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Architects and torture: What color is your waterboard?

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Raphael Sperry: AIA declined specific prohibition on architects designing torture chambers

He says group chose not to follow organizations like the AMA in banning involvement

Professionals have responsibility to protect health, safety, welfare, Sperry says

Editor’s Note: Raphael Sperry is president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group that advocates for socially responsible design. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects and a Soros Justice Fellow. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN —  

Despite years of advocacy and formal requests, the AIA – which claims as its members a majority of the roughly 110,000 architects in the United States – has officially declined to add specific language to its code of ethics that would prohibit the design of torture chambers in U.S. prisons and around the world. In doing so, it cites anti-trust concerns and the potential difficulty of enforcing the prohibition, but it ignores the claims of human rights.

Raphael Sperry
Noah Kalina
Raphael Sperry

To be sure, the AIA’s ethics code contains aspirational language that broadly states, “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” Contrast that, for example, with the code of the American Medical Association or the World Medical Association Tokyo Declaration on Torture, which reads, “The physician shall not provide any premises, instruments, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture.” That leaves providing the premises for torture up to us architects, and as far as the AIA is concerned, we are open for business.

Yes, the prisons at Guantanamo had architects. The design of Camp 6 was based on the Lenawee County, Michigan, jail, according to its architect.

Other camps were built with prefabricated steel prison cells, a popular jail-building technology that may well have been used to construct the CIA’s “black site” prisons overseas. The only apparent justification for the additional expense and complexity of building on such remote sites with no access to local labor or building materials was that these were places where the legal system could not interfere with indefinite detention and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”