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Bias in Architecture: Fact or Fiction

Charlie Butterwick

September 2016



The brain is a complex place full of an indistinguishable mix of facts and fictions

“People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their truths destroyed.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Bias ˈbʌɪəs’ (noun)
“The support of or opposition to a particular person or thing in an unfair way, due to the influence of personal opinions on one’s judgment”
Cambridge English Dictionary

Is it possible to separate bias and action? Identities are constructed through the internal assimilation of data received from our external environment, be it sensory, experiential, mnemonic, memetic or spiritual. Our perception is our reality. We are a product of our nurture filtered through our nature. Identities are tied up with where you come from, who you know, what we’ve done, how it made us feel, individual genetics, whether we are supported and or possibly cut down. As Alistair McIntyre put it, “We are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives.” The ways in which we are raised, grow and personally evolve become truths by which we guide our lives, they are the building blocks of our identities. Though this does not absolve any moral responsibility, it shows the relative powerlessness of our own truths and the inconsequentiality of our certainty in these personal definitions of right and wrong. It must point us to the inevitable fact that all actions are inevitably biased without recourse. Can we do anything about this? Without a magic button for infinite empathy for everyone all the time, being able to walk in another’s shoes is a rare gift that is totally incompatible with the challenging scale of designing cities. Despite many architects best intentions (or otherwise), we must accept that the only way to do architecture is together, using tactics that fuel the creative construction of identities that embrace the difference and heterogeneity between people through debate and dialogue..

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Bias in architecture has a crucial bearing on the type of city we are building for future generations. The neo-liberal city being constructed around us today fundamentally undermines our identity constructs and processes of relation. In 1967, Robert Park said “In making the city man has remade himself”. The city around us is one that I believe is biased, increasingly elitist and othering because the process and people by which it is being made are removed from the many thousands of people who endure it every day. As the last infrastructures of post-war social planning are eroded, communally anchoring institutions that once provided spaces of public dialogue, stability, ownership and identity are erased and not replaced. Personal truths, which were in part supported by roles undertaken within these structures, are cast adrift. Today,it is widely intuited that something has been lost that our parents had but that our children may not. We feel powerless to resist. As with many things, bias in city building has been privatised.

How have our lives and our cities reached this point? And why do architects not embrace community engagement as a route to simply doing a decent job? Talk to an architect and what quickly emerges is that community engagement is seen as a hassle that further complicates the already complex process of designing buildings because of the divergent opinions between citizens themselves and between the public and paying clients. Not to play the world’s smallest violin for the profession but they find themselves in a challenging position between getting paid and fighting for a positive, socially relevant contribution to the built environment. Instead architects refer to guides and regulations, minimum standards and optimal arrangements, pedestrian and vehicular movement analyses, the whim of their clients and glossy subscription magazines. These are the standards by which the profession engages the outside world and judges success or failure. These convenient lies are told to allow them the freedom to be absolved of personal responsibility and remain insulated from the criticism of others. These new, double-thought truths are a key factor in the obfuscation of the actual effect of buildings on people in cities. Citizens are reduced to our lowest common denominator, bodies in space without agency, impulse of the need for identity.

Smiling Man on Laptop

A list of biases is long but interesting reading. How many apply to you?

In reference to Nietzsche’s opening quote I would only modify it to read that people don’t want to hear other’s truths because they don’t want their truths destroyed. The opposition of radically different truths, a phenomena that summarises 2016 in my opinion, can often feel like an assault not just on what we feel is good but on our very sense of self. To overcome this barrier we must do three things. Firstly, we must accept that there is no objectivity in the world, everyone and everything they do is biased. We must see that bias is only threatening when its hegemonic, but ultimately that bias only becomes scary when it ends a conversation. If we accept and understand each other’s biases then we may still remain biased but we have opened ourselves to change and true communally directed action. If we fail to do this then we are on a path to letting personal bias be the driving force for widely felt change. We must oppose this by devolving decision making especially in the making of large constructs such as buildings in cities. We must ask anyone affected about the consequences to them, not guess or analyse, and then accept the answers. We must ask broadly; we must ask as many people as possible by creating forums for these divergent identities, these truths, to be represented on a personal level. Secondly, we must convince those few who are already powerful decision makers that they are ruining us, the people, even killing us and our futures, by bettering themselves; a conflict of truths. We can only do this by being tireless, insistent, noisy and articulate. We must organise not to argue for change but to make changes. Start a community project, talk to your neighbours, find a group, become a person in someone else’s network, give your time for free, always ask questions especially when something sounds too good to be true, organise even in the smallest ways, ask for help if you need it but above all we must not stop. Finally, we need to design the processes by which decisions are implemented so that there is ongoing communal responsibility and ownership, because inevitably human beings will change their minds. Many will say that this is too great a challenge, that we can’t possibly override our human nature, that this isn’t how things are meant to be! To them I say, we’re a fucking clever species and when we recognise something is in our best interest we achieve it, against the odds and in spite of the challenges, so let’s get to work.

To conclude, the title of this piece is only partly true and even then only my opinion though it’s stated as a fact. Bias is not just architecture, bias is everything. So, what’s my bias? What’s my investment? Put bluntly, I hope these words encourage you to call me and ask for my help in a project you and your neighbours are considering, not because you want to enact my truth but because you already have debated your own and you want to test it against reality. I hope that you’re looking for someone to question and to challenge, an invested neighbour, a co-conspirator, a technical skill set and a knowledge base to enable you to achieve your neighbourhood’s dreams. I look forward to hearing from you.

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