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Outrage: Architects should not design without considering the politics that they are tacitly sanctioning

Designing prisons condones the system of organised violence behind them

demolition-de-la-bastille-july-1789-state-prison-france

Demolition bastille 1200x828

Demolition de la Bastille, 1789. On 14 July 1789, the Bastille – used as a state prison by the kings of France, and unpopular with the general public – was stormed by a crowd. It became an important symbol of the Republican movement

A few days ago, I was contacted to recommend people to contribute to a design magazine whose next issue is ‘Prison Design’. When replying that most of the writers I know, like me, are engaged in politics of prison abolitionism, and so would not be part of an issue bearing such a title, I received the response that I had misunderstood and that the magazine was very much open to the idea of critiques of the status quo. But I had not misunderstood; we live in a system that craves a dose of self-critique that ultimately reinforces its violent logics. Architects, often recognised as being part of a relatively liberal profession, are very active in this reinforcing process. From the design of ‘better prisons’ to the participation of other components of what Angela Davis calls the ‘prison industrial complex’ (1999), such as police stations or the various other physical apparatuses dedicated to surveillance and policing in our cities, they are complicit in a system that has become expert at suspecting, arresting, and incarcerating impoverished and racialised bodies as a form of governance. 

‘From the design of “better prisons” to police stations or the various other physical apparatuses dedicated to surveillance and policing in our cities, architects are complicit in a system that has become expert at suspecting, arresting, and incarcerating impoverished and racialised bodies as a form of governance’

We should, however, not think that prisons and other explicitly policing apparatuses are exceptions to the architectural discipline; they are instead the paradigm. In other words, it is important to see that the architecture of a prison or a detention camp is not fundamentally different from other, more benign architectures. The difference mostly operates through the inversion of the usual protocol of inclusion and exclusion of bodies in space. Most architectures represent, crystallise and materialise the legal regime of private property: they constitute, as such, a forceful exclusion of most bodies from the interior space they delimit. Architectures that materialise the legal regime of judicial punishment and incarceration, on the other hand, constitute a forceful inclusion of certain bodies within the interior space they delimit. In this tension, the key constitutes simultaneously the symbolic and operative object through which these protocols are put into action. The key of the landlord or the key of the warden are the same object implementing these political regimes. Along with the wall and the door, the key is part of a triptych of apparatuses that organise bodies in space. The door embodying a wall on which the porosity can be modulated, the key prevents the door from cancelling out the protocols of inclusion and exclusion which the wall enforces through its physical inertia. 

‘A prison cell should appear as what it is: the forceful immurement of bodies radically excluded from society and radically included within architecture by judicial authorities’

This might appear convoluted when considering ubiquitous objects such as the wall, the door and the key, yet they seem crucial to me when you consider the political instrument architects are manipulating. A prison cell should appear as what it is: the forceful immurement of bodies radically excluded from society and radically included within architecture by judicial authorities. Architects have the moral right to be complicit in such a system of organised violence, but the liberal stance that advocates better prisons or participation in such projects with the intention of integrating change in this system should be held accountable for its contradictions.

Radical refusal as part of an abolitionist vision is the only tenable political position for architects who want to oppose the extreme violence that the incarceration paradigm entails. The initiatives led by the organisation Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, directed by Raphael Sperry, are aiming in the right direction by asking architects to take a pledge never to design any solitary cell nor execution chamber. Although these specific programmes may have been chosen for their extreme characteristics, and therefore for the form of consensus that they might allow to reach within ‘the architecture community’, this pledge establishes a precedent from where we can work our way up to an abolitionist agenda. 

‘Architects need to deconstruct their responsibility in a system producing a racist and classist violence to perpetuate itself, and to engage in revolutionary processes both through the practice and non-practice of their discipline’

However, prison abolition constitutes not only the rejection of prisons. ‘There is only one thing abolitionism proposes to change’, geographer and abolitionist Ruthie Wilson Gilmore affirms, ‘it’s everything.’ In other words, the question of ‘the alternative’ to incarceration, which seems to follow any advocacy of abolitionist politics, lacks ambition and a revolutionary imaginary. Just as the problem is not to wonder how the punitive carceral state could soften its violence, it is not to ponder on how criminality should be addressed in a substitute system to the existing one either. Rather, it requires us to challenge the notion of criminality as one mostly constructed around the perpetuation of the logics of domination of some societal group over another. When this notion cedes space to the idea that communities can construct themselves on conditions that make individual-to-individual violence obsolete, a revolutionary process gets traction.

So it is less a pledge that architects should take than a strong political engagement in and through the practice of their discipline. In an age when the architectural materialisation of a (somehow arbitrary) line separating two countries can become the prime object of a presidential election, architects can’t now seek shelter in the comfort of a delusional innocence. They need instead to deconstruct their responsibility in a system producing a racist and classist violence to perpetuate itself, and to engage in revolutionary processes both through the practice and non-practice of their discipline. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.