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03.12.2013
Protest> AIA Must Do More For Human Rights
Raphael Sperry calls for reform to the AIA's professional Code of Ethics.
Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Denver Post

In January, AIA San Francisco took a courageous step, endorsing a campaign to urge the overall organization to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit the design of “buildings that violate human rights.” Since everyone is in favor of human rights, this decision seemingly would have been an easy one, but in fact the discussion burst out of its allotted time on the board agenda. It was also noteworthy for the intensity of reflection it raised. Meanwhile, the issue is now moving forward in other AIA chapters, knowledge communities, and ultimately the National Board of Directors, who may all consider the same question.

“Wait a second,” I hear someone saying: “How is it possible for buildings to violate human rights in the first place?” As the president of Architects/ Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), I got to make that case to AIASF. And the situation was not as simple as it might seem on its face, because there are actually two specific (and rare) building types that violate human rights: execution chambers and supermax prisons.

In the case of execution chambers, it’s no secret that the United States is an outlier among the world’s developed countries—in fact, among all countries—in continuing to use the death penalty. We are in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, as those particular nations carry out the highest numbers of executions. International human rights groups over many decades have consistently called for the United States (and all countries) to end the death penalty. What’s relatively new is the realization that racial bias and prosecutorial errors make the U.S. death penalty irreparably unfair. That was the reasoning that led the legislatures of six different states to abolish the death penalty in the past six years alone.

Supermax prisons, meanwhile, are architecturally unique in that they contain no space for group activity and are, in fact, designed to eliminate the possibility of voluntary social contact entirely. This is the opposite of most building types, which bring people together for work, learning, play. In fact, human psychology depends on daily social interaction to maintain a stable sense of self. When deprived of social contact for extended periods, people suffer severe depression, paranoia, and hallucinations; commit acts of self-mutilation; and frequently resort to suicide—at a rate more than double that of other prison units.

Accordingly, in 2012, international human rights organizations, including various United Nations bodies, identified prolonged solitary confinement—over fifteen days—as a form of torture. When prisons are designed with hundreds of cells arrayed in tiny pods, when all food and services are delivered to each cell, and exercise takes place only in segregated outdoor yards sized for one person at a time, it’s clear that most people will stay for far more than fifteen days. In states from Louisiana to California, people have been held in solitary for decades.

So what does this mean for architects? Commissions for death chambers come up occasionally, exemplified by one in 1994 for the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, and California’s remodeling of its death chamber at San Quentin State Prison, in 2010. There are over 50 supermax prisons in the United States, and an RFP is out for one more right now.

These are not proud milestones in domestic governance or architectural history, so we cannot let our natural aversion to the horror of execution or prison conditions keep us from confronting the issue. Consider that doctors, nurses, psychologists, anesthesiologists, and many other medical professionals have specifically amended their ethics codes to prohibit participation in executions or any act of torture. The World Medical Association code even states, “The physician shall not provide any premises, instruments, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture.”

Does the public expect anything less from architects who “provide premises” as our basic public service? Does our obligation to protect public “health, safety, and well-being” not include, as a bare minimum, a commitment to stop making places where—admittedly despised—members of the public will be killed or tortured?

ADPSR shared our campaign at the recent conference of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ). AAJ is the knowledge community of AIA members who design prisons, jails, police stations, and courthouses. From what we saw at the conference, some members interpreted our campaign as needlessly casting blame, while others agreed that extreme isolation and execution don’t belong in even the toughest kind of facilities they would be willing to design. Without presuming to speak for AAJ, we do want to clarify that we cast no blame on past work, before the ground rules for solitary confinement and human rights shifted. In the past, the consequences of housing thousands of people in supermax prisons weren’t clear. But it is our hope that knowing what we know now, AAJ will join AIASF in support of ADPSR’s human rights position.

What’s at stake here is not just the tiny number of contracts for these building types, but architects’ professional commitment to public well-being. This can’t be just an individual act of conscience, for instance, by an individual refusing to design a supermax prison—since surely someone else will design it. And some brave architects facing such a program no doubt try to talk their clients into a more humane approach. Yet such a conversation may well get cut short by the prospect of losing the contract to other architects who won’t question the program.

The architects who take the courageous stand of challenging unreasonable client demands need support. We want them to have the support of the AIA Code of Ethics, and of a profession publicly committed to the highest standards of Human Rights. AIA San Francisco has taken the first step. To join ADPSR’s petition to AIA, click here or contact ADPSR to host a discussion at your local AIA chapter.

Raphael Sperry

Raphael Sperry is president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility. He is based in San Francisco.