Opinion

When Architecture Causes Suffering

The China Central Television Building by Rem Koolhaas (Image via Wikimedia)
The China Central Television Building by Rem Koolhaas (image via Wikimedia)

The city of Buckeye, Arizona, recently got a glittering new supermax prison. Designed by DLR Group, an architecture and engineering firm that says its mission is “to elevate the human experience through design,” the $50 million Rast Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex building can hold up to 500 prisoners in 12-by-8-foot cells, many of them intended for solitary confinement.

In December, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) rejected an amendment to its ethics code that would have prevented architects from designing buildings just like the Rast Unit. Drafted by the advocacy group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the new language would have enforceably barred the AIA’s roughly 100,000 members from designing spaces “intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” That means everything from the $900,000 San Quentin Lethal Injection Chamber, constructed in California in 2010, to facilities at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.

On the surface, it seems like the sort of thing that would have gone down without a fight. But a panel of seven anonymous architects appointed by the AIA ruled it was not the association’s job to condemn the design of any particular building (not even the gas chambers at Auschwitz?), but rather to guide its members toward best practices; the AIA’s current ethics code gives the unenforceable suggestion that members “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” If it were to go forward with the amendment, the AIA argued, it could open up a pandora’s box of “proposals or demands for similar rules limiting or prohibiting design.” The association also cited fear of antitrust challenges, as well as concern over how the AIA would judge whether projects broke the code.

A cell inside Guantanamo Bay's Camp Five (Image via Wikimedia)
A cell inside Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Five (Image via Wikimedia)

ADPSR didn’t buy into that reasoning. It accused the AIA of hiding behind “legalisms and smokescreen arguments” while placing business interests above human rights. “The unwillingness of America’s leading architectural association to prohibit the design of torture facilities is a shocking, shameful and deeply troubling statement,” ADPSR President and AIA member Raphael Sperry wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “It refuses to place any limit on the potential role of design in human rights violations, even the most egregious.”

Yet the AIA is an architectural trade association, not a human rights group. The question surrounding state execution is one still up for active debate in the US, as Republicans and Democrats both sanction it. According to an October 2013 Gallup poll, 60% of Americans still support the death penalty for convicted murders. ADPSR was essentially asking the AIA to weigh in on a hot-button issue, and it’s understandable that the group wouldn’t want to come down hard on either side. The case against solitary confinement might be clearer, as research shows its harmful, long-term effects, and some psychologists have compared it to torture.

It’s also a little difficult to see much benefit in banning architects from designing capital punishment facilities and prisons. If the AIA stood against designing these buildings, it’s possible that its opposition could influence policy. But it seems more likely that the structures would still get built, either by architects who drop out of the association or by foreign firms. And that may lead to worse design, as those who go that extra leg to win such projects might be truly devoid of ethics and have little reservations about what they create.

But in its refusal to condemn architects who design buildings whose functions are unabashedly wrong — torture facilities, for instance — the AIA unfortunately reinforces the misguided notion that architects can be apolitical and architecture can be amoral. This attitude seems rife in a world where big-timers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once competed to design Nazi buildings, and where more recently Rem Koolhaas didn’t seem to think twice about drawing up the sleek China Central Television Building, home of one branch of the totalitarian government’s propaganda apparatus. As a leader of its profession, it is the AIA’s responsibility to admonish and denounce those who openly collaborate with evil —not simply look the other way. It’s clear the association needs enforceable language in its ethics code relating to architecture that causes suffering, but as these recent events reveal, it’s sometimes hard to determine exactly what that language should be.

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