# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// Designing a Prison, or Not Designing a Prison. What About a Hippocratic Oath for Architects?

cfmoller prison in denmarkWinning entry of the New State Danish Prison by C. F. Møller Architects (2010)

Thanks to my friends Mariabruna and Fosco (Microcities/Socks), I got to learn that the French department of justice, through its research mission — coincidentally entitled G.I.P. like Michel Foucault’s Groupe Information Prison — is currently calling for research proposal to rethink the relationships between architecture and the prison. The opportunity to work on this topic thus reactivated for me what appears to me as the most explicit dilemma for an architect: should I, as an architect, accept to be commissioned — or even to research — to design a prison that I will intend to trigger an improvement in the conditions of incarceration of prisoners, or should I simply refuse to conceive an architecture that is voluntarily cruel to the bodies that it hosts? I am writing that this is the “most explicit” dilemma, as this question can be asked in many other situations when exercising this profession. Not every architects will be asked to participate to the design of a prison in their carrier, but all of them will face this dilemma declined in a more or less subtle version of it. This is actually a more generalized dilemma than one only addressed to architects; every political strategy is based on this same question: can a set of reforms essentially change a society for better, or are reforms only a matter of cosmetics that participates to the dissimulation of the real essence of the relationships of power. Reform or revolution?

I would like my readers to believe me when I say that I veritably do not know the answer that I would like to give this question. On the one hand, refusing compromise can be a comfortable way to think as it allows no flexibility, and therefore no effort to adapt principles to a concrete situation; on the other hand, the reason that we elaborate principles when liberated from the specificity of a situation is a good way for them not to be corrupted by processes of self-persuasion that are often motivated on self-centered considerations. What is for sure, is that it is important to seriously consider this dilemma each time we find ourselves confronted to one of its declinations. In the case of an architecture commission — a prison, for example — each categorical refusal must be done after having reconsidered this question, and each acceptance must be done in the full understanding of what is the actual decision power of the architect, and in which political context (s)he is embedded to, when conceiving this project.

In the case of this specific call for research by the Department of Justice, it is probably important to remark that the current Secretary of Justice, Christiane Taubira, — who also carried the legislation to retroactively define slavery as a crime against humanity in 2001 and the one to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013 — has been repeatedly asserting something that a vast majority of us know well, but that is not necessarily brought to the governmental scales: prison does not make people “better,” i.e. does not make people more integrated within social interactions. Prison, as thought in many countries of the world, — on the contrary than what is done in Scandinavia — is essentially acting to serve two purposes: punishment and example. Punishment is a form of revenge from society toward the body of the accused, while example constitutes the spectacularity of the punishment that is supposed to discourage people in society to contravene the law. Both of these dimensions requires architecture to be voluntarily aggressive and inhospitable to the condemned body. Nothing is done to think and prepare the future of this body that will one day be liberated from this architecture. Mrs. Taubira also recognized that an important amount of people who are currently being incarcerated could be subjected to another form of punishment than prison when considering the ‘lightness’ of their crime.

Of course, these arguments are simply words — non-electoral ones, it is important to state — for the moment and an essential change cannot be accomplished by only one person, even if she is part of a government. However, this ideological background is fundamental to determine whether or not we should accept to participate to the reformist ‘path.’ It is as important as difficult to articulate an ethics that slightly dissociate discourse and practice as long as this dissociation is strictly motivated by unselfish reasons, the acceptance of the “least worst” while keeping arguing for the “better.” That is how we vote while denouncing the dysfunction of representative democracy, or that Foucault created the Prison Information Group mentioned above (see also this past article) that participated to a better communication (TV, newspapers, letters) between the prison and the ‘outside,’ when he was discursively unfolding the logic of power that are being activated through the carceral world and that in no way ceases to be operative in the frame of these small improvements.

There is no Hippocratic Oath for architects like there is one for doctors — they take the oath of always act for the good of their patient. Of course, there is no patients of architecture either, but when we come to think about it, the extent is not the same but our bodies are subjected to the power of architecture in a similar way than they are to the power of the doctors. Nowadays, an oath tends to be more valuable to the self-spectacle that involves its ceremony than to the essence of its ethical positioning; however, what it allows is the explicitation of the negative affect that it prevents and thus, surely participates to a form of awareness about it. In other words, the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for architects, by stating that an architect should not in any way participate to the conception of a design that would be deliberately hurtful to the bodies that it will host, it would contribute to architects’ awareness that their design can indeed be deliberately hurtful to the bodies. Like in medicine, this oath would also embody the base of the professional ethics and thus, could potentially make architects face their responsibilities at a judicial level. The sense of responsibility is key here, as it would most certainly help to answer the dilemma enunciated in the title of this article in full understanding of the consequence of its choice, whatever it might be.


8 Comments on “# WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// Designing a Prison, or Not Designing a Prison. What About a Hippocratic Oath for Architects?

  1. Hello dear Leopold,
    Interesting article, once again. Bravo for this amazing work you are doing.

    Nevertheless, as a licensed architect in France, i am practising under an architectural oath. Their is even a ceremony called in french “la prestation de serment” :
    the oath is : “Dans le respect de l’intérêt public qui s’attache à la qualité architecturale, je jure d’exercer ma profession avec conscience et probité et d’observer les règles contenues dans la loi sur l’architecture et dans le code des devoirs professionnels”.

    I found an interesting wikipedia artiche listing all the professional under oath. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_de_serments anf of course, architects are among the list.
    A bientot

  2. Dear Leopold, thanks for the mention.
    As for the subject: maybe an individual refusal to participate in the building of a prison (or also in every try in “humanizing it”) could relieve the weight on an architect’s dignity. But it could hardly change the conditions for which that particular institution exists in the first place. Civil disobedience or reformist will, (which I tend to see not as two opposing positions, but as two sides of the same coin), are frequently the result of moral judgement (therefore tied to historical conditions) and they actually collaborate to the defense of the roots of evil, legitimizing and strengthening the political and ideological domination.

    As for the people involved in the improvement in the conditions of incarceration of prisoners, (a policy which is acceptable in principle): they base their actions on the so-called concepts of “fair justice” and “human rights”. But right and justice are not two of the greatest expressions of those social relations that make jail-time possible in the first place? Or that also create those “total institutions” able to control and to shape atomized individuals, in order to turn them into socially adept citizens?

    Seen from this angle, it seems to me that speaking of “humanization of the prison” equals to achieve perhaps one of the most monstrous oxymorons that can be conceived.

  3. Dear Fosco
    I would certainly agree with you about the oxymoron, and I actually don’t think that I ever used the word “humanization” in the totality of my writings whether they were about prison or anything else.
    What I do not understand, and I hope that you will forgive my candidness, is what is the alternative left to us as architects in your analysis.
    Thank you for triggering this conversation

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  5. Dear Léopold,
    the term “humanization” wasn’t directly referred to your writing and I apologize if you felt involved .

    There is no way I can give your question an easy answer. Unsurprisingly a huge literature testimonies the impasse the architects are facing in their relationship to social and philosophical matters. (I suggest Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia)

    What I try to emphasize is the illusory way of avoiding this impasse, either by way of a deliberate renonciation of engagement, or through a top-down imposition of something like an oath.

    In the first case the effect is similar to combat crime as a social “plague” through the personal renonciation of using a firearm. That is course effective in order not to kill a person, not really to eliminate murder as a phenomen. (Let me digress here: talking about guns: they invented a more “humane” kind of arms, the ones firing rubber instead of conventional bullets that don’t kill you but do their job anyway, something similar to the Scandinavian prisons being more “humane” respect of those in the USA…)

    In the case of an imposition of an oath, I’d like to know, first: which institution you are referring to: architects as a collective power? Architects are fully integrated (as everything else) in capital development and their work always respond technically and theoretically to capital’s demand.
    The problem here is: where to put the line? Is a prison intrinsecally more violent or ideologically charged than, say, a police headquarter, or a school complex, or a housing project in the Bronx?


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