A Darker Shade Of Green

The clash of personal ego and public interest holds us all back. Advocates for change in the design industry can go only so far without also changing how designers behave.
07/12/2016 04:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The sustainable design movement often is tainted by overwrought egos.

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On Monday, Architectural Record reported that Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the nonprofit founded in 1999 to address humanitarian crises through building, is being sued for mismanagement of funds. Last week, a court-appointed trustee filed a complaint alleging that the co-founders, Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, and the ten-person board of directors acted with gross negligence by shirking their fiduciary duties from 2012 through 2014. The specific charges relate to misusing charitable donations earmarked for specific purposes. This is the latest in a string controversies, beginning with the co-founders departing in 2013 and the organization declaring bankruptcy last year.

As I wrote a decade ago, in a review of AFH's book, Design Like You Give A Damn, the organization's purpose and strategy always seemed misguided: "in focusing more on design than on the conditions that create a need for it, sometimes AFH overstates the role of building. The book's jacket claims, 'The greatest humanitarian challenge we face today is that of providing shelter.' The United Nations disagrees. Its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight targets for the global community..., list the first priority of all of humanity to 'eliminate extreme poverty.' For the sixth of the world's population that is starving, access to food, medication, and especially clean water are the most urgent needs. Shelter, which isn't even mentioned in the MDGs, is a comparative luxury. After all, if buildings are a basic human necessity, how did we survive before the last five or ten thousand years?" Even the most egalitarian impulses of designers, it seems, are tainted by an over-inflated sense of our worth.

Starchitects are notorious for their "monumental egos," and their private behavior can be despicable. Early in my career, I worked for one of the world's most famous architects, and he routinely raged at his employees. Yet, the cliché of the black-cape-wearing architect isn't limited just to name-brand designers. In fact, entitlement and self-aggrandizement run rampant among architects. To some degree, this is to be expected in any field that prides itself on creativity and innovation. "Ego-fueled fisticuffs" long have defined Silicon Valley rivalries, for instance. The classic chicken-and-egg question: Does ego spur innovation, or does success inflate egos? Either way, the arrogance of architects no longer surprises me.

What does continue to surprise and sadden me is when I encounter such arrogance among the leaders of the design industry's more altruistic movements. Years ago, I individually interviewed dozens of the recognized pioneers of sustainable design, the movement to improve the environmental and social impact of buildings. At the time, I did not know most of them, yet many volunteered shockingly petty stories about each other. As recently as last year, one of the field's most influential proponents bullied a young writer I know after she publicly (and fairly) criticized one of his projects. At such moments, I'm embarrassed to be an architect.

In my experience, great leaders combine vision, conviction, communication, humility, and empathy. Design leaders often demonstrate the first three and all too frequently lack the other two. This is difficult enough to stomach with most architects, but it's unacceptable for those who claim to be promoting the public good. How can we respect the leader of a social movement who shows little respect for people?

The clash of personal ego and public interest holds us all back. Advocates for change in the design industry can go only so far without also changing how designers behave. Architects can set a new standard, and those of us working toward improving the impact of design have an urgent responsibility to do so.