This post doesn’t facetiously refer to the pain of our studio experience or the reality that a glamorous firm often pays bills by drawing big box stores or acres of office cubicles. The real issue of injustice and design, addressed well by Architect Magazine in December, is the work of architects in designing prison space. Are we collaborating, condoning, or even fine-tuning oppression and torture? The oppression of minorities and specific socio-economic classes under our prison system is statistically real and the spectrum of torture practiced in this system is deemed a criminal’s “punishment” by the U.S. federal and state governments. Whatever your political and social stance, designing for punishment or torture is an issue facing architecture.
I cannot try to address the current judicial system and won’t wax philosophic about crime and punishment. It is a family passion as we are a family of lawyers; I, as the sole future architect in the clan, must also analyze the human (or inhumane) consequence of punishment as a spatial experience. No longer does society formally use social shunning or corporeal punishment. Variations of both certainly exist in the system and contemporary society, but it is our contemporary judicial system that now metes out a specific space and specific duration of confinement as its primary means of punishment. The history of prisons is interesting, especially the turn taken in the Enlightenment era given their philosophy of both optics and “observation is control.” A study of prisons throughout history and through cultures is certainly indicative of where we are and what we value. As a designer, you will be faced with the decision to collaborate, improve, or boycott this end.
Early in my graduate work, I was asked to support a petition of design professionals, agreeing that I would never participate in prison project work during my career. It was a decision I believed in and readily committed. I’ve since filled in several years of experience on my resume, and contrary to my architecture student’s vow to never sell out my design ideals, I have participated on some very questionable projects. One was a maximum security psych addition to a hospital where I suicide-proofed the inmate/patient rooms. Another destroyed acres of forest in the name of luxury resort development where the owners claimed staff facilities as affordable housing for the adjacent community. I actively supported nonprofits and political movements that would help to somehow balance out my design karma. Many compromises happened consciously and inadvertently. I was frantic to reconcile my need to bring in a paycheck and my personal beliefs that were being smeared across my drafting board (i.e. my computer screen).
The extent of these compromises has yet to touch prison work, but I am actually under a gag order not to discuss another project on which I participated; I went to my office each day with an increasingly worse stomach ache, beseeching forgiveness of all my Conscientious Objector Gods. I’m hoping that I still have the deed to my own soul after that one.
In a recent Architizer article, the phenomenon of prison design is discussed and those in the design field or simply those interested are asked to participate in a Change.org petition to prohibit the design of spaces for torture or killing. (Feel free to jump in at any time: Change.org|Online Petition Form ) The discipline of architecture is not a neutral zone. We reflect values in every design decision we make, from what suppliers to specify to how to represent the project to the public.
The Recession has been a dark time for the building industries and we were all desperate for work, closing our doors, laying off coworkers and friends, doing contract work indefinitely, working multiple jobs to support our families, and jumping ship to other disciplines. We’re not out of danger and many of us are still struggling. Currently, I have acted more decisively in determining the fields in which I will and will not work; I now have some experience under my belt and feel as though I have the power to assert my beliefs in the workplace. A moral decision vs. a paying client hasn’t been popular in my not-so-distant-past and may have played a role in my being laid off at one point. I am a single mother and need a paycheck as much as my fellow Revit ninja at the adjoining desk. However, ethical compromise is too costly–at personal, design industry, and societal levels.