Architects Group Faces Pressure on Human Rights Issues

An activist industry group is pressing the American Institute of Architects to explicitly bar members from designing structures that can be used for torture or other harsh forms of punishment. AIA has declined to go that far, saying its current professional code ensures that members practice ethically.

One of the leading associations in the architecture world is facing a new kind of criticism—one that has more in common with debates over the death penalty than ones over building design.

In recent years the American Institute of Architects has been the target of a campaign by the nonprofit Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to persuade the organization to alter its code of ethics to bar AIA members from participating in the design of torture chambers or solitary-confinement facilities.

Currently, AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct [PDF] includes this language:

“Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”

In an August 2014 letter to AIA’s Working Group on Human Rights, the board of directors of ADPSR, including Raphael Sperry, the organization’s president and an AIA member, argued that this statement is too vague. The board suggested more direct wording:

“Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”

ADPSR started a Change.org petition that has received more than 1,800 signatures, as well as the support of at least one local AIA chapter.

Thus far, however, AIA has declined to change the code’s language.

Architecture as Torture?

The issue gained mainstream attention when a Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing harsh tactics used by CIA operatives interrogating terrorism suspects was released last month. In the wake of the report, the American Psychological Association publicly criticized two psychologists who were cited in the report, though neither is an APA member.

Sperry has publicly suggested that AIA follow suit. In a CNN.com op-ed published late last month, he challenged AIA to revise the ethics code, saying that the current “aspirational language” is broad and vague, especially compared with language on similar issues used by other professional trade groups.

He noted that it’s often clear to architects how a space is likely to be used, particularly those intended for solitary confinement—which the United Nations and other human rights organizations consider a form of torture.

“While architects cannot be held responsible for unintended uses of the spaces they design, the intention of most of these spaces is clear from the get-go,” Sperry wrote. “The use of remote-controlled doors, individualized cellular ‘recreation yards,’ and solid cell fronts with special pass-through slots are all architectural features that enable and deepen isolation, leading inexorably to psychological pain.”

ADPSR’s strategy is similar to one that advocacy groups employed to encourage the American Pharmacists Association to bar its members from taking part in executions, using a petition to urge the association to amend its ethics code.

Why AIA Said No

In October, an AIA task force appointed to study the issue recommended against adopting the ADPSR’s suggested language, and the group’s board of directors rejected the change. In a letter to Sperry last month [PDF], AIA 2014 President Helene Combs Dreiling said that language barring members from designing specific types of buildings could create a slippery slope of demands for other limitations, and she cited antitrust and enforcement concerns.

In a comment to Associations Now, AIA CEO Robert Ivy said that Sperry’s proposal “received serious consideration,” but the task force deemed the additional language “unnecessary”—and the board agreed.

“Both the revisions and task force recommendations were reviewed and discussed by the AIA Board of Directors, a national and representative body of AIA members,” Ivy said. “The AIA board concluded 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.”

Meanwhile, Sperry has challenged the board to reconsider. “The unwillingness of America’s leading architectural association to prohibit the design of torture facilities is a shocking, shameful, and deeply troubling statement,” he wrote in his commentary.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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