In the March 31, 2021 podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, managing director of DPIC, Anne Holsinger, and Raphael Sperry, president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), discuss the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) new ethics policy prohibiting members from designing execution chambers and death-row solitary confinement cells. “Architects have been complicit in human rights abuse by designing execution chambers in the United States and spaces for solitary confinement,” Sperry explains. “We need to take responsibility and taking responsibility means stopping doing these bad things.”

The AIA’s 2020 Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct now includes rules stating clearly that “[m]embers shall not knowingly design spaces intended for execution,” and “[m]embers shall not knowingly design spaces intended for torture, including indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement.” The recent amendments come eight years after ADPSR began petitioning for this change and reflects the profession’s awakening to the impact of its role in creating spaces used to execute or torture individuals.

The commentary to the new ethics rules cites to the “Nelson Mandela Rules” — the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners — as guides to ethical design. “I think for advocates who are looking for that evolving standard of decency, not only did architects say that we’re not going to do solitary confinement, but we said we think that international human rights are standard for us,” Sperry said. “And hopefully, that’ll really help bring international human rights standards into wider use in American courts.”

AIA is the preeminent professional organization for architects in the U.S., leading efforts in architectural education, public outreach, advocacy, community redevelopment, and general support. ADPSR is an independent organization founded as part of the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s. It now “has a more contemporary mission,” Sperry said, centered on “peace, social justice, environmental protection, and socially responsible development.”

Because the AIA represents more than half of all architects licensed in the United States, its code of ethics has a major impact on American architectural design. “They very much consider themselves the voice of the architecture profession,” Sperry said in the podcast interview. Sperry acknowledges that the new ethics rules will not end executions — departments of correction and private prisons can still contract with architects who are not AIA members or continue using existing facilities. Nonetheless, he is optimistic that the rules will help bring about social change.

“It’s part of the movement,” he says. “I hope other people in the movement can make use of it because I think it’s just as valuable to talk about the fact that architects won’t design execution chambers as it is for architects to actually stop.”

Architectural design choices reflect and can affect social values, Sperry notes. The answer to prison design questions doesn’t lie in designing nicer prisons, he explains; it comes from designing spaces that directly address the root causes of violence and crime: access to mental health resources, substance abuse programs, affordable housing, and better schools. “The research shows that people with mental health and substance abuse problems don’t get better in jail. If you want them to get better, you have to treat them in a community setting,” he says. “Why don’t we just design community centers for those people, put designed places in communities for mental health and substance abuse counseling and treatment?”

Prisons, Sperry says, are a “built example of the kind of racism and violence that’s inherent in American culture. … You can’t solve that by making nicer buildings. We really need a much bigger change.”