Nobody ever died from architecture. Bad engineering? Yes. But, not from architecture. Yet, by basing state registration laws for architects on the same public protection rationale as the ones for engineers, the profession relies on the fear of unsafe structures to promote or enforce the hiring of architects. A more successful marketing strategy would be reality-based, not fear-based. The reality is that architects, of course, do protect the public, and they do that in their role as engineering generalists coordinating engineering specialists. But it is the science, not the art, that does the protecting.

The confusion arose about 150 years ago when the AIA’s founding principles promoted “architectural science,” its admission standards required expertise in “architectural science,” and its national campaign for registration laws focused on regulating “architectural science.” This scientific focus was quite logical because objective, measurable fields are naturally compatible with regulation. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the crucial word “science” was dropped from the legal effort. This historical accident leaves the false impression that governments can regulate the entire artistic enterprise of architecture.

It is no accident, of course, that the legal legitimacy of professions—just like their ethical legitimacy—rests on their objective ability to protect human survival. Medicine protects health, law protects justice, and engineering protects safety. A lapse in any of these three can take human life, and therefore, governments grant the professions that protect the citizenry special monopoly privileges to practice.

Napoleon Bonaparte believed that all accidents are just fate misnamed. It would be a tragic fate indeed for architects to allow the very narrow (though important) description that law and ethics dictate for the profession of architecture to limit the very broad and generous reality of the discipline as a whole. Yet architects make this mistake all the time. They justify their artistic choices to clients and communities on purely scientific grounds.

Once in a while, an example of this misleading behavior even rises to the level of the AIA National Ethics Council, which, in 2006, heard the case of an architect who testified to the local zoning board that she needed to raise the elevation of a flat, multiacre suburban home site by several feet because of its peculiar drainage characteristics. Turns out the clients just had an aesthetic preference for living on a hill. All the months of earthmoving resulted in neighborhood flooding and property damage, all because of a made-up scientific argument to get artistic results.

While this architect’s ruse was egregious, it still points to a pervasive fear many practitioners share: a fear of the legitimacy of aesthetics. Aesthetics covers the multitudes of design choices that are not engineering choices—the utilitas and venustas, if not the firmitas. For architects to hide two-thirds of their work under the legitimacy of the other one-third is a frustrating and unprofitable exercise at best—especially if that two-thirds is the part they care more about and that distinguishes them from other professionals.

An accident of history has seduced architects into an easy reliance on their narrow and misleading legal legitimacy. But accidents can become the best opportunities, and architecture’s fate is not sealed.

Victoria Beach, AIA