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American Institute of Architects Rejects Petition to Protect Human Rights

by Christopher Zoukis

The leading organization for the nation's architects has rejected a call from some of its members to reject employment that would involve the design of certain prison facilities, such as execution chambers and Special Housing Unit cells.

In February 2014, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was faced with a very troubling ethics petition. Proposed by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the petition proposed modifying the AIA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to "prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." More specifically, the petition singled out "execution chambers," "super-maximum security prisons," and "solitary confinement facilities for juveniles and the mentally ill." The petition was denied.

According to Helene Combs Dreiling, AIA's former president, "It's just not something we want to determine as a collective. Architects self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best." Raphael Sperry, ADPSR's architect who led the petition, disagrees with allowing the profession to continue building such facilities. If he had his way, those who do build such facilities should be censured. In his view, architects have a social responsibility to act in the public interest, projecting the idea that architects, like doctors, should not participate in torture.

As it currently stands, AIA's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states, "Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors." ADPSR sought to amend this code to bring it in line with the United Nation's prohibitions on torture and international law. It was not meant to be. AIA was not willing to regulate its members.

Within weeks of AIA's decision, New York City, besieged with lawsuits, decided to bar its placement in solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners and those younger than 21 years of age. In a rather strange turn of events, the agency—which operates the notorious, and sometimes deadly, Rikers Island jail complex—thus appears to be making more progress  to protect human rights than other groups.

Research continues to mount showing that specialized prison architecture can either promote violence and destruction, or rehabilitation and social order. In the case of AIA and ADPSR, perhaps Sperry puts it best by asking, "What about concentration camps?" Every person needs to come to their own conclusions about right and wrong, but as the saying goes, all that is required for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing. Perhaps Sperry is one of those good men.

Sources:,, ADPSR Petition