The Hippocratic Oath, for Architects

Doctors and architects all too often lumped together as roommates in the penthouse of the apartment building of educated society. One particular quality they share is the obligation to serve the public, to improve the livelihoods of others. Doctors, for various reasons, are more front and center in the eyes of the very society they serve than architects. Part of this is that life-and-death struggles are laid more bare in the emergency room than in the design studio– which makes doctors’ stories easier to transform into soap operas and other commercial enterprises. But part of it comes from the inside– doctors, upon receiving their MD, must take a verbal oath. This oath was originally conceived by Hippocrates in Hellenic Greece, and has taken various forms, the most common of which was written by Louis Lasagna in the 1960s. I won’t write it out here, for reasons below, but it’s available on the Johns Hopkins website (where Lasagna was Dean at the time he wrote his version of the oath).

It begs the question: why do doctors have this oath, and architects don’t? The latter are certainly made exhaustively aware of the responsibility because printed versions of this oath, none of them official, cross your eye at every stage of the path to licensure. Are architects too shy? Not a chance. Louis Sullivan and Hugh Hardy, who have each taught me quite a few things, brought a performative quality to their work. Sullivan lectured broadly and bombastically on this topic of architects’ code of conduct one hundred years ago. Hardy was a glittering personality who always sought to bring out the theatrical qualities of architecture– in both the built form and the emotions of its inhabitants. It remains a mystery why an official version of an architect’s implicit code of public conduct is missing from our records, and why we never take an oath.

It therefore occurred to me to simply write one, in the exact mold of Lasagna’s Hippocratic Oath. Below is that same oath, with certain words replaced and emphasized to address architecture instead of medicine.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those architects in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the unsheltered, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overdesign and cookie-cutter solutions.

I will remember that there is art to architecture as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the architect’s pen or the engineer’s calculator.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a problem’s solution.

I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to build something, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to demolish something; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not serve a floor plan, a contract, but an unsheltered human being, whose dreams may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the unsheltered.

I will conserve the existing environment whenever I can, for conservation is preferable to replacement.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unsheltered.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sheltering those who seek my help.

“Unsheltered” here was used to replace “sick,” “infirm,” and terms like that. It might sound funny because the reality for some architects is the design of housing for the already-sheltered (high-end residential, I’m looking at you)– but I think this oath helps remind us of the “public service” part that is fundamental to the practice. Providing shelter is really the leading candidate for the most essential, basic service that architecture provides. High-end residential may be lucrative, but one should use it as a vehicle to get to design public housing. See Alexander Gorlin.

Many might recoil at the idea of taking a verbal oath, because it smacks of religion, of adherence to a belief or dogma, a notion that many young people today are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. In response to that niggle, I invoke David Foster Wallace. In his wonderful commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College called This Is Water, he said:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

I find it very hard to participate in this complex yet organized society, much less ascend to the higher, more respected, and burdensome positions in it, without having chosen something to steady the rudder, be a guiding light, or whatever metaphor you wish to use. I would say that, for the most part, architects already carry this guiding principle in their minds. The only difference I’m proposing is for some ceremony to exist, just like the MD’s donning of the white coats or the hand-on-heart when becoming a naturalized citizen. A ceremony would give the architect community some extra glue, and remind us of the responsibility we all share.

Lastly, what should this oath be called? The Hestian Oath? The Vitruvian Oath? The Sullivan Oath?