The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) recent rejection of a proposed amendment to its existing ethics code has sparked debate over the issue of design and human rights violations. The proposed addendum was drawn up late last summer by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), a nonprofit organization advocating social consciousness in the design field. It stipulated that all AIA members would refrain from designing spaces involving human-rights violations, specifically those "intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement." This would include execution chambers, interrogation rooms intended for torture, and "supermax" security prisons in which prolonged solitary confinement take place.
However, the main controversy arose when considering whether or not the amendment would be an attainable goal for the AIA. Although the content of the amendment was never in question, its clarity and ability to be enforced were.
Read more about the AIA’s decision to reject the ethics amendment, after the break.
Although architecture used for purposes in violation of human rights is obvious in cases such as execution chambers, it is more difficult to recognize in other situations, such as defining what constitutes prolonged solitary confinement. After much consideration, it was determined "that the current AIA code of ethics provides members and the public with strong and clearly stated guidance concerning the lawful and ethical practice of architecture." This decision followed the appointment of a panel of AIA members (none of whom hold appointed leadership roles), selected by the group's president Helene Combs Dreiling, to provide impartial feedback on the amendment's goals from their diverse perspectives.
However, others such as Raphael Sperry, AIA member and ADPSR president, are not as confident in this decision. Enforceability, he claims, should not have dissuaded the institution from pursuing more clearly defined rules, as the mistreatment of those held in such places could be prevented by architects' refusal to design them. In a piece Sperry wrote for CNN, Architects and Torture: What color is your waterboard?, he highlights suicides brought on by the psychological distress of solitary confinement, remarking that "architecture facilitates this suffering and these deaths....All of us have opportunities within the multiple roles we play in life to reject torture and enact accountability."
Although the ethics amendment was not adopted by the AIA this year, it has stirred up much debate within the industry and beyond, drawing encouragement from organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. With such strong reactions, it is unlikely this is the last time the ethics amendment will be considered.