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Is your building immoral?

You are probably thinking that this is a silly question; buildings are inanimate structures and morality is the uniquely human capacity for judgment and empathy. So, how could a building be measured by moral standards? How could it have, or lack, values?

Let me share an example. Just a few weeks ago a new sign with a large capital letter D was posted in my apartment building entry. I found out that a new local law (33/95) requires every building over 25,000 square feet to post its Energy Star Score.  Nearly 70% of greenhouse emissions in New York City come from energy used in buildings and unbeknownst to me, my own apartment building is contributing to the problem. I don’t think I ever scored a “D” before.    

So perhaps my question was not so far-fetched. Buildings, like other human creations, are designed by people, reflecting the culture, and society in which they were built. Architects strive to create timeless spaces, but these designs are inevitably infused with the styles and norms of the time. 

As architects, we have an important role in shaping the built environment. We fight climate change by making buildings energy efficient and by using locally sourced and sustainable materials. We make spaces accessible and welcoming to all people, regardless of their gender, race, or class. We strive to create buildings that embody our moral values. 

But how do we respond to the buildings we inherit that were not created with these same values, like my own home?

The lack of accessibility is a recurrent challenge in the renovation of historic buildings. My firm, Studio ST Architects, is currently working with a number of synagogues, none of which are truly accessible. The oldest, Ansche Chesed, was constructed in 1927. It has a beautiful 1600-seat sanctuary with stained-glass windows, dark wooden pews, and a towering organ. But like many prayer spaces of its time, the sanctuary was raised six feet above the lobby and street entrance, perhaps to signify its importance. This makes it challenging to access for many members, both young and old. 

The ethical dilemma in this case is especially poignant. How can we pray in a space that excludes part of the congregation? How can a space be holy if it inflicts pain?

All our synagogue clients have been deeply committed to these values and have put mobility access along with auditory and visual accessibility at the center of their proposed renovations.

(New skylight and acoustic sound deflector at the Skokie Synagogue, Rendering by Studio ST Architects)

While many old buildings have been retrofitted, others may be difficult, if not impossible, to change. What should we do with these existing buildings that conflict with our understanding of inclusivity and equity? Should we continue using them in this state?

I  believe we can treat these buildings, our architectural heritage, like other aspects of our historical culture. The Western canon of art and literature excluded many groups, and religious traditions often held beliefs that we now find offensive. Our responses to these aspects of culture are complicated, but we rarely choose to completely abandon these pasts.

Existing buildings demand a similar response. Demolishing all “unethical buildings” cannot be the solution. It would erase our urban history and create unnecessary waste, potentially (and paradoxically) undermining the environment in the name of an enlightened principle. Instead, we try to renovate these buildings in order to reduce the injustice in their architecture. Perhaps, the concept of “renovation” could be a useful lens through which we can think of other aspects of our culture that need to be updated. 

We cannot judge historic buildings and past architects for their failure to express our own contemporary values. Past generations were not struggling with climate change, the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, racial biases and accessibility. Nevertheless, we cannot and should not accept the moral shortcomings that are embedded in these buildings. 

We should also remember that just as the visionaries who built some of our cities’ most beautiful and emotionally resonant buildings, were not imbued with the sensitivities we hold today, we should have the humility to appreciate that we too are likely to fall short in the eyes of future generations.

Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, said “the old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified” (in Hebrew this rhymes). This, I believe, is our challenge – to respect yet renew the old, and to infuse our new buildings with ancient sanctity. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation on Facebook

Esther Sperber is an architect, founder of Studio ST Architects. She also writes and lectures about architecture and psychoanalysis.  Her work has been published in the New York TimesThe Huffington PostLilith, the Jewish Week as well as many academic journals.