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Drawing the Line: Architects and Prisons | The Nation

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Drawing the Line: Architects and Prisons

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Architects have been tested immemorially by the question of where to draw the line, and the choices are not exclusively aesthetic. Because buildings have uses and frame and enable particular activities, their ethical aspect is inevitable by simple association. The connection can be fuzzy or clear. Bauhaus grads worked on the plans for Auschwitz, and someone thought hard about the ornamentation on the facade of the Lubyanka. This was unambiguously wrong. So too was the target of the first explicitly architectural demonstration I ever attended, which was organized by a group called the Architects’ Resistance. We marched in front of the headquarters of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, then at work designing a skyscraper in apartheid Johannesburg. The leaflet handed out suggested that somewhere upstairs was a draftsman designing two men’s rooms—one black and one white.

About the Author

Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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Sometimes the argument is less clear-cut. What about a client who specifies endangered hardwoods in a project? What about using materials with high levels of embodied energy, like aluminum? What of working for gentrifiers, or designing buildings in countries where construction labor is cruelly exploited and forced to work in dangerous conditions? Building is rife with politics, and ideally an architect will always consider the ethical implications of what he or she designs. The scale, of course, can slide: there are presumably also those who will demur at working on an abortion clinic, a nuclear power station, even a mosque.

In this country, much of the leadership on the question of architectural ethics has been provided by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), and since 2004, a focus of its activities has been the design of prisons. It has promulgated a pledge not to participate in any such work. (I signed on long ago.) The reasons for refusing such projects are many: disgust with the corrupt enthusiasm and extravagance of our burgeoning “prison industrial complex”; objections to our insane rates of incarceration, our cruel, draconian sentencing practices and the wildly disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. Designing spaces of confinement and discipline is also contrary to what most architects imagine as their vocation: the creation of comfortable, humane, even liberating environments. 

ADPSR has now focused its efforts on the worst aspects of imprisonment—execution, torture and solitary confinement—and is in the midst of a campaign to convince the American Institute of Architects (AIA, representing about 75 percent of licensed architects) to amend its code of ethics to explicitly exclude participation in designing the sites of such barbarity. This new petition has more than 1,000 signatures, and the institute’s San Francisco chapter has become the first to vote its collective support for the drive. The no-solitary restriction is the most radical revision yet proposed to the code, which already protects unpaid interns and encourages “public interest design” and “obligations to the environment.”

ADPSR—behind the energetic leadership of its president, Raphael Sperry—has asked the AIA to “prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” and cites existing language in the code which stipulates that “members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” In particular, ADPSR advocates an explicit refusal to design execution chambers and “supermax” prisons, which are conceived for the universal solitary confinement of their inmates.

According to the website Solitary Watch, “at least 80,000 prisoners are in some form of isolated confinement, including 25,000 in supermax prisons.” The US average for time spent in solitary is five years, and there are, according to NPR and other sources, thousands who are held in such isolation for decades. The cruelty and psychological damage of this form of punishment has long been widely known. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture has described the practice as “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and urges that it not be used for juveniles or the mentally ill, nor for longer than fifteen days in any circumstances, noting that this is the threshold for permanent psychological damage. In July, Scientific American—joining other mainstream media, including The New York Times—published an editorial that called for a halt to this practice, citing a Supreme Court decision noting that “a considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” The decision is from 1890. The editorial’s conclusion: “Solitary confinement is not only cruel, it is counterproductive. The U.S. should reclaim the wisdom it once held and dramatically limit the practice.”

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Supermax prisons are exactingly designed to kill souls. A solitary cell (referred to as the “hole” or the “box”) is typically between seventy and eighty square feet, and prisoners are kept alone in them for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour alone in a “yard” barely twice the size of the cell and a shower perhaps three times a week. Practically all human contact is mediated by bars, mesh or manacles, and many cells are windowless, with an inmate’s exposure to the world outside the cell limited to the door slots through which food is passed by the gloved hands of jailers, often in the form of “the loaf,” a disgusting pressed amalgam of pulverized food. Cells are, in most cases, deliberately colorless (any “aesthetic” ingredient is considered an inappropriate privilege in an environment that seeks to level all distinctions to the basest level) and are built—bunks and all—from bare concrete; the only furnishing is a stainless steel toilet-and-sink combo positioned to deny privacy. The lighting is never turned off.

A number of observers, including Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, David Rothman and Sharon Shalev, have told the history of the institutionalization of imprisonment, including the fluctuating sense of its purpose and the social and physical organization of its practices. In Shalev’s succinct taxonomy, the purpose of imprisonment—and the use of solitary confinement—has evolved from the early nineteenth century; a focus on moral reform and the redemption of souls was superseded by a postwar emphasis on Skinneresque behavior modification, itself replaced by today’s practices of “risk management.” The supermax represents the almost complete abandonment of the idea of rehabilitation, replacing it with a hypercruelty of convenience.

Much of this history has been written in architecture. In the early days of the Republic, an argument raged between the carceral philosophies of the Philadelphia and Auburn, New York, prisons. In the former’s “separate system,” prisoners were held in a state of constant solitary confinement, whereas in Auburn’s “silent system,” they slept in solitude but mingled in silence with other inmates for meals, work and recreation. Partisanship was intense on both sides, and Shalev cites an exponent of the separate system criticizing its rival in 1854: “‘The silent congregated system…is a great step towards real improvement…[but it fails] in reformation of morals as well as correction of the offender’ since, although the prisoner is prohibited from communicating with others, he is still surrounded by them, and ‘the winking of the eye, the movement of the finger, a sneeze or a cough, is enough to communicate what is desired.’”

Hovering over much of both the architectural and social debate is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his 1791 scheme for a prison based on a radial organization of the cells with a concealed observer at the center. The much-marked genius of what Foucault called this “cruel, ingenious cage” was that discipline was imposed invisibly: even in the absence of the all-seeing guard, the sense of always being observed was inculcated, transferred as anxiety to the prisoners themselves. This design has had a long life, both practically (many prisons were built on this model) and as a metaphor. It has become a kind of portmanteau for descriptions of the surveillance society of which we are all increasingly inhabitants, even as Bentham’s pure geometry of supervision has been displaced by a ubiquitous network of cameras, taps and search algorithms. The supermax prison is a highly technologized über-Panopticon: prisoners leave their cells for exercise or showers via the sequential opening and closing of electronic doors, never catching sight of another person but ever under the system’s inescapable gaze. 

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