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Prominent Architects Group Prohibits Design of Death Chambers

The American Institute of Architects said Friday that it had approved new ethics rules prohibiting members from knowingly designing spaces intended for execution or torture, including for prolonged periods of solitary confinement.

Such a rule has been championed by architecture professionals for several years, but the organization had resisted making the declaration until now, saying that architects were not responsible for torture policies and procedures that took place in the spaces that they designed. In recent months, as the institute has responded to the calls for equality that followed George Floyd’s killing, the group has re-evaluated its stance.

“We are committed to promoting the design of a more equitable and just built world that dismantles racial injustice and upholds human rights,” the group’s president, Jane Frederick, said in a news release.

Members of the institute are required to “uphold the health, safety and welfare of the public” in their work, Ms. Frederick said, and the board of directors had determined that spaces meant for execution and torture “contradict those values.”

In June, the architecture critic for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, had renewed his calls for the group to act on the issue, writing that if it wanted to uphold its newfound commitment to working against systemic racial injustice, it needed to speak out against architects who design execution chambers and solitary confinement cells in prisons that incarcerate and execute an overwhelmingly disproportionate percentage of Black Americans.

“Architects should not contribute their expertise to the most egregious aspects of a system that commits exceptional violence against African-Americans and other minorities,” Mr. Kimmelman wrote. “The least the American Institute of Architects can do now is agree.”

The new ethics rules prohibit members from knowingly designing spaces in which prisoners are held in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact, for more than 15 consecutive days.

The A.I.A. had previously rejected calls to condemn the practice. Several years ago, the institute rejected a petition calling on them to censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers; last year, the A.I.A. published an opinion by its National Ethics Council saying that it would not censure designers who work on execution chambers because the death penalty was legal in the United States.

The design of an execution chamber simply “reflects conduct that is sanctioned by society in those jurisdictions where capital punishment has been adopted as the law of the land,” last year’s opinion said.

A Bay Area architect who spearheaded the earlier petition, Raphael Sperry, has said that the group’s previous stance was a declaration that business was more important to them than human rights. Mr. Sperry’s organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, was one of the groups that the architecture institute said it had consulted to come to the decision.

“Architecture has historically been a white, male dominated profession that has participated in systems of oppression and injustice including segregation and mass incarceration,” Mr. Sperry said in an email on Friday. “This code change is a sign that things can change and that they are changing.”

The decision came a day after the Justice Department’s high-profile execution of a Black man, Brandon Bernard, for a murder that he committed when he was 18 years old, even as requests flooded into the White House asking to give Mr. Bernard clemency.

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