Where Should Architects Draw the Moral Line?

In Israel, traditional moral qualms don't get so extreme as the dilemma over being asked to plan execution chambers, but dilemmas do exist, such as building a detention center for migrants.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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Holot detention center.
Holot detention center.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The story is already the stuff of urban legend. In the 1960s, students at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, were asked to design a pipeline to transport blood from Haifa (or Ashdod) to Eilat. As they delved into the technical aspects of their task, it didn’t occur to them to wonder about the ethical implications over what the purpose of the pipeline was, and where the blood would come from.

The exercise was designed to convince the Technion’s administration to integrate humanistic subjects into this practical, technological-technocratic profession. The administration was shocked by the students’ insensitivity and became convinced that lectures in the humanities were necessary.

The interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.Credit: AP

Judging from the field of architecture, it’s doubtful that the interdisciplinary effort proved itself and managed to stimulate a sense of ethical sensitivity. People in the field still subscribe to a sense that architecture can be amoral and apolitical, with at most just small pangs of conscience.

Against this backdrop, there is currently debate in architectural circles in the United States around the ethics of planning execution facilities at prisons around the country, as well as facilities that could be used for torture.

The debate follows a U.S. Senate report detailing inhumane prison conditions, lawsuits over torture and cruelty, and the construction of sophisticated execution chambers such as those at San Quentin State Prison in California. There is also the decision by the City of New York to ban extended solitary confinement of prisoners under the age of 21.

At the heart of the debate over the role of architects in unethical planning work in violation of human rights is a petition by a California group called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which calls for the American Institute of Architects to amend its code of ethics, which is now general and nonbinding, so that it would bar its members from planning “design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”

The American Institute of Architects rejected the request and refused to support the petition. In explaining its stance, the organization gave legalistic and procedural reasons, or stated other technocratic and convoluted reasons, which notably included the lack of possible means to enforce such an amendment and the inability to determine precisely which structures violate the code. They apparently overlooked the U.S. court ruling that can be paraphrased as stating that you know human rights violations when you see them.

The AIA also noted that its binding ethics code does not deal at all with moral issues, but instead relates only to professional competence, employer-employee relations and conduct with colleagues and clients.

AIA representatives, including outgoing chairwoman Helene Dreiling, told The New York Times and other media outlets that if the organization started imposing such conditions, it would open a Pandora’s box of demands for similar rules that would limit planning.

The refusal to explicitly condemn planning of facilities that can be used for torture aroused bitter feelings and disappointment. The AIA is the leading architecture organization in the United States and the largest in the world, with about 100,000 registered members.

AIA membership is a status symbol and it has major influence at every planning level. If it had taken a moral stance, it could have brought about major change, creating a sort of Hippocratic oath (as taken by medical practitioners) for architects.

Raphael Sperry, the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, expressed his own strong disappointment over the AIA decision, noting that gas chambers and other torture facilities were planned by architects in an era in which there were not yet codes protecting human rights, adding that the AIA now has a golden opportunity to address the issue.

Tel Aviv University professor Adi Ophir, whose book “Lashon Harah” (“The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals”) lays out a theory of ethics and a new definition of evil, wrote in response to the AIA’s stance and the debate over architectural ethics: “You don’t need to be an expert on ethics to understand at least the following simple thing: If execution or solitary confinement are morally unacceptable acts, architects are not obliged to agree to plan facilities that make them possible.”

For Ophir, the deciding question is not the profession involved or whether the acts have gotten state approval. “The deciding question is whether these practices are proper from a moral standpoint. I assume that members of the AIA are not of the opinion that execution is a moral outrage. They are wrong, but their profession as architects is only the instance over which some of their members have become involved in moral outrage.”

Architects in Israel fortunately don’t have to design execution chambers. (The only criminal ever executed in Israel was Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962). But moral issues, albeit not as extreme, do exist here – from planning the refugee detention center at Holot in the Negev to planning in the occupied territories.

“If it were possible to prove that the settlements cause murder, then it would have been simple. Murder is a red line,” said Israel Architects Association chairman Eli First, “but the system is more complicated than that. This entire subject is subject to interpretation. It’s a personal matter over which everyone needs to take his own stance.”

First added that there is room for discussion and persuasion, for education regarding values and activism, “but not setting out in an organized, public manner, because there is no public,” he said. “Architects are not in most of the places where the decisions are made. And in any event, they have no influence. If there were enough architects that would refuse to design something that runs counter to their values, then it would have weight. It’s a terrible vicious cycle that I can’t get out of.”

The situation here may actually be easier to address than in the United States when it comes to escaping a vicious cycle that may be “terrible,” but is also rather easy on the conscience.

As an organization that “doesn’t count,” as First would put it, his Israeli group of architects has little to lose and is able to go the distance and become activist. They could condemn “unnecessary evils,” a term that Ophir devised, that lead to inadmissible acts from a moral standpoint. From such a position, the organization would also have the influence to do the right thing.

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