One October afternoon in downtown Toronto, a small band of protestors clustered outside the Hilton holding handmade signs with slogans like “Food not Prisons” and “Housing not Prisons.” The so-called Prison Moratorium Action Coalition was denouncing a sprawling piece of legislation passed in Canada’s Parliament earlier this year, one that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses and authorized a multibillion-dollar program for prison construction.

The target of this demonstration, however, wasn’t government officials or law enforcement agencies. Instead, it was the annual fall meeting of the Academy of Architecture for Justice. The protestors had decided to go after “others who profit from locking people away.” In this case, the “others” were architects—specifically, the Toronto-based Zeidler Partnership, including senior partner Alan Munn and several of his colleagues—who were at the Hilton presenting their newly completed maximum security Toronto South Detention Centre.

Munn, for his part, argues that the “ragtag group” was off-base in its efforts because Toronto South had nothing to do with the federal crime initiative. Rather, the crisply modern facility with its Miesian entry pavilion was the solution to a provincial problem, a replacement for older Toronto prisons, one of which dated back to 1858. “It’s really a response to some terrible conditions in existing facilities,” Munn insists.

Rightly or wrongly, it seems almost unprecedented to hold architects accountable for decisions that are political in nature. Normally, the only dissent heard at AIA events comes from the architects themselves.

In fact, deep inside the Hilton, the protestors had an ally. On the agenda was a panel called “Long-Term Solitary Confinement in the U.S.: Design and Implications.” One of the panelists, Raphael Sperry, a 38-year-old Berkeley, Calif.–based architect, has dedicated the past 10 years of his life to persuading his colleagues to stop designing prisons. Currently, he has a grant from the Open Society Foundations, a nonprofit founded by George Soros, to focus on his mission—the first architect selected as one of that organization’s Justice Fellows.

The points he made that day in October were simple: “Long-term solitary confinement is torture. Execution chambers kill people. Architects should not be party to torture and killing.” He then announced his campaign to amend the AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to “prohibit the design of spaces intended for long-term solitary isolation and execution.”

At first glance, the idea that the AIA would take a stand on incarceration practices or capital punishment seems counterintuitive, the issue too far removed from the organization’s mission. But Sperry framed his argument using the existing language of the code, pointing out that Ethical Standard 1.4 says that “members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”

“The Jailing-ist Country on the Planet”
In truth, what Sperry is proposing is the outgrowth of the debate that has long been an undercurrent of the profession: Do architects have an obligation to improve the human condition? From the Bauhaus’s promise of cheaper, better dwellings for all, to the current generation of do-gooder architects designing emergency shelters and affordable housing, the profession’s humanitarian impulse is never far from the surface. On the other hand, we can all name architect-designed buildings that have been portrayed as cruel in ways big and small. Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing projectweaetxdyvaydzcwq in St. Louis comes to mind. As does Philip Johnson’s Bobst Library at New York University with its vast, vertigo inducing atrium that seemingly acted as an inducement to three recent student suicides. Not to mention that architects routinely act as enablers and promoters of the worst excesses of commercial development.

Arguably, the watershed moments in prison design have generally been more philosophical than architectural in nature. In 1776, the Philadelphia Quakers introduced the idea of solitary confinement at the Walnut Street Jail, to give prisoners ample time to reflect. And in 1787, philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed the penitentiary panopticon, with a circular layout that placed an unseen jailer at the core of the building, giving him “invisible omniscience” as he watched over 1,000 prisoners.