community-architecture movement in Europe and N. America indicates that many architects (often motivated by a humanist rather than Christian concern) care deeply about the needs of disadvantaged people. They perceive their role to be 'enablers' to their clients, as opposed to assuming a passive acceptance of what they are perceived to need. The biblical understanding of humanity also relates to the demands of such disadvantaged groups, including the physically and mentally handicapped, and their access to appropriate architecture.

Human comfort, safety and health can all be affected for better or worse by building design. Christian designers and planners will need no reminder of this, not just with regard to homes, but also offices, studios and factories. Our Lord's demanding injunction 'Do to others what you would have them do to you' (Matt. 7:12) has its application in such areas.

3. Sin. Architecture does not operate in a spiritual and moral vacuum. It is designed to serve the needs of sinful humanity in a world contaminated by evil.

Powerful people and institutions have always promoted structures (including buildings) which can serve their own sectional interests to the detriment of the needs of other less influential groups. Effective legal action, 'citizen action groups' and mediating structures are thus needed to curb such vested interests, and to ensure that justice is promoted in the planning process in order to make certain that buildings and cities are not manipulated for the satisfaction of private greed as opposed to public good.

In addition, there is a need to design with an awareness of sin. Much architectural writing glamorizes human behaviour with a heavy dose of utopian optimism. Christian ethics applied to architecture will lead towards practical design measures that may reduce crime and vandalism (O. Newman, Defensible Space). Such measures need to be regarded as a realistic rather than a pessimistic response to human needs.

Through considering the implication of basic doctrines, a 'Christian mind' needs to be developed in order to shape architectural and planning values in the time of uncertainty that grips the professions. To fulfil this noble aim, three exacting demands have to be met: 1. to design and build in harmony with the natural and human environment; 2. when selecting spaces, forms and materials, to regard design as an act of service to others, especially vulnerable groups; and 3. to retain a realistic awareness of evil, avoiding any utopian tendency to idealize social behaviour.

Ethical dimensions, and more specifically Christian considerations, need to be developed, documented, shared, applied and tested through design and contractual experience. This is needed in order to create a more responsible architecture and well-planned environment that celebrates a Creator God and His created world and brings joy and satisfies the practical need of all sections of human society.


A Coleman, Utopia on Trial: Vision and Reality in Planned Housing (London, 1985).

P. Davey, Arts and Crafts Architecture: The Search for Earthly Paradise (London, 1980).

B. Mikellides (ed.), Architecture for People: Explorations in a New Humane Environment London, 1980), esp. P. Aldington and J. Craig, 'Understanding People and Developing a Brief', pp. 27-33.

O. Newman, Defensible Space (New York, 1972; London, 1973).

The Association of Christians in Planning and Architecture Newsletter is a valuable source of Christian discussion of ethical issues relating to physical planning and architecture. See especially:

C. Caddy, 'A Christian Planner and Development Control', ACPAN 13/14, 1988/89, pp. 19-31 (reprinted here as chapter 6).

G. Carey, 'Finding Security in an Insecure World', ACPAN 11, 1987, pp. 4-14

P. Dearnley, 'No Mean Cities: A Christian Perspective on Urban Planning and Policy', ACPAN 15, 1989, pp. 7-17 (reprinted here as chapter 5).

R. Macleod, 'Christian Belief and the Built Environment', ACPAN 1, 1983, pp. 6-17 (reprinted here as chapter 2).

R. Macleod, 'The Idea of a Christian Architecture', ACPAN 24, 1993, pp. 11-14.

R. Maguire, 'In Defence of Modernism', ACPAN 24, 1993, pp. 15-19.

This article appeared as 'Architecture' in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, Leicester: IVP, 1995, pp. 167-170.

Return to Contents Page