Form Follows Responsibility: Four “Calls to Action” to Hold Ourselves Accountable

As architects, our primary mission should be to improve people’s lives and planetary health. However, if we look closely, our work often does neither. On the one hand we are exhilarated by our latest design for the commercial office to house the workplace of the future, but on the other we are concerned by the gentrification it will cause; thrilled to help craft a new civic icon in our downtown park, but worried by its negative impacts on the local ecology; excited to design and establish more housing in our cities, but disappointed by the density and use mix that continues to be unsupportive of walkability or public transit. The dilemmas can feel endless, and can make us feel powerless.

When met with these predicaments it is easy to fall back on the industry’s historically held belief that our responsibilities are limited to our contractual and legal obligations. But our inner ethical voice may be telling us a different story: that our designs across the industry gentrify, reinforce housing unaffordability, cause climate change, suppress economic mobility, and make public transit an impossibility. And yet that doesn’t mean clients weren’t satisfied and that the projects weren’t award-worthy.

Architecture’s success is often narrowly judged by what a building is and what it looks like, not by how it performs or what it provides. Enter: every design award carousel filled with static images without people (or with the few people in motion-blurred appliqué), the provocative aerial illustrating a swooping landscape never perceived by those not in a helicopter, and the sexy rendering that displays an eye-popping level of photorealism. Beautiful “design,” but to what end? What problem does it solve? Whose lives does it improve? How does it improve planetary health?

Over the past two decades the attention paid to city-building knowledge has expanded, underscoring the revelation that the built environment is not merely an offender in key social, economic, and sustainability issues – but rather it is the root cause of many of them. And yet with most of our profession subscribing to the greater moral obligations to neutralize these issues in our designs and plans, we still haven’t elevated them to our ethical responsibilities as a profession, and rarely hold ourselves accountable to address these larger issues.

I have identified four “calls to action” to begin to hold myself accountable for these larger issues: to become a purpose-driven designer,  to become a change agent, to become a convenor, and to become an innovator. My hope is that this challenge is a starting point to inspire other architects and designers to follow suit, to hold ourselves accountable in every design and plan we consider even – and especially when – our profession doesn’t.


Call to Action: Become Purpose-Driven Designers

We must become purpose-driven designers. Our industry’s obsession with form and expression of buildings needs to become secondary, perhaps the last 10% of the design process. We must ask, “what does the world get when this project is built that it didn’t have before?” to put in perspective what we’re truly after. We must apply 4x the amount of rigor, research, ideation, and creative exploration into problem identification, problem-solving, and problem-resolution as we do into drawing what it looks like. We must conceive form not from what it looks like, but what it does.


Call to Action: Become Change Agents

We must become agents of change. Architects and designers shape the most critical elements in city-making – buildings – and touch almost every other discipline during our endeavors. We work with the lenders who provide funding, the state agencies that regulate historic preservation, the real estate developers who are seeking a return on their investments, the cities that define zoning limitations and requirements, the politicians who shepherd public interest, the city planners fighting for more street trees, the community members who voice their concerns, and the contractors who build what we imagine. We have a responsibility to all of them to bring our comprehensive point of view of the city-building ecosystem to further their goals, while simultaneously improving people’s lives and planetary health. We must have the ambition to learn how each actor contributes to city-building, and the audacity to imagine and realize a better future for every inch of our cities.


Call to Action: Become Convenors

We must convene allied disciplines early and often. The most difficult issues to solve – housing affordability, resilience, public transportation, economic mobility, etc. – all require architecture, but architecture alone cannot solve them. Just as we have a responsibility to share our knowledge with all actors of city-making, we have an equal responsibility to know where our expertise stops and where other disciplines are better suited. We must cultivate the openness and vulnerability to convene allied disciplines often, formally or informally, and the courage to convene unconventional disciplines that would not typically be considered, even when not required by clients. Only then will we get a true understanding of the challenges our designs seek to address.


Call to Action: Become Innovators

We must become innovators. Our tools, methods, and tactics for design have been honed over the past few decades to spectacularly optimize construction systems, coordinate between disciplines, and visualize expression and form. At the same time, we have neglected to develop methods and systems to measure and design out the key urgent issues we all recognize. How have we measured gentrification? What are the forecasted impacts to economic mobility? How have we projected ecological impacts? We have built fully detailed digital models of our designs, showcasing an infinite number of views of what our designs look like, and yet we rarely show a single image, graph, chart, or table that suggests our performative impact on larger urgent issues. The notable exceptions, of course, are the careful calculations and projections of traffic impact and stormwater accumulation. We must invent, innovate, and pilot the new tools, methods, and tactics to design the genuine negative consequences out of our designs. Remember: we care about what we measure.


Conclusion: It’s Up to Us

If all the decisions were made by architects alone, in every project, what would we do? What’s the “right thing” to do in the absence of a client’s opinion? What would our designs provide? What problems would they solve? I have found myself drawn to the ethos “form follows responsibility” for a few years now, though it is one I have only recently been able to articulate: architects and designers must conceive of design from a careful investigation of the most pressing issues, wherever that process may take us.

About Justin

Justin Kearnan, AIA, is LS3P’s Urban Environments Practice Leader and has led several international design practices across the world. He specializes in innovative, comprehensive design, and is a staunch advocate for liveable cities working alongside the public and private sector with an emphasis on Public, Private Partnerships.

He is recognized for his international experience thinking interchangeably at a variety of scales; from the person to the community, up to the city and the region. He brings experience in urban design, city planning, architecture, urban economics, and urban policy, provoking all actors of city-making to think with a sensitive understanding of interwoven urban issues and opportunities. His experience targets the intersection of planning, architecture, and urban design; engaging in issues of liveability, affordability, urbanization, land use, economic development, mobility, social equity, and environmental stewardship. He has held positions for several of the world’s leading urban-thinkers, including SOM, Elkus Manfredi, City Collective, and AECOM.

Justin holds a Post-Professional Master of Urban Design from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Architecture, and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture & Urbanism from Wentworth Institute of Technology. He has also completed studies at South China University of Technology, and Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin.