Today, the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects released a statement from its board of directors calling on architects to halt designing projects that support the current criminal justice system. Since the death of George Floyd in late May, the United States has faced a racial reckoning that has touched nearly every facet of society and industry. Architecture is no exception and academic institutions, design firms and professional organizations alike have released similar statements acknowledging their wrongs in overt or covert contributions to intrinsically racist systems, and pledging corrections for their behaviors. From the 24-person directors’ board, this statement is one of the most actionable to be released by a chapter of the AIA, a professional membership organization that offers advocacy, education and support to architects.
“For too long, architects have been complicit in upholding intrinsic racism within the American criminal justice system,” the statement reads, citing the AIA’s own code of ethics, which states that members should “employ their professional knowledge and skill to design buildings and spaces that will enhance and facilitate human dignity and the health, safety, and welfare of the individual and the public,” as its reasoning for the recommendation. “While many architects have attempted to mitigate injustice by applying their professional skills to associated built structures, ultimately it is beyond the role of design professionals to alleviate an inherently unjust system.”
Though 13% of the nation’s population is Black, they account for 27% of all people arrested. According to April 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Black men are 5.8 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. The statistics proves that the justice system is skewed to the detriment of Black people. “Until more comprehensive policy changes are made on a national scale, good design alone is not enough to remove or overcome the racism,” in current justice system structures, the statement continues.
For longtime restorative justice architects like Deanna van Buren of Oakland, California-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, the AIANY’s recommendation comes as a pleasant surprise. Through the nonprofit firm she directs and cofounded, van Buren designs alternative spaces for justice, like Restore Oakland, a center for reconciliation where two nonprofits have partnered with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to divert young people aged 15 to 24 who have been accused of crimes. Currently, her studio is transforming the former Atlanta City Detention Center into a community-driven center for equity. “As a prison abolitionist who has been calling on architects, designers, and planners to lead our communities in reimagining justice altogether, this decision by AIA New York is welcome,” she says. “Our criminal justice system was built on the backs of slaves and the bodies of prisoners. It’s good that AIANY now recognizes that architects—whose profession is still white male-dominated—have been making prettier buildings to jail Black and brown people and are thereby participating in a system of oppression.”
In addition to advising that architects “no longer design unjust, cruel or harmful spaces of incarceration,” and instead “shift their efforts towards supporting the creation of new systems, processes and typologies based on prison reform, alternatives to imprisonment and restorative justice,” like those van Buren has been designing for the last decade, the AIANY’s statement lists five initiatives to support its new creed. The chapter’s fall exhibitions and programming will focus on examining architecture’s role in the system; its political action committee with advocate to limit new construction of the criminal justice facilities; its Architecture For Justice committee will be reestablished (its last event was held this spring); projects of this typology will no longer be prioritized for awards, and the chapter plans to advocate that others, including its parent organization AIA National, follow suit on these guidelines.
The chapter believes that architects, as the creators of our built environment, have an unique opportunity to contribute to change in their refusal to design new structures that perpetuate disproportional harm to people of color. As an expert on the subject, van Buren concurs. “It’s time for an architecture of liberation, in which we stop building structures that oppress Black and brown communities and, instead, work with those communities to plan and design new systems of justice that rebuild and restore them,” she says. “We need all of us marching together towards this vision, and we applaud this step being taken by AIANY. My hope is that they will go even further than this and make abolition—not prison reform—their guiding light.”