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Shun Death-Chamber Projects, AIA Urged

Friday, October 3, 2014

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Designing solitary confinement facilities, execution chambers and other "spaces for killing, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" should not be the work of American architects, a human-rights group drawn from that profession says.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has launched a petition that calls on the American Institute of Architects to amend its Ethics Code to explicitly "prohibit the design of spaces for torture or killing."

Execution Chamber
KPIX-TV screen grab

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility is seeking language in AIA's Ethics Code to "prohibit the design of spaces for torture or killing."

ADPSR has proposed new ethics language banning the design of execution chambers and spaces for prolonged solitary confinement.

'A Better Execution Chamber'

Leading the effort is San Francisco architect Raphael Sperry, whose Bay Area firm has taken a stand against participating in such projects.

"Architecture at its best brings people together," Sperry told CBS affiliate KPIX in a report. The profession is meant to "design better, more beautiful spaces for people to live, work and play."

That is why architects have no business designing spaces like solitary confinement for inmates, Sperry says.

Raphael Sperry
KPIX screen grab

San Francisco architect Raphael Perry is leading the petition effort to change AIA's ethics code to "stop the design of spaces intended to violate people's human rights."

"You can't design a better execution chamber. The choice of flooring, the color of the walls: None of that is going to change what happens there."

"We wanted to stop the design of spaces intended to violate people's human rights," said Sperry.

AIA Responds

AIA National is keeping up with the petition but has not reached a decision on it, spokesman Scott Frank said in an email Thursday (Oct. 2).

ADPSR "has informed the AIA about this petition, and the AIA receives regular updates as new signatures are added to it," Frank said.

"As the petition itself notes, the AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct already provides that its members 'should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.' The ADSPR proposal would amend the Code of Ethics to prohibit AIA members from designing spaces intended for execution, for torture, of for 'other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,' including 'prolonged solitary confinement.'

"The AIA is carefully studying the proposal and the various elements underlying it to decide on its best course of action."

Support ...

As of early Thursday, the group's petition had drawn 1,761 signatures. Supporters need not be architects, designers or planners; the group is seeking public support as well.

The petition has also gained the endorsements of several leading architectural groups, including AIA Portland and AIA San Francisco, ARC-Peace (an international group of architect, designers and planners), the Boston Society of Architects (AIA's Boston Chapter), the Center for Architecture and Human Rights, DesignCorps, and the Planners Network.

AIA letter

Participating in the development of buildings designed for torture, killing, or "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights," says a model letter drafted by petition organizers.

"As a professional organization, we should not only respond to but advocate for more holistic and humane design because, as others have pointed out, our prime directive is and ought to be to make the world a better place through design," says the Boston Society of Architects, which dates to 1867 and has more than 3,500 members.

Major human-rights groups have also endorsed the effort, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

...And Disagreement

Not all architects back the measure, however. AIA New York, for example, is concerned that the new ethics language could "drive potential correctional clients to non-AIA architecture firms," ADPSR reports.

Founded in 1857, the New York chapter is AIA's oldest and largest, with more than 5,000 members.

And one Bay Area architect says the group is fighting the wrong battle: that death-penalty opponents should focus on changing those laws, not boycott at the design stage.

"Every architect has to follow their conscience, to take the commission or not take the commission," Ken Lowney, of Lowney Architecture, told KPIX.

But ADPSR compares its effort to that of the medical profession, which prohibits doctors and nurses from assisting in executions. It may not change the law, but it can control those professions' role in it.

Says Sperry: "I'm trying to do what I can, as a person in my profession, to make the world a better place."


Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Business management; Design; Ethics; Good Technical Practice; North America; Prisons

Comment from John Fauth, (10/3/2014, 8:58 AM)

"We wanted to stop the design of spaces intended to violate people’s human rights," said Sperry. Of course, this begs the quetion of whose human rights are being violated for being tried and convicted by a jury of their peers. Perhaps he's referring to the victims of those crimes? Undoubtedly Mr. Sperry is advocating that no architects work in Cuba, China, Iran, and the many other countries that routinely violate the human rights of their citizens. In fact, if Mr. Sperry spent a few weeks in places like those he might have a different perception of the "human rights violations" taking place in American prisons.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (10/6/2014, 12:26 PM)

Spaces for prolonged solitary confinement...would those be the spots they place inmates who the general population would kill if they had a chance (like baby killers)? Those facing the death penalty for capital crimes are not having their rights violated...they are having their sentence carried out. There is a significant difference there. I do understand that there are moral implications to these spaces, but isn't that why the architects are free to decline those commissions? In my view, a ban is just a slap in the face of other architects..."You don't have the judgment to know what's right so you can't do this type of work." Are architects professionals or not? If they are, hold their work to a standard of ethics (honest dealings, no shoddy workmanship and so on), but don't impose morals on them.

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