Should Architects Design Buildings Used For Executions And Isolation?

George Lavender

Pelican Bay State Prison is a super-maximum security prison in northern California

Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” That’s Ethical Standard 1.4 of the American Institute of Architects. For many years Architects/​Designers/​Planners for Social Responsibility has campaigned for the AIA to censure architects who design isolation units and execution chambers. As Zachary Edelson reports for the Architectural Record, in December the AIA rejected a proposed amendment on the issue.

The amendment would have stipulated that AIA members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” In effect, this would have prohibited members from designing facilities such as execution chambers, interrogation suites meant for torture, and super-maximum-security prisons that enable long-term solitary confinement. The proposed amendment would add enforceable language” to an existing AIA ethics rule that states, Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” The ADPSR submitted the proposal along with a set of endorsement letters and two petitions (one was worded for architects, the other for educators — they have accrued more than 2,100 signatures on Change​.org). Continue reading…

Questions of scope and enforceability” were the primary reasons the AIA ultimately rejected the amendment as Michael Kimmelman reports for the New York Times

It’s just not something we want to determine as a collective,” Helene Combs Dreiling, the institute’s former president, told me. She said she put together a special panel that reviewed the plea. Members with deeply embedded beliefs will avoid designing those building types and leave it to their colleagues,” Ms. Dreiling elaborated. Architects self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best.”

What are the ethical boundaries for architecture? Architecture is one of the learned professions, like medicine or law. It requires a license, giving architects a monopoly over their practices, in return for a minimal promise that buildings won’t fall down. Raphael Sperry, the Bay Area architect who spearheaded the petition to the institute, thinks the public deserves more in return for that monopoly. Continue reading…

Raphael Sperry and his colleagues argue that architects should be expected to maintain ethical standards in much the same way that professional medical associations require doctors not to take part in executions. He points out that the United Nations and other international human rights organizations specifically prohibit the death penalty and the use of long-term solitary confinement and so architects should not participate in the construction of facilities for those purposes. As the New York Times notes, New York City voted to ban the use of solitary confinement for inmates aged 21 and under just weeks after the AIA decision.

Is there nothing so odious that the A.I.A. wouldn’t step in?” he asked. What about concentration camps? The A.I.A. is basically saying business is more important than human rights. Yes, this is a tough profession. But you don’t gain respect by hunkering down in a position of fear. You just dig yourself deeper into a hole.”

If architects want more respect, he argued, they need to take a stand. This is an interesting moment, with echoes in the past. A century ago, movements like the Bauhaus, looking to improve design for the masses, emerged from a culture in which the widening gulf between rich and poor was sundering civil society. Continue reading…http://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2015​/​02​/​17​/​a​r​t​s​/​d​e​s​i​g​n​/​p​r​i​s​o​n​-​a​r​c​h​i​t​e​c​t​u​r​e​-​a​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​q​u​e​s​t​i​o​n​-​o​f​-​e​t​h​i​c​s​.​h​t​m​l​?_r=1

Sperry was also featured in this episode of 99% Invisible An Architects Code

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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