‘There is no alibi in [designing]’: responsibility and dialogue in the design process, by Ben Sweeting & Thomas Bernard-Kenniff

The majority of work on ethics in architecture has gravitated toward either professional responsibility, technological issues, specific moral issues (e.g., sustainability) or aesthetic judgement (e.g., the debate on ornamentation). In this paper however we explore what we identify as a deeper potential relation between architecture and ethics inherent in the very process of designing. That is, we see ethics as consisting of a dialogue: the process of discovering, evaluating and contesting what is better or worse in any given situation as opposed to the resolution of that particular situation in a way understood as being ethically ‘correct’ according to a pre-established value, code or imperative. In this sense, we understand architectural design to be a way of doing ethics (Somerville, 2009).

We have reached this position from separate but related research interests: one focused on the design process, especially the significance of drawing, with reference to Pask’s conversation theory (Pask, 1976); and the other on the ethics of designing for the public realm, with reference to Bakhtin’s dialogism (Bakhtin, 1981 and 1990) and specific case studies. The notions of conversation and dialogue, taken together in their broadest sense, describe two related principles: an evolutionary process of becoming in space and time; and the notion that anything is achieved rather than given. We understand these principles as pertaining to both architectural practice and theory. Furthermore, by paraphrasing Bakhtin in the title, we are implying that our engagement in this conversation and dialogue locates us as actors in the world and so implies individual and social responsibility. As architects, when we act we do so amongst a multitude of voices. When we appeal to a detached and unquestionable authority or ignore the consequences of our actions we are reducing the ‘polyphony’ of the dialogic process to a monologue, thus avoiding responsibility. Indeed, given architecture’s plurality of participants, contexts and connections the idea of dialogic design seems particularly crucial. Through understanding the aesthetics of design dialogically we can discover that the same process is fraught with ethical decisions – that even if we sometimes try to invent one for ourselves there is, in fact, no alibi in designing.

We aim to concentrate this investigation on two points as they are enacted in the design process: first, the act of drawing; and second, the relation between architect and Other. By exploring this, we will show that the design process is as much ethical as it is aesthetic. Furthermore, we will illustrate that these two aspects cannot be meaningfully separated from each other, that they must be understood as dialogue in and of itself as well as part of the dialogue between all participants in the design process.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination : Four Essays. University of Texas Press.
–––––(1990). Art and Answerability : Early Philosophical Essays. University of Texas Press.
Pask, G. (1976). Conversation Theory, Applications in Education and Epistemology. Elsevier
Publishing Co.
Somerville, Margaret A. (2009). The Ethical Imagination. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Ben Sweeting & Thomas Bernard-Kenniff, Bartlett, UK


Harvard Citation Guide: Sweeting, B. and Bernard-Kenniff, T. (2012) ‘There is no alibi in [designing]’: responsibility and dialogue in the design process, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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