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Discipline and Punish: The Architecture of Human Rights

Why architects are in need of a Hippocratic Oath of their own to prevent human rights abuses

We think of architectural regulations as being there to ensure that buildings are safe for the public. But what if a building’s harm is not caused by unexpected structural failure but by the building performing exactly as intended? Can a building designed to facilitate human rights violations amount to a violation in itself? And what is the responsibility of the architects involved? These are the questions at the centre of the current debate in America around the architectural profession’s involvement in prison design.

The US’s 2.3 million prison inmates represent the largest proportion of a society behind bars anywhere in the world, making the operation and construction of prisons a huge industry. Execution and the use of prolonged solitary confinement are widespread − and widely criticised. Amnesty International and the UN condemn US practices such as isolation, which can damage the long-term mental health and eyesight of an individual in a matter of weeks.

Meanwhile the UK, followed by the EU, recently banned exports of the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental to America hoping to pressure states to rethink their position on the death penalty. While the world is toughening its stance on US penal conditions, disturbingly, licensed architects are involved in the construction of new prisons including death chambers and isolation cells specifically designed for human rights violations.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is to be commended for already having a requirement within its ethics code that members ‘uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors’. Despite the damage done to human rights by US detention projects at Guantanamo, in Poland, Romania and at home, elsewhere in the English-speaking world neither the RIBA nor Australian Institute of Architects takes such a clear position. Nor does the Canadian architectural code or Union Internationales des Architectes with its model code of ethics.

Yet despite the AIA’s apparently strong stance it has not been enough to guide licensed architects faced with clients demanding design assistance at or across the line of human rights violations.

Pelican Bay State Prison

Aerial view of the Pelican Bay State Prison in California

The concept of human rights first emerged in 536BC when Cyrus the Great conquered the city of Babylon subsequently freeing slaves, declaring that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and establishing racial equality in Ancient Persian law. Modern human rights treaties arose in the aftermath of the Second World War and were mechanisms to protect populations from harm by oppressive regimes. Although today Western governments seem inclined to resist international oversight or accountability, at their inception human rights were a source of patriotic pride and diplomatic finesse.

Civil society has long been a bulwark of their strength and architects, as professionals within civil society, see our freedoms and well-being rise and fall with everyone else’s. Human rights do not only apply in moments of constitutional crisis but in everyday life, where the work of architecture is generally conducted. Architects must be aware of the ethical dimensions of their projects to avoid what political theorist Hannah Arendt famously called ‘the banality of evil’ − the subtle trajectory from accepting a morally questionable project to becoming familiar enough with a problematic client that one stops questioning their programmes altogether.

How should the architectural profession respond to this? Currently the group Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility − of which I am president − is petitioning the AIA to amend its code of ethics to specifically prohibit member architects from designing spaces intended to violate human rights. Doctors and other medical professionals already have similar codes built into their professional statutes. An AIA amendment would have profound international consequences.

US prison architects are currently courted by foreign governments, especially from the developing world, seeking to adopt ‘modern’ prison designs. Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, site of numerous mass executions under Saddam Hussein and infamous cases of torture by US Army personnel, was designed by American architect Edmund Whiting, and built by British contractors in the late 1960s. Since then, US firms have worked in Mexico, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates − places where an ‘interrogation suite’ listed in an architectural brief today may be listed by Human Rights Watch tomorrow.

Discipline and punish 2

Foreign governments, especially those in the developing world, are courting US prison architects in their search for ‘modern’ designs

The CIA’s now-notorious ‘secret’ prisons outside America were built in 2003 with prefabricated cells from the SteelCell company of Baldwin, Georgia which also supplied cells for the construction of the widely condemned detention centre in Guantanamo Bay using designs provided by American architects and engineers. American architects led by the AIA are in a powerful position to take a stand, pushing the moral consensus of the society forward.

People in prison are a hard group to advocate for. With the exception of the unjustly imprisoned (a surprisingly high percentage in the US, even on death row, where their cases receive the most scrutiny), people in prison have broken the law, often harming others, sometimes horribly. But prisoners’ human rights are not about their crimes, but about protecting our societies from falling below a minimal level of decency and ensuring that we continue to aim for our highest aspirations.

Barack Obama said of Nelson Mandela, ‘he was fighting for the freedom of the prisoners but also for the freedom of the jailers’. When architects design prisons, we take responsibility not only for the conditions of prisoners and guards on the inside, but for the status of freedom of everyone on the outside as well.

Legislators, governors and prison staffers of course hold the greatest responsibility for prison conditions − after all, any room can be used to torture someone, not just one intended as a solitary isolationcell. The ethical burden on designers is too great for individual architects or firms to handle alone, which is why the AIA must speak clearly and forcefully for human rights. Turning our backs on projects that would violate human rights is an essential move towards realising a vision of a world of equality and prosperity − the world that architects strive to build every day.


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