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Architects, Ethics, and Prison Design
July 11, 2013 9:32 AM   Subscribe

The American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics [pdf] states that “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors." Raphael Sperry, president of Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), wants to amend the code further so it reads "Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement." From Architect Magazine: “Should Architects Design Prisons?”

The pledge of the ADPSR Prison Alternatives Initiative reads: "I believe that too many people are being incarcerated and that our society must immediately develop and implement alternatives to incarceration. I believe in creating a society with real security and social justice for all, and I will not contribute my design to the perpetuation of wrongful institutions that abuse others. In recognition of the deep injustice of the present prison system, I pledge not to do any work that furthers the construction of prisons or jails."

Specifically, there is a great deal of concern around both execution chamber suites and solitary confinement areas (also known as security housing units or SHUs, or Supermaxes). Solitary confinement can have detrimental psychological and physical effects on prisoners, and Sperry and others believe it is a violation of human rights equivalent to torture.

99% Invisible and Life of the Law collaborated to produce an audio documentary, "An Architect's Code," about Sperry and the ADPSR's work around prison reform. (Each link includes a different print article along with a link to the co-produced audio doc.)

[Thanks goes to yerfatma--his comment in the earlier California prisoners' hunger strike thread was the basis of this post.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (42 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beats having surrealists do it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:36 AM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's an interesting moral dilemma. That said, I'm pretty sure a prison not designed by an architect is gonna be a whoooooole lot more medieval.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:41 AM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


We can't regulate people to not, you know, actually torture people, but we think a code of ethics will prevent people from designing the spaces?

Sure, bring some attention to the issue, but sheesh.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:48 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Beats having surrealists do it.

Of course, we're just going to accept testimony given at a Fascist show trial in 1939 at face value.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:48 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Contrary to what seems to be a predominant misconception, the AIA is not any sort of governing body and membership is not required to practice as an architect, nor is membership any real guarantee of architect competence or quality. The letters "AIA" after an architect's name don't necessarily mean anything more than "I paid my dues to a professional organization". There is a requirement to obtain educational credits every year to maintain one's membership, but fulfilling that requirement is really, really easy.

All this is to say that even if the AIA actually adopts this stance, there will still be plenty of architects that will do the work.
posted by LionIndex at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's really weird that a website so devoted to arguing has such a phobia about doing anything about it.

Wait, did I say weird? I meant predictable.
posted by DU at 9:56 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's the issue, isn't it?

Architects with ethics won't contribute to the money grabbers. They will kick the can down to the cracker with dollar signs in his eyes. We already can observe how well this works. You don't need an architect when you can put prisoners in pens (assuming all you want to is dance). For the hard cases, you need only a ten-foot chain, a stake in the ground, and a leg cuff. And guard towers. You could save money and time, I believe, if you replace the mini M-14s (they use) with M-60s. Every now and then you could have them fire their FPLs, so as to check the guns, and make sure they have all the defilades covered. This has the added benefit of making room for the next batch.

Okay that seems sort of myopic. I'm thinking the problem's genesis is a lot farther upstream than how to confine them, or how to cleverly devise a few buzzwords that lead the average can-kickers to think that confining them is humane. We need to drain the swamp, of course. Meanwhile, we have these alligators....

Can we start by abandoning the War on Drugs?
posted by mule98J at 9:57 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


And why stop with prisons? Why not prohibit architects from designing Wal-Marts, Monsanto plants, and DMV branch offices?
posted by LionIndex at 10:00 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


"No, no, it's just that we wanted a block of flats, not an abattoir."
posted by octothorpe at 10:02 AM on July 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's really weird that a website so devoted to arguing has such a phobia about doing anything about it.

Wait, did I say weird? I meant predictable.


Utopians vs. Realists! Round ten million! Fight!
posted by Going To Maine at 10:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


And why stop with prisons? Why not prohibit architects from designing Wal-Marts, Monsanto plants, and DMV branch offices?

Refusing to design one particular type of building because of ethical reasons does not mean that one cannot design ANY building that may be used for unethical means.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:09 AM on July 11, 2013


And why stop with prisons? Why not prohibit architects from designing Wal-Marts, Monsanto plants, and DMV branch offices?

Refusing to design one particular type of building because of ethical reasons does not mean that one cannot design ANY building that may be used for unethical means.


If anyone is interested in this topic, I recently got my hands on a book called Building Power. I'm not far enough in to be able to recommend it, but it focuses on how various building designs in Victorian America enabled surveillance (for better and worse). And if anyone wants to read specifically on the many aspects of the evolution of prisons, just the wiki page for Michael Foucault's Discipline and Punish is a decent start.
posted by antonymous at 10:27 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Le Corbusier designed prisons, didn't he?
posted by Auden at 10:37 AM on July 11, 2013


Le Corbusier designed prisons, didn't he?
posted by Auden at 10:37 AM on July 11
[+] [!]


And the Radiant City worked out so well for public housing, too.
posted by liketitanic at 10:44 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fuck Corbu, is what I'm saying.
posted by liketitanic at 10:45 AM on July 11, 2013


you're stepping on my joke, liketitanic.
posted by Auden at 10:49 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Refusing to design one particular type of building because of ethical reasons does not mean that one cannot design ANY building that may be used for unethical means.

I realize that it's a slippery slope argument, and that caring about things isn't a zero-sum game. But even though I agree with the intent here and would have a hard time working on a prison building myself, I think the AIA getting into what types of buildings their members should and shouldn't design is beyond what their scope should be. I would be pretty happy if every architect refused to do prisons, but I don't think it should be a top-down mandate, and I don't see how the proposal to make it so is any different from the crazy bills proposed by Republican legislators that have no chance of passing a vote.
posted by LionIndex at 10:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who am I going to get to design my evil lair?
posted by CrazyJoel at 11:01 AM on July 11, 2013


you're stepping on my joke, liketitanic.
posted by Auden at 10:49 AM on July 11
[+] [!]


ugh i just quit smoking srry
posted by liketitanic at 11:03 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree 100% with the motive, but disagree with the tactic. Architects are not going to solve a political issue by refusing to build; that has to do with the prison industrial complex, failed drug war policies, etc. In the meanwhile, the humanitarian conditions of the prisoners has to do with the specific conditions of their habitat. As such, I think that having a higher attention on prisons and treating it more like a design issue will get us better prisons, or more humane prisons, or at least a higher awareness.

For example -- for prisons, there should be higher code standards for fresh air requirements, more stringent requirements for natural light or sun exposure, regulations on the minimum size of a solitary confinement cell, dictates for the general light levels of the interior spaces (illuminance). Yet the portion of the International Building Code that dictates prison usage (Group I-3) has nothing to that extent.

I would hope that any society that decides to incarcerate members of its society has at least the decency and humanity to care about the conditions that they are in. And if we do care, then someone has to take the time, effort, energy, ingenuity, and attention to try to figure out more human conditions for prisoners. More attention focused in prisons is this a requirement; A bunch of architects 'agreeing not to design prisons' would be a move to stick one's head in the sand.

In the long run, we should all be pushing against the prison industrial complex, yes. In the short run -- can we actually care about people and the conditions they inhabit? Just because we don't like illness and bodily suffering doesn't mean that architects should shy away from designing hospitals ----- in fact, quite the contrary. Why wouldn't the same logic apply to prisons?
posted by suedehead at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This seems to fall into the same ethical dilemma that medical professionals face surrounding execution by lethal injection. If everyone with the proper training to do the job refuses to participate, the job still gets done, just by people who don't know how to do it right. Whether that means repeated botched attempts to start an IV, or horrific housing conditions, there might be an argument that doing this work can help ameliorate suffering, given the realities of our society. Personally I think the only possible way to maintain your moral footing if you make that choice is to spend a lot of your free time trying to change the system, but that's just me.
posted by vytae at 11:13 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't see how the proposal to make it so is any different from the crazy bills proposed by Republican legislators that have no chance of passing a vote.

For one thing, the AIA isn't a government. It's just a professional organization. Membership isn't mandatory to be an architect (someone mentioned this already). You can just quit the AIA by not paying dues.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2013


For one thing, the AIA isn't a government. It's just a professional organization. Membership isn't mandatory to be an architect (someone mentioned this already).

Yeah, I did. I mean that at this point, all we're talking about is a proposal, not an actual action by the AIA, and given that some proportion of the AIA's membership makes a lot of money doing prison buildings, it's not likely to become a reality.
posted by LionIndex at 11:19 AM on July 11, 2013


Interesting that the guy who designs a portal to another dimension intending to bring about the apocalypse should comment in this thread
posted by LionIndex at 11:20 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I did. I mean that at this point, all we're talking about is a proposal, not an actual action by the AIA, and given that some proportion of the AIA's membership makes a lot of money doing prison buildings, it's not likely to become a reality.

I quit paying AIA dues myself, because I couldn't justify $900 a year to put letters behind my name (I have enough already...NCARB, CSI, CDT)

I am registered in 11 states, and it is interesting that some states have already legislated a moral code into their state charters. I have had to take ethics tests in at least half of the states in order to get my license. Since the AIA has no real power, he should be targetting the individual state architectural boards if he is serious.

....but he's not.

Legislation at the state level is the only way to stop a specific building type from being designed. Because architecture as a field is extremely litigious (especially where there is a ton of grey area regarding design). Laws are only enacted to ensure the lifesafety and welfare of the general public. Prisons included.
posted by Benway at 11:34 AM on July 11, 2013


I have had to take ethics tests in at least half of the states in order to get my license.

Was that part of the states' supplemental exam beyond the ARE?
posted by LionIndex at 11:50 AM on July 11, 2013


Interesting that the guy who designs a portal to another dimension intending to bring about the apocalypse should comment in this thread

To be fair all of my prisons are fabricated with a magnesium-tungsten alloy and cold-riveted girders with cores of pure selenium.

And they are very humane.
posted by IvoShandor at 11:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


vytae: "This seems to fall into the same ethical dilemma that medical professionals face surrounding execution by lethal injection. If everyone with the proper training to do the job refuses to participate, the job still gets done, just by people who don't know how to do it right."

I believe that the fact doctors wouldn't participate in executions was what brought executions to their current halt in California, when a court decided prison staff were insufficiently trained, so they'd have to get a doctor to do it. I think the state has theoretically solved that problem (by training prison staff), but haven't been able to get approval to actually execute anyone since for other reasons.
posted by hoyland at 11:57 AM on July 11, 2013


I believe that the fact doctors wouldn't participate in executions was what brought executions to their current halt in California.

You can always check your facts first in the Internet Age.

Even presuming the AIA was a body whose sanctions meant something, would it matter? It would seem like this is offshorable work and a digital good at that.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:12 PM on July 11, 2013


But in the interim when doctors weren't participating, and the state hadn't yet realized that their staff needed more training, there were people who needlessly suffered. I'm not saying that should weigh on any physician's conscience for not volunteering for the job, it's just not great. Part of the decision to allow suffering in the short term in hopes of changing the system in the long term, should be the question of whether the boycott is likely to actually change the system. With the doctors in California, it sounds like it sort of did, though maybe only temporarily. Would states stop building prisons if architects refused to design them? Seems unlikely to me.
posted by vytae at 12:13 PM on July 11, 2013


You can always check your facts first in the Internet Age.

I seem to be approximately right...? Good enough for a statement that started 'I believe' as I apparently used different search terms than you.
posted by hoyland at 12:17 PM on July 11, 2013


It's really weird that a website so devoted to arguing has such a phobia about doing anything about it.

Wait, did I say weird? I meant predictable.
posted by DU at 12:56 PM on July 11 [1 favorite +] [!]


I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because there's been so much in the past few months that I would love to do something about, but to be honest, I'm not sure what to do.

Maybe a dialogue about what could be done to create real and meaningful change on this issue could be moved to metatalk, I don't know. Maybe you've got some ideas.
posted by inertia at 12:42 PM on July 11, 2013


I would be more encouraged if the American Medical Association would say the Guantanamo force feedings are medically not ethical. But I see nothing wrong with this at all. The supermax prisons seem designed specifically to intimidate the criminal class. They certainly intimidate me.
posted by bukvich at 1:08 PM on July 11, 2013


Anybody who is interested in giving prison design a shot themselves should check out Prison Architect from Introversion.
posted by creade at 1:51 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


there is a difference between the code of ethics (regulated by building code) in which you follow to design a building (structural integrity, light/air regulations, fire code, etc) vs. the code of ethics for which an inhabitant USES a building. while the way a program is carried out in built form can help or hinder use, once an architect has finished their job it is up to the inhabitants and their own personal behaviors to dictate true use. you can abstain from designing prisons, but as stated above that will not prevent them from being built by others or stop people from being incarcerated or abused during that incarceration. there are other people involved on different levels and this is more of a social issue that is out of the architect's control. in truth, the architect has very little ability to flex power (if any) when it comes to the capitalist society that we live in. to be able to turn down work? really? in the end we are servants of the client. overly educated servants, but servants none the less.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 2:07 PM on July 11, 2013


Anybody who is interested in giving prison design a shot themselves should check out Prison Architect from Introversion.

Dammit I was just scrolling through the thread to see if anyone had posted that.

The Gamers with Jobs podcast people played it and found it quite creepy - your task in the tutorial is to make an execution chamber. Introversion are English, and have already done an excellent game about GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR so it'll be interesting seeing their take on the largely US tropes of the prison-industrial complex.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:09 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


there were people who needlessly suffered.

Wouldn't that the be the fault of the people doing the torturing, not those who refused to help them torture more "mercifully"?

I have no moral obligation to help someone do an evil thing in a way that makes it marginally less evil (and whether that is even true is debatable). It may be something I do in a particular situation to help a particular person--we can all sit around and think up thorny moral dilemmas that would mean you did have to help the torturer do their thing.

But, in principle, it makes perfect ethical sense to say "No, that's wrong. I'm not helping you with that." If someone gets hurt worse by being in a shoddily-built prison, that responsibility rests with those who built shoddy prisons and put people into them.
posted by emjaybee at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The article from Architect Magazine features interviews with people who agree with Sperry--that architects should boycott prison design jobs--and those who argue that while prisons exist, it's better that knowledgeable professionals design them to be humane than refuse and have them designed by those less knowledgeable or less committed to humane treatment of prisoners. The article calls it the "clean hands/dirty hands" dilemma:
So is Sperry right? Should architects steer clear of prison design until we eliminate injustice from society? Or are Ricci and Munn right? Do architects have a role to play in advancing civilization forward? In moral philosophy, there’s a term for this kind of question. It’s a clean-hands/dirty-hands debate, says Victoria Beach, AIA, a Monterey, Calif.–based architect who chairs the AIA’s National Ethics Council—where, she says, Sperry will file his proposed amendment. The question, according to Beach, is this: “At what point is it moral to intervene or not intervene?”

She points to a hypothetical paradox known as the Trolley Problem. A runaway trolley car is poised to mow down and likely kill five people. But you can pull a lever to switch the car onto a side track where only one person is standing. Do nothing and five people die, but your hands are clean. Take action and one person dies, but you are personally responsible for that one death—your hands are dirty. “Is the moral obligation to walk away? Or is it the opposite?” asks Beach.

Sperry, who argues for the clean-hands approach, would like architects to help change society’s agenda from being “tough on crime” to building communities that prevent crime. Much like the protestors in Toronto, he argues that instead of spending money on prisons we should pour our resources into affordable housing, health clinics, and centers for drug rehabilitation.

I admire and agree with Sperry's philosophical stance, but I am also sympathetic to those who feel it's possible to improve conditions incrementally, by making sure the prisons that do currently exist are humanely designed. If I were an architect, I could see myself attempting to design humane solitary confinement buildings, even though I disagree with how solitary confinement is currently practiced in many prisons. But I would draw the line at designing an execution chamber. Now, would it be hypocritical of me to enable the slow torture of solitary confinement (perhaps mitigating the effects slightly through what I believe to be better design) while refusing to play a part in the quick death of the execution chamber?

I honestly don't know the answer, but then I always had difficulty with the Trolley Problem too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:19 PM on July 11, 2013


But the thing is, is that architects work for clients. In the case of a prison, the client would be the government or some prison industry corporation, and they'll have a bunch of experience reviewing designs for prisons and will review the plans themselves to see if what's drawn is what they actually want to build. The architect can certainly try to convince whoever's building the prison to build humane conditions, but that decision is ultimately up to the person writing the checks. It's actually a very rare condition that the architect can order the client to pay for the building that the architect wants, rather than the client ordering the architect to design the building the client wants, with the ability to withhold payment if their demands aren't met.
posted by LionIndex at 8:53 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the thing is, is that architects work for clients.

Yes, of course, but the fact that wage laborers work for the hiring business hasn't stopped organized labor from creating demands for better working conditions and limited working hours. Such as -- the weekend.

I hear that statement often within my peers and predecessors within architecture, and I think it's a correct, but overly localized view. Architects work for clients, but architects can also choose not to take clients. I think it's an ethically compromised position to say "well, I work for X, so I don't have any control" -- an extension of the 'Good German' fallacy. Otherwise, if "architects work for clients" is an excuse for every bad planning/architecture decision, then architecture has to decide to absolve itself of power as well as responsibility, leaving architects to only be "whores", to quote Philip Johnson.
posted by suedehead at 10:33 AM on July 12, 2013


That's why I said this:
The architect can certainly try to convince whoever's building the prison to build humane conditions, but that decision is ultimately up to the person writing the checks.

Architects are certainly free to turn down clients, and I've worked for firms that have turned down clients for any number of reasons. I don't really think that's an issue - I'm sure there are tons of architects that don't seek out prison work, but there are also probably firms for which prison work is a major component of what they do, and they get contacted by every agency that wants to build one. Generally, firms tend to specialize in what kinds of buildings they do, and hardly anyone is going to take on a prison just on a whim.
posted by LionIndex at 11:11 AM on July 13, 2013


Wouldn't that the be the fault of the people doing the torturing, not those who refused to help them torture more "mercifully"?

It's not either/or.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:05 PM on July 13, 2013


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