The 10 Commandments of Architecture

posted by David Polkinghorn

Are there universal and timeless ethics that govern the practice of architectural design? The following article has been a favorite of mine since I encountered it in college, and since we couldn't find it anywhere online we are reposting it here. 

The 10 Commandments of Architecture: 
Toward a Moral Architecture

by the late John Wiebenson (+2003)
from the March, 1975 issue of The Washingtonian

Bright and shiny new buildings have been pushing us around too long. They knock down our houses and apartments and offices. They also destroy the landmarks of our past. They break up pleasant places to shop and eat and walk. They drop pieces of glass into our streets. They shun the desolate places, the places where new buildings are needed. They let precious energy leak out through their thin skins. They either grow larger, crowding us ever more densely and abrasively together, or, posing as new towns, they pull us too far apart from one another for a real community to form.

No wonder Ayn Rand had her hero blow up a big new building in The Fountainhead. It was the enemy. But that fantasy hero did not consider our new technology, which can so easily replace a building and put up several more besides. He wasted his dynamite.

If we are not to use explosives, how can we resist new building aggression? Some citizens are doing it by joining groups like Don't Tear It Down, which try to save valuable existing buildings. Others are forming groups to protect their own neighborhoods. There even are some architects in the battle. These architects who might be trying to get form to follow function or make less more or pursue some other esthetic altogether - also are trying to find rules to insure that their work will not hurt people. Some of the rules are gathered here-they're collected from architects and architecture students or from the implications of some wretched building project. They are called commandments as a sort of bow to precedent in rule giving. That there are ten in this set too is accidental-there had been nine, but architect Robert Schwartz proposed what became the Eighth Commandment. Even now, the list should be considered open: Additional ideas will be cheerfully accepted.


Almost all people agree that urban freeways displace needlessly, that we can seek alternatives. Can we not be as imaginative with large building proposals? A lot of architecture firms worked to put up the big new buildings in Southwest. A lot of people had to move. Couldn't the architects have been asked to design within the existing urban fabric, creating new patterns but keeping old ones, too? They were not asked this, nor did they volunteer. The problem is that urban renewal authorities, like highway people, have laws that let them throw people out. So they do. Then they ask architects to do lazy planning, working on vacant blocks. Perhaps the best way to keep architects honest in this regard is to take eminent domain away from the renewal agencies. Eviction could then be put into the marketplace, with owners and tenants deciding whether to move or not. And architects could design environments around the people who remain.


If the architects and officials renewing Southwest didn't realize they were displacing a lot of people, they could have easily found out. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to talk only with those who pay the bills, and the people displaced or the people who must use the buildings are seldom heard.

Checking with those affected also might help architects produce better looking work. Take the University of Maryland as an example. There, some fine arts students and faculty found they were to get a new building. They immediately wrote a design manual of the sort of place they wanted. It showed an interior public plaza to handle major circulation, with quiet pathways in other areas. The manual went to the building's architects, who also met with students and faculty. The result was a lively building.

The university's new undergraduate library shows a different approach. Its staff and students were more passive, having the traditional minimal contact with the architect. Now they have a new building rich in the College Park campus tradition of watered-down neo-Georgian.

Then there is Pennsylvania Avenue. For years, the plans for this area were based on knocking everything down. Gradually, as historic preservationists gained more force, the plans started leaving valuable old structures like the old Star building intact. Next, the District's Office of Planning and Management held meetings to help planners hear other citizens, too. A group of Indiana Avenue merchants, even a branch bank manager, could then testify on the value of their buildings and services for local people. Now quite a few stores, especially those on Indiana Avenue, are to be saved. It is true that some stores are still to be moved out, being placed in a remodeled Lansburgh's until it too is torn down. This double displacement sounds a little odd, but most of the planning of Pennsylvania Avenue shows that when people are involved in their own futures, the development decisions are wiser. Certainly, the Avenue's new plans - new buildings mixed with existing valuable buildings a nd services - are better than the old plans for demolishing most everything.


Walter Gropius' Pan Am Building in New York probably is one of the worst examples of glossing over surroundings. Some people might ask how anything in Manhattan can be made worse, but it is done all the time, and the Pan Am really did it by attacking one side of Grand Central Station and by overloading local services with an additional 20,000 people. One of Gropius' staff asked why he was taking the job, as not all architects thought this a good idea, even then. Gropius replied that if he didn't do Pan Am, someone else would, but not as well. But he had another option: Refuse the commission and use his prestige to try to kill the project altogether.

Washington has no such monuments to disastrous bigness; height limits give us some protection. Still, we do get new buildings that are unfriendly in scale and design to their older neighbors. Congress, for example, is putting up, over the years, a sort of piece-by-piece Pan Am on Capitol Hill with its various dreary office buildings and parking garages.


For years, a group in England called Archigram has been promoting a "plug-in-city" that would roll around the countryside, coming to rest whenever citizens wanted to step out of their pods for a stretch. This project would require some devices like antigravity machines which, being currently unavailable, have delayed construction. Now Archigram has doubts about plugging in cities, and is looking into "lumps" instead. Such lumps as they show suggest dwellings within mountains and hillocks interrupting a row of town houses.

The plug-in-city is technology carried to a silly point, while the lump is its opposite, that of pushing nature to excesses. Soleri's mega-cities are domestic examples of rampant technology, and are unbuildable. I.M. Pei's Hancock Building in Boston is another. It was not unbuildable, but its oversized, double-glazed, irrored-finished glass would not stay put. This glass was silly, not because it kept falling on Boston, but because covering this bloated structure with such large sheets could never make it a better building. The limits of technology were pushed out for nothing.

The idea of getting nature to take over seems too attractive ever to become silly. Most of our suburbs and universities do, however, manage to put in just the right amount of grass that is too much to let people get together and too little to let the buffalo come back.

There is an engaging cheerfulness in Archigram's rolling cities and interrupting hillocks. They are silly only because they offer nothing else. Conversely, no fun at all is offered by most of our buildings. It is possible that all our miserably dull public buildings, such as most of those on the Mall, are silly in their immense blandness. They seldom are labeled as silly, because we have somehow let the dull and bland become the traditional public style.


We have tried every version of energy waste in our buildings, particularly those inspired by fashion. Take the fashion of office-building skins - some years glass is big, other years it's concrete. This could be harmless, were it not that fashions sweep the whole country. Glass skins in the moderate climate of San Francisco don't waste much energy, but they do in hotter and colder climates. Older buildings in these more extreme climates mixed thick walls with their glass. Now new glass-covered buildings use bigger boilers and air conditioners instead. This year saving energy is fashionable. Unfortunately, glass is back in vogue, too.

Housing has fashions, too, but it runs in longer cycles. We have been stuck for years with the fashion of the single-family freestanding house lost in acres and acres of similar other houses. Savings of energy, particularly transportation energy, could be made by putting units closer together and mixing them with places to work, to shop, and to go to school. Perhaps it is time to move our renewal efforts out of the cities and into the suburbs.

Architects did not invent the suburban layout, however. Everything from the American Dream to the Veteran's Administration had a hand in that one. Still, the most celebrated housing, by architects does seem to be houses standing so free as to be in a forest. Using some of that talent for giving row houses and corner groceries greater appeal might have helped.


Edward Stone's Kennedy Center is one of the saddest violations of this commandment - sad because it was so wrong even before it was built. People like Wolf Von Eckhardt suggested that the various halls and theaters be spread out along Pennsylvania Avenue instead of isolated beside Rock Creek. This didn't happen, so now it will be harder to put new life into Pennsylvania Avenue. It also is harder to get a drink between acts.

The Kennedy Center gets us to the Watergate. It seems that as the Center was being built, someone noticed that the Watergate was nearby, and that its last section also was about to be built. There was fear this might obscure all that marble, and some Center people tried to stop Watergate South. It is true that if you stand just so, the Kennedy Center does get covered up. This is not all bad, however, and it does suggest how the Center might, after all, get two for the price of one. We could put shops between those spindly columns, getting some services near the Center, and getting some use from all those projecting roofs.

There are more encouraging examples. Richard Ridley, a local architect, is designing a restaurant in Arlington. He proposes a shelter for sidewalk eating that for a few feet turns into a shelter for a bus stop. Sometimes it is even possible to get three for the price of one. If current plans for the Old Post Office survive, it would mean that a splendid building will have been saved- more restaurants and stores will- be put on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the National Endowment for the Arts will have a fitting home.

There are all kinds of other possibilities. Apartments can be put on top of downtown office buildings to double the value of elevators and streets. And putting gardens or tennis courts on top of these would be like having the buildings and having the land too.


Not every worthy consumer of architectural skills can pay for the service. Organizations like the Washington Planning Workshop have been formed to fill the gap, but they all are underfunded, so some architects try to help with pro bono work. Ken Jadin and Tunney Lee are two of these. They worked on the committee providing free building and planning advice for Resurrection City, and they also have helped several Washington neighborhoods develop their own plans for new schools.

But some architects hold out for a fee from every job. A couple of years ago, for example, the Washington office of a large firm (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) was asked to help a local drug treatment group. This group knew how to fight drugs, but they simply had no money to pay for plans to change a house into a treatment center. The big firm therefore declined the job. Then Joe Wilkes, of the smaller Wilkes and Faulkner firm, was called. His previous pro bono work had not used up his sense of responsibility for helping people, and so he helped.


Few architects would knowingly lay out corridors and lobbies for a heroin ring's headquarters. Few would work on a concentration camp. But other commissions might be harder to turn down. How badly programmed does a public housing project have to be for an architect to refuse to design it? Or are any proposals for new schools or new prisons ever of so bad a concept as to leave them without plans? To rework the motto of the gun lobby, pencils don't draw terrible buildings, architects do.


There is a sort of an unwritten law that architects are not to speak ill of other architects, particularly in public. This suggests that architects should be more loyal to their profession than to their city. Fortunately, some architects speak out anyway: Grosvenor Chapman helped those speaking against letting the Georgetown waterfront development overload the streets with cars. One of that development's architects, Arthur Moore, also was one of the architects who testified against Vincent Kling's commission to build a bigger Internal Revenue Service Building over the grave of the Old Post Office. The American Institute of Architects, this country's major organization of architects, has worked for years to block the addition of toilets and cafeteria to the west front of the Capitol Building, an addition that would erase the building's last original facade.

But these are only a few of the projects that need criticism, What about all of the new offices and apartments that are built along Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, displacing people, shops, trees, and, sometimes, beautiful buildings? Architects are needed to perpetrate these works, and they do so with little vocal opposition from other architects. Even less is heard about questionable projects in less glamorous parts of the city.

But it is this sort of discourse that is needed. Many architects learned something in school, and have learned something since. If they talked more in public, in terms of real projects, there would be a chance for wiser decisions to be made by neighborhood groups, by zoning officials, by planning bodies, even by developers.


Asking for both poetry and morality makes architectural thinking a bit harder, but the first nine commandments here are not meant to cause architects to stop seeking poetic building form. Visitors to Washington's K Street, or to Denver's Colorado Boulevard, or to any of thousands of our urban paths come away with the feeling we could use sonic poetry. Our industrial structures, particularly the older ones, usually are rich with visual wonder. Our houses and schools, our stores and offices could offer even greater delight to the eye.

All too often, however, we get buildings that are neither poetic nor moral - renewal in Southwest Washington sacrificed several communities without bringing us much poetry. Buildings should have the spirit that makes people want to keep them as they want to keep the Old Post Office.


John Wiebenson was a prominent architectural activist in Washington DC. He died in 2003. The Washington Post published this tribute upon his passing.