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Design is complicit in the border crisis. Some architects are speaking out

Border security is big business, but a group of architects are urging their peers not to work on detention facilities and walls: “It is not the health of buildings that is at stake today, but the health of our society and democracy.”

Design is complicit in the border crisis. Some architects are speaking out
Overcrowding of families at U.S. Border Patrol Weslaco Station on June 11, 2019, in Weslaco, Texas. [Photo: Office of Inspector General/Department of Homeland Security/Getty Images]

The scale of the crisis at the border, where ICE was reportedly detaining some 52,000 people as of May and which the ACLU says has seen nearly 1,000 children separated from their parents in the last year, is difficult for our brains to comprehend. But the images of these spaces cut straight through the numbers: Hands pressing scrawled notes against the security glass of standing-room-only cells. People sleeping on the floors of vast warehouses segmented by chainlink fence and rows of portable toilets. A pilot’s view of detained children walking through a tent city in the Texas desert.

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Someone designed each of these spaces, of course. And a group of architects and organizers is urging their peers to pledge to boycott any of the design or construction projects involved in the project of mass detention of asylum seekers at the border. This week, the Architecture Lobby, a national group that organizes and advocates on issues related to the profession, published a call for design professionals to sign a public pledge condemning “all policies that use the built environment as an instrument of torture and oppression” and refusing to work on any project—be it an ICE office, a detention facility, or a wall—related to the Trump administration’s policies on immigration.

“We will publish the names of those who have pledged with us, which we hope will break the silence on the issue in the architectural community and show that there are many of us who are vowing to take action, even if we are not all in the same place,” a spokesperson from the Architecture Lobby says via email.

The design community’s response to mass detention of immigrants on the border, which is part of a massively lucrative sector of the building industry, has varied wildly. In fact, the Architecture Lobby’s boycott is directly related to the stance of another national group: The American Institute of Architects, the primary professional organization for architects in the U.S. and a group that angered its members in 2016 when it pledged to work with the Trump administration on infrastructure. More recently, on July 22, the AIA published a statement that described the “misuse” of buildings at the border and the building code violations in detention centers as a violation of architects’ professional ethics:

The AIA stands ready to advance governmental policies, regulations, and procedures that provide the transparency, consistency, and predictability needed to maintain or improve the health, safety, and welfare requirements for all buildings. AIA calls for building inspectors and others (with appropriate authority) to proactively evaluate facilities to ensure that they are in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of inhabitants. Consistent with applicable laws and codes, we urge swift correction and mitigation of all building code violations and that existing building codes be used to ensure the safety and welfare of all.”

The Architecture Lobby’s blistering rejoinder to that characterization of design’s role in work at the border? “A detention center where toddlers have been separated from their families is not a healthy building, regardless of fire safety, ventilation, and code compliance. It is not the health of buildings that is at stake today, but the health of our society and democracy.”

The Lobby is also encouraging architects to speak out and organize their peers, and the group offers talking points and advice for doing so, as well as help to anyone who wants to organize around the issue—for instance through divestment campaigns, which would push universities or firms to end any business with or investment in companies that do work at the border. Similar campaigns for divestment of the private prison industry as well as the fossil fuel industry have seen some success. This week, the PR giant Edelman ended a contract with a company that runs detention facilities at the border, but other companies, like Wayfair, have pledged to uphold such contracts despite employee walkouts.

Not all architects agree that boycotting work at the border is the ethical way forward. But in response to the argument that refusing to do business there will make conditions even worse for the tens of thousands of people detained there, a Lobby spokesperson was unequivocal: “When a building is part of a human rights violation, designing ‘better’ or ‘worse’ conditions in that building cannot make up for the underlying, fundamental violation. Asylum seekers must be welcomed, not detained—and not detained in a place that is seen as ‘good design,’ because the detainment itself is the problem. There is no outsmarting or out-designing the societal structures that permeate institutions; engaging in good faith with the entities commissioning these projects, in hopes of sneaking in good ideas or convincing a client of a better way, is playing a losing game. The clients could care less.”

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Check out the pledge here, or see the Lobby’s guide to organizing here.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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