Accountable design—Part 1: Cui bono?

by David Week on 03 September 2010


Focus on architecture

The title of this blog is “architecture for development”. The persistent problem is that architecture for development tends to unearth all kinds of interesting bigger issues, and it can become more fun to explore these bigger issues, than the nitty gritty of architecture’s role in development. For the moment, I shall resist that temptation, and focus on architectural practice.

The title of this post is “Accountable design”. This is not a phrase that you will find in architectural magazines, or the catalogue of an architecture school. This is because—despite various movements that have attempted to change the image of the architect, the standard image of an architect is still that of the “brave little form-maker” that works for rich people and corporations to make works of art. If you look at architectural magazines, they tend to be full of beautiful photographs of these forms, plans that could stand alone themselves as works of art, and text by critics which is as thick and obscure as a cup of mud. Nowhere will you see mention of the cost of these artworks.

Denver Art Gallery by Daniel Libeskind. Credit: Larry Goss

And architectural prizes tend to work the same way. If you doubt this, ask yourself how often you see architectural awards without a photograph. The photograph, the image, is central.

Accountability to the beneficiary

Working for the poor, or on projects that help people lift themselves into a better way of life, is a completely different kind of enterprise. Whereas the architect as form-maker has to account to some degree to her personal or corporate client for money, there is a lot of money involved, and as long as basic budgets are met, no-one is looking too carefully at the value-for-money of the Pirelli floors, the high-end appliances, or the unnecessary (but dramatic) cantilevers and zig-zags.

If you work for the poor, spending money on a cantilever because it looks good, or is bold, or dramatic, is profoundly immoral if the people for whom you are working, for whom the budget is intended, are struggling to send their kids to school, or get clean water, or light their houses by night. If every dramatic flourish means that an extra 10 kids don’t go to school, then those dramatic flourish need to be cut. This is because the poor don’t care about dramatic flourishes.

Squatter in Port Moresby. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

It goes further, though. The ancient Romans used  phrase—since adopted by police investigators: cui bono—who benefits? When you see some feature of a building, ask yourself: who benefits? The user, or the architect? Is that beautiful use of patterned bamboo and the organic spiral plan really for the users (who never before showed any interest in such things) or for the architect, when he gets back home and is showing powerpoints to his colleagues?

Cui bono?

The question of “cui bono” brings us to the fundamental of accountable design, which is to ask, for every design element, decision, conversation, and feature… who benefits? Who is this being done for?

Every building design has multiple stakeholders. To use a simplistic triage, they are:

  • the beneficiary, who will use it
  • the implementer, who makes it
  • the funder, who provides the resources.

Elsewhere, I’m going to critique the idea that the funder and the implementer work out their out of the goodness of their hearts, and only the beneficiary benefits. I’m going to propose an idea first formulate by John McKnight, that everyone benefits, and that was is important is that the benefits be made transparent to all parties, so everyone knows what’s going on. With that in mind, I want to propose two principles of accountable design:

  • An accountable design in which for every design decision, you can account who benefits from this decision, and in what way.
  • The objective of accountable design is not to render all benefits to the poor, and none to implementers and funders, but rather to be—as far as possible—crystal clear about what has been done for whom, in such a way that all stakeholders feel that this is a fair deal.

In the next post, I’m going to look at detailed models of accountability, and how they can be adapted to the task of designing buildings (or projects) in a development context.

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