Abbas Sbeity
Abbas Sbeity
Published in
10 min readDec 27, 2019



By Michael Gleenwood

The Need for Ethics

Architecture has been defined as a way to look forward to a better future that expands our sense of human possibility. By constructing relationships between “what exists and what can come into being”, it frames new understandings of places and human interactions. This definition recognizes a significant role architects play in shaping communities and society as a whole. Architects’ work influence how places are shaped, how they function, and who they engage in the process. This role extends beyond the physical structures with a responsibility to balance the social, economic, and environmental aspects of what he or she designs.

Thomas Fisher wrote that “the architect has been licensed to look after the public good.” And it is this “publicness” of architecture that calls architects to question the consequences and influence of what they are asked to design, bringing a moral and social responsibility into play. And before him, Victor Papanek referred this social and moral responsibility to ethics, however, ethics have become a recurring issue for architects today due to the rapid urbanization that is setting challenges such as mass displacement, climate change, globalization, political instability, shortages of affordable housing, inequality, collapse of some of social and environmental resources, and access to water and sanitation, that investigates the architect’s role in society.

To address urbanization and its challenges, a new mindset is needed, an ethical one that focuses on the positive impact of architecture in shaping or advocating change. A mindset that goes beyond the professional codes of conduct and one that does not only correspond with what is legal. Instead, when faced with dilemmas, his social and moral judgment will give him the ability to figure out what he should and should not do for the sake of the public good.

Although the architect has no exclusive responsibility for these challenges, he is responsible, as an active participant in the decisions businesses make, either through design or by “not getting involved”. The architect cannot sit back and wait for others to decide how he might address current problems. Instead, he must get involved as a “citizen architect” based on a more holistic approach that incorporates social, economic, and environmental considerations following the current global sustainability agenda–the 17 Sustainable Development Goals announced by the United Nations in 2015.

By accepting this new responsibility, the architects’ role becomes “less about designing buildings and more about envisioning a more sustainable, affordable, and equitable future.”

Cases from Lebanon

In the case of Lebanon, a large system of corruption that includes public institutions and real estate companies controls the built environment sector. Recent years have proved the failure of urbanization that fosters a dominance of real estate companies, backed up by politicians, over the natural, social, and cultural environments of the population.

In such a complex system, one can argue that the architect is “merely a player in someone’s else game”, however, a call for a moral duty remains in the hand of the architect “looking for the public good”.

Photo source

Regardless of zoning regulations or environmental studies, the coastline of Beirut has been acquired by businesses over the years. The newest violation on Ramlet el Baida–Beirut’s last public beach–is the newly built hotel “Eden Bay”. A private project that ignited public pressure from media and civil society actors and initiated lawsuits in the last two years. The project built by Ashour Development, a private real estate company with its own architects. The project exceeded the maximum building size by twice what was allowed, in addition, to being built on a land that should have not been cleared for development, claims Jad Tabet, the president of the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects.

Behind such project, stands one or few architects, working for the company, who could have used their position in the company, to not exclude architecture from the larger social and political context. Although the project was backed up by politicians, it is the architect’s responsibility to regulate such unethical projects, if the government couldn’t catch up. The company prioritizes its profits over the good of the community in which it has built. But for the architect, the good of the community must always come first.

In another scenario, an architect is commissioned by a real estate company to design a luxurious apartment project.

Photo source:

Mar Mikhael Village, designed by the Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, known for his exclusive and high-end nightclubs and apartments, replaces the Laziza Beer Factory–a historical building in the Mar Mikhael Neighborhood*. Although remained unused for decades, the rich history of the factory mobilized activists rapidly to protest against the demolition of the factory*. Such demolition in the context of a dense working-class neighborhood could cause public health problems and gentrification.

To design “what is hot”, “Design stars” driven by their self-expression, never stopped accepting clients’ decisions in destroying what is valuable for generations. Although the client does not care about preserving and reusing buildings with cultural values, and they hold the right to decide what makes the most sense to them, the duty of the architect remains to live with the decision they will take. Architects as key players, must explore and explain the consequences of their clients’ decisions. His role is to present solutions that preserve the best of what already exists and conserves for the future.

When faced with the dilemma between the desires of the client and those of the community, the architect has the responsibility to listen to the community. Architects have the ability to channel the wealth of their clients for the benefit of the public. Although the clients hold the right to refuse any solutions by the architect, the latter also has the right and should have the respect, to refuse to continue on such projects. By respecting the property rights, the architect does what is right for the property, not for any person who happens to own it at the moment.

“His social and moral judgment must be brought into play long before he begins to design, since he has to make a judgment, an a priori judgment at that, as to whether the products he is asked to design or redesign merit his attention at all. In other words, will his design be on the side of the social good or not. “

In both projects, architects and their clients bear a responsibility to the public. Two massive projects, one infringements on a public property, and another replaces an iconic building. Two violent acts neglecting the community needs representing design as a luxury serving the “elite”. Architects in such cases lose the trust of their society that has been embedded in their education and licensure. Architects become driven by their own interests rather than those of those of their communities, causing most unethical behaviors.

Inside the Lebanese Curriculum

Little did I know about “Design Ethics” when I was still studying architecture, however, when we were asked to design a football stadium inside Horsh Beirut, Beirut’s largest green park, I questioned the role of educational institutions in supporting the economically and politically powerful in our society*. Since, I have been part of a public campaign, led by NAHNOO, advocating for the opening of the closed park. However, the municipality initiated a project to build this stadium regardless of zoning regulations that do not allow such project to be built on this land.

Photo by NAHNOO ©

Architecture schools tend to focus its teaching on the design only, neglecting the importance of the social, economic, and political environments in which design takes place. But design education cannot take place in a vacuum and architecture students cannot remain “aloof” of their context. But we notice that studio-based projects in Lebanese architecture schools do not mirror real-life problems.

During an interview with an AUB Graduate, Sally Itani highlights the problems she found in the curriculum at AUB. From her point of view, she was not taught to understand the impact of the work of architects nor how to channels her thoughts to work for the benefit of other people. She believes that the unrealistic nature of studio projects contributes to the inflation of “the architect’s ego”, does not integrate sustainability to the design process, and does not offer an opportunity to involve end-users in the process. For Sally, architecture students must be given the opportunity to deal with people around them and in the challenges that surround them.

“I was not taught how to design responsibly, but I rather pushed myself to do so on my own, because we need a paradigm shift as architects, to understand that we are not above the people we are designing for. We do not know what they need, we cannot make assumptions, and we need to be more aware of our surroundings.”

In another interview with a graduate from the Lebanese University, Ramona Abdallah brought up similar issues of social responsibility, however, this time covering moral values such as sexism, racism, and plagiarism. Ramona believes that university professors could highly contribute to the unethicality of architects by allowing students to copy projects from their colleagues or from famous architects, and by allowing design decisions that enforce sexism and racism, such as designing bedrooms for maids in apartments with no windows.

Both students, driven by their own interests tackled social issues for their thesis projects and made sure to involve users in their research and design process. However, during one of her juries’, a professor told Sally “I don’t understand architects who use the argument ‘I talked to the people’ in order to design”.

Such statements show the lack of sensibility and understanding of the ethical responsibility at the university level.

Toward a Service-Learning Curriculum

Victor Papanek calls for a design education that pushes young people to participate in changing society. To produce graduates who can make a living and help others live better lives, architecture schools can prepare students to become activists and inspire them toward public service. By encouraging students to participate in civic engagement through service-learning programs and courses, introducing alternative design practices and encouraging civic responsibility. This will help them to develop the kind of social and moral responsibility that is needed in design.

Service-learning is a partnership based program between a university and a community; under which students learn and develop through an organized service that is conducted in and meets the needs of a community. It introduces students into the real world; producing work of exceptional quality that empowers community and students alike. In addition, service-learning programs can help students:

  1. Learn how to communicate and share their design knowledge to a broad audience
  2. Develop links between theory, practice, and their social interests
  3. Develop collaborative skills by dealing with different stakeholders who are key players in implementing projects such as community leaders and public officials
  4. Get involved with real-life projects by dealing with social and physical issues of a community in its own context
  5. Recognize the diversity of users through the incorporation of inclusive design by meeting new people from the community
  6. Working on sites that take into account the needs of the marginalized groups in society and understanding the specific needs of the site
  7. Develop teamwork skills by engaging in dialogue with colleagues and dismissing the notion of heroic individual invention in architecture
  8. Work and learn directly from the end-users by spending time with the communities for whom they design and restrain from imposing their own desires on the community by involving them

Instead of teaching a predetermined code of conduct, service-learning programs help students develop a better understanding of their responsibilities and help them develop their own ethical code.


Stohr, Kate. “Self-Help and Sites-And-Services Programs,” Design Studies: A Reader, edited by Hazel Clark and David Brody, 441–444. Berg Publishers, 2009.

Dilnot, Clive. “Ethics in Design: 10 Questions.” In Design: Critical and Primary Sources: Social Interactions, edited by D. J. Huppatz, 230–245. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Basbous, Monica; Bekdache, Nadine; Saksouk, Abir, “The City, Who Paints its Future?.” Public Works Studio, June, 2017.لمدينة،-من-يرسم-مستقبلها؟

Preston, Scott. “The untouchable hotel: Urban activists view Eden Bay as a symbol of dysfunction.” Executive Magazine, April, 2018.

Betsky, Aaron. “To Build or Not to Build: Architecture, Ethics, and Politics.” Architect Magazine, March, 2014.

Hopkins, Owen. “Why is Ethics such an Important Issue for Architects?.” The Architectural Review, November 2015.

Kenner, David. “Farewell, Lebanon’s First Brewery: A derelict beer factory stirs social divides in Beirut.” Foreign Policy Magazine, July 2017.

Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and the Social Change. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.

Thomas Fisher, Ethics for Architects: 50 Dilemmas of Professional Practice, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010)

Bryan Bell, Good Deeds, Good Design: community service through architecture, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004)

Paper submitted on January 8, 2019, for the Design Theory Course during my first year at ALBA completing an MA in Global Design.

For inquiries and feedback, you can reach me on



Abbas Sbeity
Abbas Sbeity

Community– & Human–Centered Researcher, Designer, & Facilitator