In connection with our recent “Voices of Architecture” feature, in which we asked architects to answer 11 questions about contemporary practice, we also conducted a survey of architecture critics. The resulting “Voices of Architectural Criticism” ran on archpaper.com and featured five provocative questions about the state of architecture with answers from Eva Franch I Gilabert, Chip Lord, James S. Russell, and Sanford Kwinter.
One question focused on a petition by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) that asks the AIA to amend its ethics code to prohibit the design of spaces for torture and killing. Some of the answers prompted a response from ADPSR President, Raphael Sperry, which in turn sparked a continuation of the discourse among our critics.
We at ADPSR were confused and disappointed by Chip Lord’s and Eva Franch I Gilabert’s assessment of our petition to prohibit the design of spaces intended to torture or kill people (but kudos to James S. Russell’s thoughtful comments). Mr. Lord thinks it is “an individual ethical question” and Ms. Franch I Gilabert says it is not “intrinsic to architecture and architectural practice.” In fact, drawing boundaries is essential to defining our practice and our value(s) as a profession. At our most basic level, architects cannot ethically design buildings that will jeopardize the public’s health, safety, and welfare. It takes courage to protect the public when your client wants a shortcut, but consider that doctors (through AMA), nurses (through ANA), and over a dozen other medical professions refuse to participate in state-sponsored executions and torture schemes. What’s more, just last month, two pharmacists’ associations told their members not to provide drugs intended for executions—the recent spate of botched executions clarified what’s at stake and how their profession is involved. AIA can and should be next. This is not merely an academic debate: Oklahoma responded to the botched executions by renovating their death chamber with new lighting and communications equipment, Nevada has proposed spending over $1M to build a new execution chamber next year, and the Federal government is planning a $100M+ renovation of Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois to house hundreds in conditions of solitary confinement condemned by the United Nations. So can we please re-think whether architects can ethically design a space intended to torture or kill its occupants?
Eva Franch I Gilabert
There are ethical questions intrinsic to architecture and architectural practice and this one is not one of them. If we truly care about effectively changing the world and not just washing our hands and consciousness with rhetoric, we need to bring architects into the discussion table not away from it. The truth is that prisons, torture chambers, and execution rooms will be built with or without architects. As architects we can design the politics of space to a certain degree, but there are limits that we need to recognize otherwise the act in itself will devaluate our role within the construction of society and participation in the collective debate. If petitions prove to be effective, I would encourage the ADPSR to continue with hotels and sexual exploitation, office design, and labor practices, factories, and so on… If the petition is not an end in itself but an instrument to open the conversation to a broader public about the ethics behind incarceration, torture, or violence within our self-proclaimed democratic systems, then we should try to find the right space and format for the development of conversations, ideas, and actions that can address and effectively change the subject at hand. With OfficeUS, the project Storefront launched at the Venice Architecture Biennale, we focused on 25 seminal issues of architecture practice that matter today and that have endured historically over the last hundred years. Ethics was certainly one of them. This excerpt from the OfficeUS Agenda—the first of the publications we are developing—is right on target:
“Quality, Integrity, Excellence” these three nouns are the words below the logo of the Alabama-based construction company CADDELL. They have been involved in a multiplicity of projects made by US firms around the globe and in the United States, including the new Jackson County Adult Detention Center. When one explores further into their “ethics” section one reads: “The reputation of Caddell Construction Co. for integrity and fair dealing is one of our most valuable and protected assets. Caddell conducts its business in strict compliance with applicable laws and regulations and maintains a strong commitment to perform to the highest professional and ethical standards. Caddell is a principal member of the Construction Industry Ethics & Compliance Initiative and has a full-time Ethics Officer. At Caddell, ethics matter and compliance counts. Neither is optional.” *
Integrity, sustainability, quality and excellence are some of the most common terms found in the mission statements of today’s architecture firms yet the truth behind these branding strategies is far removed from the architectures they build. We are currently exploring this subject through the OfficeUS Manual, the third publication of OfficeUS, reflecting on ethics and standards of conduct over the last hundred years embedded within office manuals, laws, and protocols affecting architecture practice throughout the country. The book looks historically but also into the future ahead, where propositions about issues like ethics are played into a much more real and less bureaucratic and symbolic field.
I am convinced by the ADPSR response and endorse bringing this issue to the AIA for debate and discussion.
I suggested AIA had an obligation to convene key stakeholders in discussing the architect’s role in execution, torture, confinement (like Guantanamo) and labor rights that violate international human-rights norms. I don’t think AIA must take a position on capital punishment, but that is probably some of the source of the organization’s squeamishness. However, if execution is a reality, a thorough examination of conditions under which it is done would not only identify tactics and conditions that are unquestionably cruel, but help the public understand what is at stake. Another reason to look at techniques and tactics is to see the degree to which architects would even need to be involved. In most cases specialist contractors and engineers could draw up plans for execution chambers without the use of architects at all. That’s not to expiate, but to point out the limits to which architecture can influence this debate.
Prison design is an issue in which architects are more directly involved. Again, AIA can be helpful in convening expertise so that cruel tactics and design elements can be identified and specifically lobbied against—the way solitary confinement is used, for example. Are there aspects of design that tend to increase/decrease violence against prisoners, either by prisoners or by guards (like Rikers Island)? Obviously these issues are not only about architecture, but design may be part of a broader mitigation strategy and architects—with or without AIA—can advocate for positive change, both doing good and reinforcing the reputation of architecture as a socially useful, helping profession.
The craven look that all too often marks the architect’s gaze and which no amount of bombast ever obscures is the ugly certainty that, given the opportunity, he/she shall opt in—like a destiny—to the great shirk that has molded the profession’s ethos from time immemorial: to wit, the knowledge that the spoils of the “commission” shall finesse and defeat all the burdens of principle, and will dodge the inconvenient challenges, dilemmas, and shaping forces of our time.
Even in our own minuscule sample here, the appeal to the vulgar doctrine of “intrinsics” rehearses the profession’s familiar libertarian abdication of its, or any, social contract, which is namely to reap the advantages of community by agreeing to respect and defend the rights of others.
Interesting, yet not surprising, is the generational spread across which the same disavowal of onus was expressed in these pages last month. The positions declared were no more malignant or self-serving than they have been at any other time, although they bear today the perverse aroma of tea party sophistry as they invoke the pseudo-virtues of “individualism” and the fraudulent agora of “conversation”. † But by taking a clear and ethical—and obviously unenforced—position, a presiding body such as the AIA would establish nothing more nor less than its claim to a place at the table of public debate and would go a long way to removing the alibi of neutrality from architecture’s often effete and out of date worldview.
America’s prison-industrial system has been an explicit component of its (neoliberal) economic organization and its premeditated urbanism for over three decades—incarcerating well over six percent of its citizenry (and removing their vote permanently from the population) and over 3 percent at any given time—as a means of administrative management of territory. # The complicity with which these processes envelope us all—even those whose business does not include providing willing service and rationale (“humane,” “rehabilitative,” and “best practice” solutions) to its infrastructural needs—is deep. Those who would naively, or insidiously, write those whose vocation does include such service out of the penumbra of implication have, in my opinion, neither a leg to stand on nor the right to speak about “architecture.”
Twenty-five years ago it was still possible (indeed in my own case, necessary) to fail a student for insisting on designing a prison from within the university curriculum (written warnings and rationales were insistently issued) and to have that position understood as a general principle of civilized study. In the intervening years of neo-liberal consensus and social media tyrannies the proverbial compass of committed practice has lost its orientation and permitted the type of complacencies—and associated quasi-arguments—to become painfully common. But these positions are also very “common” in deed.
If there is a promising development in the last decade’s cosmopolitanization of the architectural discipline and practice it has been the field’s often fierce engagement with wider problems of nature, social organization, technology, history, law, and the radical new modalities and scales of speculation it has introduced to meet them. Do architects then wish to have it both ways, to cower and hide when history asserts itself, and to beat its breast just when the developer calls?
* OfficeUS Agenda, page 17. Edited by Eva Franch i Gilabert, Ana Milijački, Ashley Schafer, Amanda Reeser Lawrence. Lars Muller Publishers. 2014.
† Climate change deniers and creationists accuse scientists of intellectual arrogance precisely for losing down “the conversation.”
# One in 30 Americans is being held in correctional control.