A cell inside Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Five
A cell inside Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Five © AP

In December, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) rejected an amendment to its ethics code that would have prevented architects from designing [buildings such as supermax prisons]. Drafted by the advocacy group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the new language would have enforceably barred the AIA’s roughly 100,000 members from designing spaces “intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” That means everything from the $900,000 San Quentin Lethal Injection Chamber, constructed in California in 2010, to facilities at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.

On the surface, it seems like the sort of thing that would have gone down without a fight. But a panel of seven anonymous architects appointed by the AIA ruled it was not the association’s job to condemn the design of any particular building (not even the gas chambers at Auschwitz?), but rather to guide its members toward best practices; the AIA’s current ethics code gives the unenforceable suggestion that members “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” If it were to go forward with the amendment, the AIA argued, it could open up a pandora’s box of “proposals or demands for similar rules limiting or prohibiting design.” The association also cited fear of antitrust challenges, as well as concern over how the AIA would judge whether projects broke the code.

ADPSR didn’t buy into that reasoning. It accused the AIA of hiding behind “legalisms and smokescreen arguments” while placing business interests above human rights.