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The Indicator: Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility

© Thomson Correctional Center, Thomoson, Ill. Rex Arbogast/AP via
© Thomson Correctional Center, Thomoson, Ill. Rex Arbogast/AP via

While doing a search for architects doing politically-engaged work, or work that encompasses a political or ethical agenda, I stumbled upon Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. The group, as it turns out, has been around for thirty years. Despite their long history I got the sense that many people in architecture, as well as in mainstream culture, don’t know anything about them.

ADPSR was founded in Berkeley California in the early eighties as a community-based social action group. At that time their mission centered on opposition to the proliferation of nuclear arms and government policies they believed favored the military over the public good.

In essence, if the military budget were smaller then more government resources could be invested in projects and policies that benefit the general public. So, in a sense, they were continuing the fight against what Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address called the military-industrial complex.

© The Federal Penitentiary Administrative Maximum ("ADX") in Florence, Colorado, where conditions may violate the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition against "torture or inhuman and degrading treatment." Courtesy, Image, Google Earth.
© The Federal Penitentiary Administrative Maximum ("ADX") in Florence, Colorado, where conditions may violate the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition against "torture or inhuman and degrading treatment." Courtesy, Image, Google Earth.

But more broadly, they are concerned with issues of social and spatial justice. As they describe it, “ADPSR works for peace, environmental protection, ecological building, social justice, and the development of healthy communities.”

One of their current campaigns is called the Prison Alternatives Initiative. Below is the “pledge” associated with the petition they have established to target national, state, and local governments that are considering the construction of prisons:

"I believe that too many people are being incarcerated and that our society must immediately develop and implement alternatives to incarceration. I believe in creating a society with real security and social justice for all, and I will not contribute my design to the perpetuation of wrongful institutions that abuse others. In recognition of the deep injustice of the present prison system, I pledge not to do any work that furthers the construction of prisons or jails."

They are also petitioning the AIA to boycott the design of spaces of torture and/or incarceration considered cruel and inhumane. This campaign is focused on the reform of the AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to include provisions that would, in their words, “prohibit the design of spaces for torture and killing. In the United States, this comprises the design of execution chambers and super-maximum security prisons (“supermax”), which inflict torture through long-term solitary isolation.”

© ADX Florence via The Huffington Post
© ADX Florence via The Huffington Post

Their stance is in part based on a 2011 United Nations determination that long-term isolation is a form of torture. Architects, they believe, should not contribute their professional talents to the design of such spaces. Moreover, they note how the AIA Code of Ethics already contains language against design that is against human rights:

“Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,”

They believe that stronger and more detailed language in the Code would enable the AIA to link its standards with the international standards of existing United Nations provisions for human rights. While questions of enforcement would still remain, the ideological force of the United Nations as an international body would lend legitimacy to the ethics of a smaller organization such as the AIA.

Of course, the elephant in the room is how to motivate compliance with such a code when a number of architects are already engaged in the design of supermax prisons and spaces used for incarceration and potentially torture. As long as there is a demand for prisons and other spaces of confinement away from the general society there will be a demand for architectural services that specialize in this.

Of course, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, famously theorized by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), comes to mind, but the development of prison architecture has run parallel with that of churches, hospitals, and other large institutions and is one of the oldest venues for architectural practice. Hence, the motivation for a code that bans this as a legitimate form of design practice.

© Prison Architect, the game. Via, pc gaming site
© Prison Architect, the game. Via, pc gaming site

ADPSR hopes that by inflecting the ethics of practice, more architects will refuse to engage in this professional track and instead direct their talents to the design of spaces that enrich society and promote human rights in general.

It remains uncertain if this would motivate a swerve away from this avenue of design for those already engaged in it. By framing professional practice as an ethical decision it gives the design of such spaces a dimension of personal responsibility. While society is still locked into using prisons as part of its legal framework, architects have the freedom to say no or to potentially bring new design thinking to the problem of prisons. Rather than doing a dehumanizing supermax, say, we can do something that lends itself spatially to rehabilitation. Of course, the architect may also get fired for suggesting this.

ADPSR, however, takes a stronger position and would like you to stop designing for the prison-industrial complex altogether. They would also like you to take a pass when it comes to designing spaces for the military that could involve the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Sorry, that is against my professional code of ethics and against the United Nations. Do you have a school I can design for you?

Cite:Sebastian Jordana. "The Indicator: Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility" 20 Dec 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>