Criminal client and personal / professional ethics


This week, through my employer, I've been working on a reuse project in a heritage building downtown.  It would bring nearly 30 rental units on the market, and the building is largely vacant currently.  Done properly, I'd live there if I had the chance - lots of potential beyond the immediate fact that I'm getting paid to work on this. Win-win all around, at least from the outside.

The problem is the client. I've been told he's a character with a shady past. I looked him up, he's got several criminal convictions and has been sued (it appears to be mostly for non-payment of work) many, many, many, MANY times. 

Our office has worked with him before and never had any trouble. The firm is taking on the risk, so that's not my question here. 

Knowing this client's history of working with others and criminal convictions, should I have concerns about working with this guy?  What's our professional stance on this?  What's YOUR PERSONAL opinion?

Mar 21, 13 4:57 pm

if i were in your shoes, i wouldn't worry about it too much because you get paid no matter what the guy does right?  i don't like to lie myself, so if he put me in a position where i was expected to deliberately misrepresent the truth for his benefit, then i would have a problem and it would be difficult to find a way to gently maintain my integrity without pissing him off too much.  moral of the story is, he's the crook, not you (until he asks you to become a crook).  that's just me though.

from the employer's perspective, i would find it difficult to agree to work with people i know i can't trust.  i suppose it's difficult times for a lot of people and there aren't many other opportunities for work?  or maybe your employer thinks this time it's different?  i wouldn't want to work with donald trump either.  he's declared bankruptcy at least 4 times which typically means he isn't paying people he owes money to.  it's getting increasingly harder to find people you can trust, especially with the tea partiers gaining influence.

Mar 21, 13 5:21 pm  · 

I can say for sure that it's not about the money - he's small potatoes for us.  My concern is more about the criminal side of his past unrelated to business.  I wish I could get into it here but I can't give away too much, for many reasons.  He has (alleged) ties to a certain prominent group of burly men who enjoy riding motorcycles in their spare time - and the rap sheet that goes along with that.

The example below is for clarity and has nothing to do with my client at all, but I'm putting out a hypothetical:  Would you take on a client who beat his wife?  Smuggled heroin?

 Where do we draw the line?  Every day of my life, through my choices as a consumer, I support child/slave labour.  I guess when it's a little closer to home, you might start to question your own stance.

Mar 21, 13 5:59 pm  · 

I have done some thinking in this area. 

The first question I will ask myself is: am I, in my professional position as an architect, extending the agenda of this client in a direction that is socially undesirable through the architecture that I will design (Perez-Gomez)? If the answer is no--and from what you could reveal, it says 'no' too--then I do not see why not. After all, a person's past while it informs us, does not determine the present or his future actions. But for the sake of discussion, if one's architecture has even a remote chance of facilitating certain shady activities in the way that extend or amplify the shady client's agenda, then don't do it. 

Robert Goodman, who wrote the book, 'After the Planners', offered a very good and concise case study on Marcel Breuer's design of an office tower above the Grand Central  (unbuilt). In it, as the story goes, the defense mounted by the folks who supported this scheme, despite its aesthetic inappropriateness and also practical problems, argued that 'if Breuer did not do this, some lesser folk would, and this would then lead to a worse design'. Countering this, Goodman asks us to rethink our own autonomy and in this light, our agency in (architectural or spatial) change: do we not have some responsibility in what we design? Is it possible to design a more humane torture chamber, for example? And so this argument of 'if I don't do it, someone else will' does not fly. Let it be, all things equal, but one should not take a project that one knows to be extending someone's shady agenda! 

My recent reading of Paolo Soleri's work converges quite a bit with Goodman's stance. In Soleri's work, he raised the interesting prospect that what architects have so far created--most architects anyway--are only better forms of wrongness. The charge by Soleri can be seen as an exaggerated claim, but it is not easily dismissed, given what is happening in the contemporary scene. Most of the Utopian ideals of architecture, wrong-headed as many of them were, are altogether eschewed today for the instrumentalism of the commodification of space. 

I think the drawing of that line, is the beginning of good architecture. Without drawing the line, I am afraid we are mere instruments, swayed in whichever direction the winds of Capital will blow. The drawing of that line also is the start of our foundation in positive architecture, rather than the negative critique of Tafuri or the blind aimlessness of Capitalistic reproduction. 

Mar 22, 13 3:24 am  · 

^ Ideas that can be applied in many aspects of life.

Mar 22, 13 8:22 am  · 

Nice post, BE.  Thank you for taking the time to write all that. 

"Better forms of wrongness", I like this phrase, it casts an unhappy glow on so much of what we do.

Mar 22, 13 9:36 am  · 

for some reason i feel the need to play devil's advocate.

first, the OP is an employee of the architect making the decision.  so in your questioning, does the employee still have to make the moral judgement, or are they supposed to trust their boss?  the employee is typically not given very much information to base a sound opinion anyway.  if the employee is responsible for moral decision of the company, or moral decisions of their own if it's viewed that way, wouldn't you have to create some sort of scale saying "yes this is immoral, but not so immoral that i'm prepared to lose my job." ?

second, what if you were asked to design a speakeasy (that was an illegal bar during prohibition; not really a thing anymore but let's pretend it is for the sake of argument).  this is an illegal establishment, so in that sense it would clearly be immoral.  personally i have no problem with drinking or bars though, so for me i would have no reservation about designing a speakeasy.  now my morality says it's ok to design a speakeasy even if the government says it isn't.  (maybe some sort of pot den in washington would be a more appropriate analogy, but i'm not that clever right now.)

now that there is a gray area, let's say your asked to design a place for heroin users to distribute and use heroin outside the watchful eye of the authorities.  that sounds more immoral, so let's say i would design a speakeasy but not a heroin den.  i don't see how i personally can make that moral choice though because, while i know alot about drinking i know nothing about heroin, heroin dealers, or heroin users.  i could try to educate myself on substance abuse issues and whatnot, but there are enough things i need to be learning about, such as the difference between mechanically attached and adhered single ply roof membranes. 

if we engage other experts for structure and MEP and everything else, why not rely on others for morality?  perhaps that belongs on the owner's shoulders instead of the architect's.  that frees me up, as the architect, to focus on a roof that won't leak so the drug users don't catch cold while doing whatever it is they do.

Mar 22, 13 10:43 am  · 

As long as what you are doing is not itself illegal, or part of an illegal enterprise, I don't see a huge moral issue.  If the project is part of a plot to defraud investors or governmental guarantees--are you sure it isn't?--then you do have an ethical and probably even a legal problem.  It would be OK to wash and detail John Gotti's car, but not OK to help him bug-proof (as in FBI bugs) the Ravenite Social Club.

That said, you are right to be a little squeamish about this situation.  What do your employers say about it?  They may not have been screwed yet, but if you make it a habit to bed down with prostitutes, sooner or later you're going to pick up a disease.  I would personally be looking for another job.  It doesn't say particularly good things about the firm that they would be taking on this kind of client, particularly if he is "small potatoes".

Mar 22, 13 11:35 am  · 

There is also the question of where your personal morality butts up against the laws you agree to abide by in order to keep your professional registration.  In my state, if I were to knowingly design a project that existed to accommodate an illegal activity I could easily lose my license.  So even though I *personally* have no objection to, say, pot smoking, I would still have to weight the risks of the project against how important keeping my license is to me.

Yet another argument against getting registered, potentially, but not something I mind at all. 

Mar 22, 13 11:39 am  · 

didn't think of that donna.  so i could lose my license for designing a speakeasy (assuming that is illegal)?  is that something that has ever actually happened?  the worst i've ever heard from a state board disciplinary action is a strongly written letter.

once in school a guy asked a similar question but used an abortion clinic as an example, as if there was a moral problem with working on such an institution.

Mar 22, 13 11:53 am  · 

Unrelated to architecture, but funny story from my past....

I briefly had a job cleaning carpets when I was 18...I arrived at a big house right out of a movie.  A big guy in a suit answered the door and let me in.  Several other guys in suits were sitting at a table and playing cards...I soon realised that I was in a well known italian mobsters house..."i'm having a party so don't break anything kid."  There were expensive and fragile antiques everywhere...The carpet was snow white.  I was sure that If I broke anything I would be at the bottom of the hudson river with concrete boots...It was pretty nerve racking, but once I was done I got a 50$ tip...I was so happy to get the fuck out of there haha. 

Mar 22, 13 12:03 pm  · 

Chances are - if your project is fianced by any bank in any way, you are working for a criminal.

Mar 22, 13 12:06 pm  · 

"As long as what you are doing is not itself illegal, or part of an illegal enterprise, I don't see a huge moral issue."--But what is legal may not be right. There are no exact prohibition against lying to friends or family under the law, but we know that this is not a right thing to do. 

"Chances are - if your project is fianced by any bank in any way, you are working for a criminal"--If thats the case and by the implied moral demand, then we would have to exit society. I don't think we need to go that far; to ask questions, to put as many issues on the table and to allow ourselves as a professional to organize these issues such that an ethical decision could be made, that's all. 

All said, the idea that one is an employee and therefore do not know better, or in any case, one is among many other 'hands' that process an unethical decision, this is real and a very intractable problem in ethics (problem of many hands). 

Mar 22, 13 11:34 pm  · 

Law and morality have nothing to do with each other.

Mar 23, 13 12:21 am  · 

Wow, I should have expected this quality of discourse, I really appreciate it.

I agree with a lot of what's being said, and therein lies the dilemma. My morals have nothing to do with the law as it pertains to this situation; is he a shady character with a record of being sued for non-payment? Sure. But show me a squeaky clean developer and I'll eat my shoe. It's all relative.

And yes, I'm an employee, and a very new one, at that (less than two months here). I'm unregistered and taking a cue from my employer on this one (they've been around for 80 years now, they know a thing or two).

The update to all of this is that my boss came to my desk yesterday and says "The client's coming in next week, he had to fly to ______ , to convince a tenant not to break his lease, whatever that means" (insert hilariously awkward smile)

Mar 23, 13 9:36 am  · 

you weren't cleaning a reddish-brown stain off the carpet, were you jla-x?

Mar 23, 13 9:49 am  · 

hello  iim worndering if anone could hellp me im 15 and ive wonted to be an architect for about a year now and ive only just started to think about what im going to need but know one i know  knows what i need to get to be able to get into the university and i was hoping someone could tell me

Thank you Jordan taylor 

Mar 23, 13 11:10 am  · 

BE:  I fail to see anything "not right" in performing an otherwise ethical and legal act (architectural services) for someone who is himself personally unethical, unless as I said the act is in furthurance of a wrongful end that the architect is aware of, which would make the architect an accessory.  A barber can cut a crook's hair with a clear conscience, as his dentist can fill his cavities and his mechanic can tune his car.  We cannot, and should not, attempt to be the moral policemen of society.  We've got our hands full just complying with the building code and keeping the damn thing from falling down.

My concern for the OP is the danger of his employer getting screwed by this character sooner or later.  If he has had that many lawsuits for non-payment in his past, it's just a matter of time.  Personally, I wouldn't want to work for such a client simply because the stress wouldn't be worth it, and I wouldn't want to feel like I needed to take a hot shower after every client meeting.

Mar 23, 13 2:08 pm  · 

geezertect: I had merely corrected a fallacy implied in your statement, which is 'if it is not illegal, then it is not morally problematic'. As mentioned, what is not illegal can still be morally problematic, for example in the general case of lying to friends. Understanding this does not entail that one is a moral policeman, only that one is clearer on the moral demands of the situation. I think I was clear in an earlier post on the case of the OP that it is likely that working for this chap is ethically right and consistent to the professional code of conduct, be it AIA or RIBA. And so I concur with you: unless the architect, in full knowledge, knows that his or her work becomes an extension of a dubious or evil agenda, he or she should not refrain from this project. This much is clear. What is unclear is that many of the thorniest professional problems are hardly so clear. 

I once post two questions to my students: (1) would one design a (mega-)brothel in the case or context that it is in fact legal? And (2), would one design a sushi-bar where one eats sushi off the body of a near naked lady? Surprisingly, this student, who is female, answered: it is legal, so therefore it is right--don't see why not. We can discuss this revelation more but I was astonished, if you asked. (1) is in fact a case going on right now in Auckland, NZ, and (2) we know, exists. 

I agree with you that architects are busy, but I disagree about the state of being 'busy enough'. This was again a frequent refrain from architects: where does our responsibilities stop, and how is it possible that we are responsible for everything? To this I say: getting to know more and more of our responsibilities does not imply (1) 'everything' and (2), it makes us technically, and aesthetically, better architects. Too often we see responsibilities as binding obligations and therefore, implied self-limiting mandates. But responsibilities are also design possibilities--as Le Corbusier, and the likes of the later Moderns (e.g., Team X) and off the grids like Soleri or Maldonaldo had shown. We can question the intent and moral qualities of their responsibilities all we like; but we can never quite dismiss the fact that responsibilities precede design. Hence if we only constrain ourselves with the pittances of what capital and its supportive system define to us as responsibilities, I am afraid that as a profession we can never break out of this current mold of 'better forms of wrongness'! 

Yes, there may be the risk that the OP's office might get screwed--inductively at least. The chance is there. But again, the practical world is not so clear cut. One may have to 'dirty' one's hands and rare is that decision-tree as the 'do it or walk away' morality. Too often we do not have clarity, or knowledge, or will-power even with the antecedent qualities, to consciously decide or act in morally consistent ways. This is why the OP's questions are important and his (or her) concerns are vital for the larger consciousness of the profession and which at the same time, also found to be rather rare today. 

Mar 24, 13 2:03 am  · 

I think work with this type of clients which have criminal history is not good for business so always try to avoid this type of clients.this type of deals are may be awful for business so beware.

Mar 24, 13 5:21 am  · 

BE:  I think we are in agreement that legal doesn't automatically mean ethical.  I was responding in the context of the fact set laid out by the OP.  I think his dilemma is less ethical than it is practical.  Bad clients aren't worth the trouble for purely practical reasons, generally speaking.

Architects along with everyone else have to conduct their professional lives in the real world.  Our clients are not hiring us to be moral arbiters but rather professional consultants.  Many clients probably wouldn't be people we'd want marrying into the family if we knew everything about them, but if you only do work for Mother Teresa you may not have the cash flow to meet next week's payroll.  However, we should all have lines we won't cross.  Tearing down Mount Vernon to build a WalMart is a line most of us would not want to cross.  Legal, but definitely not "right".  But most projects we do don't measure up to our loftiest standards.  A professor of mine once said that every architect has streets he doesn't like to drive down.   

Mar 24, 13 3:57 pm  · 

geezertect: Yes. What you say is true. But it may come down to this proposition: do we work merely for our bread (or more!) or do we also work for some ideals that we may never reach in our life-time of practice, though we may proximate these ideals a little at a time? For this reason, every practical choice in practice has its own ethical dimension, and I am unsure if one can separate the two at all. We may accept that as limited human beings with limited good will, patience, energy and tolerance that we rather see things as practical than ethical but we are unable to dismiss that an ethic is guiding our every choice juncture. 

I cannot disagree with your point that clients hire us for our professional competences. But even on this point, it is important to distinguish between (1) our willingness to only see ourselves as technical experts and/or aesthetics connoisseurs, and (2) our willingness to be hired by clients who know specifically that we would not protest to certain (shady) ventures because we see ourselves as technical experts and/or aesthetics connoisseurs. If one is to take position (1), then there is quite a bit of concordance to research findings. These findings indicate planners and architects who prefer this position because it limits their responsibilities to what is deemed most adequate or sufficient for the technical job, but however, not the vocation. As raised in my previous post, I think this position is by and large hard to maintain if architecture is to break out of its current mold. But if one is to take position (2), then I think you would agree with me that this is not merely a technical claim, but one that has to do with ethics as well--because one is quite willing to sell one's technical position because it is the most amendable position for shady agendas. 

I applaud your position that there are always lines we do not want to cross. It is regretful that for a profession such as ours that in one way or another contributes to the space that we all inhabit, so little is spent on thinking about what we do as a profession and as an educated class for this society. 

Mar 26, 13 3:05 am  · 

If you do things by precisely abiding by your company's rules and regulations, there is nothing much to worry about whether the client with whom you are working is having bad past or not. Just concentrate on your work, and try to give your client the best possible output. 

Mar 26, 13 8:11 am  · 

most contemporary practice is bound up into some ethical compromise: whether it's environmental exploitation, labor exploitation, compromising the public good for private could tease out dozens of ethically wrong behaviors on every project. ethically pure architecture is simply not possible within our economic and social context.

you are focusing on the ethics of working for the individual client. within that boundary, then , does the project enable his unethical behavior? is the building the primary tool to advance the client's questionable ethics?

based on your description, it sounds like his ethics center primarily on how he treats his consultants. if the firm you work for gets paid by him, then his remuneration ethics would seems to be not compromised in this case. as far as any criminal past, i'm a big believer in rehabilitation and redemption.

Mar 26, 13 4:07 pm  · 

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