In the latest episode of his 99% Invisible podcast, Roman Mars bravely takes on a very sensitive topic: the design of prisons which contain execution chambers or house prisoners in solitary confinement. More specifically, the podcast discusses whether architects have a moral duty to decline these commissions and whether, as a profession, architecture should have a code of ethics which prevents registered architects from participating in such designs.
He compares architecture to the medical profession, where the American Medical Association imposes an ethical code on its members which all but forbids them from taking part in execution by lethal injection, based on medicine’s general aim of preservation, rather than destruction of life. The American Institute of Architect’s ethical code is both generic and meager in comparison: “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”
However the organization Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility is highlighted as a group trying to change this. They would like to see a clause added to the AIA’s ethical code, which prohibits architects from accepting any commission designed for “execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”
The debate is framed around the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, a prison in North California designed by KMD architects which some have described as a solitary confinement unit. The podcast raises an interesting point about this prison: whilst many design features are oppressive, there are some architectural touches – such as perforated cell doors and skylights in the corridors – which are described as “good design features”.
This could perhaps raise a counter argument: in the same way that medicine’s refusal to be involved in lethal injections has not stopped executions from happening, it could be argued that without architects, prisons are at risk of being designed by people with less design skill. In other words, by refusing to design prisons themselves, architects could cause new prison designs to become even more inhumane.
So should architecture have a strict code of ethics? Does architecture have a primary goal (as clear as medicine’s aim to preserve life) that could inform such a code? Or should members of the profession be allowed to choose by themselves what they believe to be moral? And does refusing to take part in designing these prisons improve the situation, or just make it worse?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.