Architecture and agency: ethics and accountability in teaching through the application of Open Building principles



Architecture & Built Environment


  • design professionalism, ethics, transformation, good citizenship


This paper will explore the notion of ethics in the built environment, and professional accountability, topics which are generally sidelined or given little direct consideration in teaching and practice. However, this status quo is increasingly being questioned. Built environment educators and practitioners need now to develop the intellectual and skill resources to address new questions, formulate a position, and set guidelines to be able to incorporate and make these ‘measurable’ in the performance of educators and practitioners, and for achieving a level of accountability.

The paper will present the general development of definitions in the field of ethics. It will then focus on architecture, where ethical considerations may have spatial implications, as spatial characteristics are a reflection of thinking on opportunity, access and equity. The city structured during apartheid modernism in South Africa provides one iconic case in point to how modern belief systems can often implicitly impact on practice, teaching and design decision-making strategies; powerfully and persistently manifesting—although little recognised—in patterns that reinforce ideas about race, poverty, power and privilege.

Ethical considerations also reflect on design decision-making strategies. Design decisions in the built environment are  always  ‘value-laden’;  they are a reflection of what we  believe  the role  of the architect is and how we believe architecture needs to engage with the people it serves – or should be serving. These concepts are at the core of the University of Johannesburg’s UJ_UNIT2, Architecture and Agency: Design, Make, Transform. Launched in 2015, UJ_UNIT2 is based on the premise that the built environment comes into existence and transforms as a social/physical ecosystem, where buildings and neighbourhoods are never finished, but rather transform part by part. The design process, thus, needs to include different levels of decision-making, facilitating distributed control of environmental decision-making among diverse agents and stakeholders.

‘Open Building’ as a concept resonates strongly with present-day South African concerns in the post- Apartheid era. The principles contained in Open Building thinking can be linked to some of the principles  contained  in  the  National  Development  Plan,  Vision  2030,  the  newly  launched  (and perhaps wrongly termed) Master Spatial Plan, as well as a number of city level visions, such as the “Corridors of Freedom” in Johannesburg and similar public transport led transformation projects. Issues of participation, social integration, mixed use, mixed income, accessibility, choice and affordability are all principles that can be better facilitated and achieved through the use of an “open” approach to design and delivery in the built environment.

UJ_UNIT2 aims to explore the boundaries between architecture and planning, building and city, and architecture and infrastructure, towards a new way of designing and building in the interest of efficiency in design, finance, implementation, management and maintenance. At its core, UJ_UNIT2 is essentially about people, the relationships between people and the role that the built environment plays  in  managing  those  relationships  and  in  achieving  social  cohesion,  wherein  the  built environment functions as a ‘mediator’ and ‘interface’ between individual and collective needs.

This paper elaborates on the above, namely the valency of ethics across education, design, practice, within contexts and the discipline in general, as well as on the process of equipping architecture graduates to have a deeper understanding of how their future practice may contribute towards addressing some of the built environment challenges facing South Africa and the global South. The topics  presented  in  the  unit  thus  link  strongly  to  the  wider  social  and  ethical  practice  of  the profession. It is hoped that this unit will ultimately contribute towards a transformation in education and in practice, with a well-articulated intellectual apparatus.

DEFSA conferences

DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers. Our next conference is a hybrid event. See above for details.

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