Just a few weeks earlier, the American Institute of Architects rejected a petition to censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers.

“It’s just not something we want to determine as a collective,” Helene Combs Dreiling, the institute’s former president, told me. She said she put together a special panel that reviewed the plea. “Members with deeply embedded beliefs will avoid designing those building types and leave it to their colleagues,” Ms. Dreiling elaborated. “Architects self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best.”

What are the ethical boundaries for architecture? Architecture is one of the learned professions, like medicine or law. It requires a license, giving architects a monopoly over their practices, in return for a minimal promise that buildings won’t fall down. Raphael Sperry, the Bay Area architect who spearheaded the petition to the institute, thinks the public deserves more in return for that monopoly.


I asked if the institute has issued any position or policy statement about death chambers.

“No,” she said. “If we begin to stipulate the types of projects our members can and cannot do, it opens a can of worms.”

I imagined that she was talking about other politically fraught buildings, like, say, nuclear power plants or abortion clinics. Mr. Sperry said there was a difference with death chambers. International human-rights treaties don’t explicitly prohibit abortion or nuclear power, as they do execution and torture. The United Nations and other international human-rights organizations consider the death penalty a violation of human rights.

“Is there nothing so odious that the A.I.A. wouldn’t step in?” he asked. “What about concentration camps? The A.I.A. is basically saying business is more important than human rights. Yes, this is a tough profession. But you don’t gain respect by hunkering down in a position of fear. You just dig yourself deeper into a hole.”

If architects want more respect, he argued, they need to take a stand. This is an interesting moment, with echoes in the past. A century ago, movements like the Bauhaus, looking to improve design for the masses, emerged from a culture in which the widening gulf between rich and poor was sundering civil society.