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Carceral Architectures

This “space of Otherness” line of nonhomogeneity had then functioned to validate the socio-ontological line now drawn between rational, political Man (Prospero, the settler of European descent) and its irrational Human Others (the categories of Caliban [i.e. subordinated Indians and the enslaved Negroes])…

—Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom”

In 2014 the San Francisco-based Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) requested the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to adopt a rule prohibiting architects from designing buildings for the purpose of execution, torture, or solitary confinement. An estimated 80,000 prisoners currently live in some form of solitary confinement, including those housed in “supermax” prisons designed specifically to segregate. Not only are black and Hispanic men and women disproportionally represented in the prison population, but they are also disproportionally represented among those sentenced to solitary confinement. ADPSR was unequivocal in its stance that spaces purposefully designed to facilitate cruel, inhumane, and degrading acts should not be sanctioned by the profession and are “fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights.” The AIA declined their request to amend their Code of Ethics (although the organization is currently reconsidering its initial response). Given that architecture is one the least racially diverse professions in the United States—according to the Department of Labor, 80% of architects are white—it comes as little surprise that an effort to ban the design of spaces for the unethical treatment of a largely black and brown incarcerated population would fail.

That gap in understanding incarceration’s impact on black and Hispanic Americans may have to do in part with who designs prisons, but it is also influenced by architecture’s own genealogy in racialized modern discourses of history and science. It’s an outcome of how theories of architecture and theories of the racial paradigm of human difference—modern discourses that engage with human needs and modern subjectivity—emerged from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

Eighteenth century debates among European architects on the aesthetic character and historical origins of architecture spurred the abandonment of classical architectural theory. These formative treatises on modern architecture also drew upon epistemic and ontological queries in both natural history and philosophy about the nature of humans, the world, and the cosmos. During this same period, secular forms of knowing the world continued to upend ecclesiastical doctrines. The European—the philosophe, the revolutionary, the citizen, and the architect—believed himself to self-determined and self-conscious. It is an act of self-fashioning that Boris Groys, writing about design modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, asserts was “the ultimate form of design”; that is, “the design of the subject.” As the power and influence of Christianity waned, design became a vehicle for self-realization whereby “the problems of design are only adequately addressed if the subject is asked how it wants to manifest itself, what form it wants to give itself, and how it wants to present itself to the gaze of the Other.” What Groys identifies as “self-design” I would argue emerges much earlier in the Enlightenment, when an understanding of personhood is formed by distinguishing the essence of the self not only from others, but also from other things.

Read the full article here.