Architects swear a duty to safeguard the health of all who rely on our work. How, then, to reconcile any architect’s role in constructing prison facilities for long-term solitary confinement?
As many as 80,000 prisoners in the US are being held in solitary confinement, often in conditions that have rightly been described as torture. Though its Code of Ethics can be said to already prohibit design of many of these facilities through its ethical standards, the American Institute of Architects requires members to “uphold human rights in all professional endeavors” and — added in 2017 — to design buildings and spaces that “will enhance and facilitate human dignity” as well as the health, safety, and welfare of both individuals and the public. But the AIA has no enforceable rules to ensure that architects understand that “human rights” is more than a squishy feeling. The United Nations, having first defined the term in 1948 to ensure that the horrors of World War II would never be repeated, more recently asserted that long-term solitary confinement is, indeed, a violation of human rights.
Much has been written on the psychiatric harm that solitary confinement inflicts on prisoners, and science has shown us that such harm is permanent. Critically for our profession, it is the actual architecture — the design of a space with no windows nor an opportunity to see or interact with others — that is the instrument of that harm. The design of these sensory-deprivation chambers is an active, deliberate means of permanently injuring and incapacitating people through architecture.
As citizens in a democracy, we have the right — or at least the opportunity — to ensure that our government properly reflects our values. But we must be careful to distinguish between the individual views of architects and their duties when acting as professionals.
In this regard, it’s instructive to consider the professional code of ethics maintained by the American Medical Association, which makes a distinction between an individual doctor’s personal view of capital punishment, for example, and that doctor’s professional obligation to “do no harm.”
“An individual’s opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual,” the code reads. “A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” Such involvement, the code goes on to delineate, includes prescribing or administering lethalinjection drugs, monitoring vital signs, or even attending an execution in the capacity of a physician.
Like doctors, individual architects are free to hold whatever opinion of these matters suits their consciences, and to take any legitimate steps they choose to persuade their elected representatives and their neighbors of the correctness of their views. When acting as an architect, however, and not simply as a citizen, the moral and ethical question is properly viewed through an entirely different lens.
A professional is a member of a learned group entrusted by society with upholding a critical societal value. The professional is expected to uphold society’s interests in health — let’s say in the instance of the medical field — and in exchange society affords that professional near-monopoly privileges to practice. Only certain people have the right to practice medicine. Or architecture.
The use of any architect’s specialized skills and privileged position to design spaces that in and of themselves torture individuals is an obvious breach of the mandate to “facilitate human dignity” and “uphold human rights.” The AIA should make this clear.
The beauty of a code of ethics is not just that it guides and limits its adherents, but also that it empowers them. Architects are trained problem solvers. Does anyone doubt that a trained architect could design a facility to protect other inmates and prison staff from dangerously violent individuals, meeting the needs of criminal justice without inflicting harm?
Professional ethics are the common values that bind a group together and make them architects, or doctors, as opposed to something else. To participate in creating designs that harm is a failure of our duties to society, to the profession, and to one another.
Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.