Should Architects Follow a Code of Ethics?

  • 10 Jun 2013
  • by
  • Architecture News Editor's Choice
Pelican Bay State Prison © Jelson25

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 ’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.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Should Architects Follow a Code of Ethics?" 10 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 May 2015. <>
  • Michael

    Yes, I agree! In fact, it should be taken even further than this. We ought to seriously consider the ethical and moral issues surrounding a development’s impact natural ecological functions. We ought to assert our environmental human rights to clean air, water and soil by maintaining a minimum level of ecological function on every site.

  • Mark

    Sure, Architects can decide to turn down such jobs… but I’m sure an Engineer will come along who will!

  • Ben Huser

    architecture has no need of new code of ethics – Andrea Palladio’s “architecture has to be convenient, durable and beautiful” precisely describes the duties of architects.
    E.g. prison design is not convenient nor is it beautiful – also do I think, that about 90% of the existing buildings of all kinds would have to be demolished because they are neither convenient, durable and beautiful.

  • Simon Cretney

    Imposing such ethics on architects poses a contrary ethic which then relates to spaces being designed which are then not at all suitable for their intended purpose/s…surely by being involved allows architects the ability to make these spaces as human and as habitable as possible. Our societies have rules and regulations and ONLY if the imposed consequences are contrary to your own personal ethics and guidelines should you then excuse yourself from accepting such a project…after all isn’t this what the free world and democracy is all about – having the freedom to choose within the boundaries of your own beliefs and principals?

  • Heywood Floyd

    The idea that there should even be a deabate about whether architects should be permitted to design prisons is a ridiculous polemic that that would not even exist without a 24 hour news cycle and serves no purpose other than to further someone’s preconceived polotical ideology. If licensed architects were prohibited from designing prisons that would force unlicensed architects to take on that work, thus jeopradizing the health and safety of not only the inmates but the guards, cafeteria workers, health care professionals and countless other unincarcerated support staff and employees who make their living in such institutions. Besides the fact that there are other aspects to prison design rather than perforated cell doors and skylights that require a licensed professional to address: egress, fire safety, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, etc. all require the design expertise of a licensed professional to ensure safety and functionality for all users. I would support legislation that limited how much a prison should cost per square foot or per inmate, that is fine. Or if you don’t want to take such a comission based on your own politics that is of course an architect’s perogitive. But to legislate whether anyone should be permitted to take them is something other than democracy.

  • Jordan

    I find this to be an interesting question. But – in reality, it’s a nonsensical question. I think each individual architect can execute a personal moral and ethical boundary on their work – but a call for an institutional implementation of ethics across the board is ultimately redundant.

    Maybe it’s just me – but I’m of the opinion that we should be looking to a future wherein professional regulatory bodies are diminished in their current roles. There’s something overly mid-century Soviet about the way these organizations act and react to work being done.

  • Daniel Day

    If we as a profession are “forbidden” by a code of ethics from accepting a commission to design a prison then it will be left to those considerably less qualified to design spaces for habitation. If the designs are bad now it seems to me that they’d be much worse if non-architects design them. This doesn’t make any sense at all if the goal is to bring a bit of humanity and dignity to the prisoners that inhabit these spaces.

  • salvatore gundula

    I worked for a firm that did prisons and made a shit load of money with it. such good fees. why decline? I mean real good money!

  • Dru McKeown

    Wouldn’t the solution lay in a re-evaluation of our prison system itself? If the moral quandary lay in inhumane conditions shouldn’t we look toward a model of rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration? It seems there would be some fine opportunity for humane design within the system. Of course it depends on education of the client or the ability to make the personal choice that if you don’t agree with the project to not accept the commission.

  • MZ

    Speaking about ethics, when we want to define a moral minimum standard on function (prison J/N?) and design (ugly J/N?) we should think about defining moral standards for clients as well. Is it ethical to build for a regime, which does not meet minimum standards for human rights? Is it ethical to build a television and radio headquarters in a land, where the press and media stands under censorship (e.g. Koolhaas in China)? Or how about building for a nondemocratic government, spending the money of the people, without democratic legitimation Where do we draw the line?

  • vw

    Does this discussion then venture into abortion clinics and hospitals?

  • Eric in Colorado

    Just as Architects should have their own personal choice in the matter so too should Doctors have in the matter of death. Death is an inevitable part of human life and sometimes it should be aided by the presence of a trained professional. Architects and Doctors both should do what they can to make this part of life more comfortable.

    Also, incarceration and death chambers are a societal issue, not architectural. Architects should fulfill their Client’s needs, if they choose to.

  • Laszlo Kovacs

    we really need to stop comparing ourselves to doctors. doctors are available to the vast majority of the population. lets face it, architects cater to a small population that have the money to pay for our dreams. the rest consult a contractor to design their building. as far as ethics go, that is a personal issue, and no one should be forced to comply with any code.

  • Sebastian Yurjevic

    It is within the ethics of architecture to perform our duties to the best of our professional abilities and to a standard of personal excellence within the legal framework of our particular societies. In the absence of a better system, the rule of law has, up to now, delivered us from chaos and (an imperfect) Democracy has insured a system for letting our voices be heard. The death penalty, torture and imprisionment along with disease and hunger are some of the longest lasting challenges of human society. I believe it is for us as citizens to exercise our opposition to such matters in our civic duties, rather than in our professional responsibilities, especially as a guild or association. I do not believe in bullying my fellow architects to comply to my moral standards and condemning them for acting in accordance to highest standards set by our society and fully with the law, as imperfect as it may be.

  • marco ragonese

    my two students are working on a new prison in italy as final degree project. Some teachers doesn’t agree it. But I think, as architects, we have to engage with this issues and propose new layouts for this kind of buildings, forcing ourselves to look at them (and design them)as rieducational and not as torture and death structures.

  • Vanessa Leitón Corella

    We as Architects are not executing the prisoners! It is not comparable to the doctors, but to the lawyers who defend the criminals! It’s their job as to design is ours.
    It is a matter of moral and ethics for the state laws
    Not for the designers

  • Maria Marshall

    I think this gentleman is asking us to reflect on this issue. To engage in a profession but not consider the potential impact of our work is troublesome. We can revisit our ethical standards from time to time, who are we if we don’t?.

  • WE

    So let’s get this straight; the design of learning institutions has been, and continues to be, the bread and butter for many architectural firms while simultaneously the educational system has placed our youth into debt serfdom along side historically high unemployment. Yeah, revisit those ethical standards.

  • Andrew Barrah

    I am an architect and have worked in the delivery of prisons and have worked closely with corrections staff. Those in favour of high ethical standards excluding working on prisons have clearly never worked within a prison and seen the daily challenges associated with managing very difficult people. Be lofty in your ideals and only do the ethically safe work and leave the more difficult aspects of modern civilised architecture to those that thrive on a challenge and embrace reality.

  • Jose A. Moreno

    I the fact that we are lincensed by a societal body entrusting us with the protection of life, health, safety and well being of society forces the need to adopt the highest ethical standards. In fact I further believe that we should be obliged to a professional oath such as doctors in medicine are aound the world.