There’s No Reason for an Architect to Design a Death Chamber


The board members of the A.I.A. might want to watch Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” on Netflix, the documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which, among other things, gives a vivid picture of the role that architecture plays in perpetuating a broken system. There is nothing radical about this position. That racist policing and racially biased criminal justice practices have institutionalized discrimination in the country is perhaps the single issue about which both the Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter ever agreed.

Diverse architecture firms, like the New York-based PAU, founded and run by Vishaan Chakrabarti, the incoming dean of the school of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, have declared as part of their mission statement a refusal to design correctional facilities. On June 4, Michael Ford, who co-founded a nonprofit in the Midwest called the Urban Arts Collective and runs the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, which introduces black and brown children to architecture, made a few waves when he tweeted: “Let’s list every architecture firm that has designed a jail or prison and make sure upcoming designers do not join those offices!”

Fewer than 3 percent of licensed architects in the United States are African-American. Last week Mr. Ford resigned from SmithGroup, one of the nation’s biggest architecture firms. We spoke this week and he sent me a copy of his resignation letter, in which he explained: “Our office has recently provided master planning services for the Kenosha County Civic Campus which includes planning services for juvenile detention spaces and a jail. Recently, I learned that we also completed the City of Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. These project types are the literal structures of structural racism against black people in the United States. Wisconsin has some of the highest incarceration rates of African-Americans in the United States and I will not work to further those disparities.”

Mr. Ford, who is African-American, also added: “The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many before them provided an opportunity for all of us to question how our morals and values are practiced in our daily lives, including our work as designers and architects.”

After my column ran on the A.I.A.’s rejection of Mr. Sperry’s petition in 2015, an architect emailed in confidence to chastise me, saying that architects can’t be held responsible for what occurs in the buildings they design, and besides, while he had never been hired to design a death chamber, he was sure the right architect could design a more humane one.

This was pre-Trump. I didn’t think the architect’s email demanded a reply. But the time has passed for moral prevarication in America. Public attitudes are swiftly shifting.

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