The American Institute of Architectsand the Question of Ethics: A Call to Action

By Susana Torre For an architect, one of the most soul-chilling exhibits in Berlin’s Topography of Terror history museum, located in the former Gestapo headquarters, is a photo documenting a presentation by several architects of their models for proposed extermination camps. Clearly, no code of ethics inhibited those architects from undertaking such designs for the Nazi regime, nor do we have any such inhibition in a code of ethics for our profession today. But last year, Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) opened a debate about the limits and meaning of ethics in the design professions in America by introducing an amendment to the American Institute for Architects (AIA) Code of Ethics.

The proposed amendment, prepared by ADPSR with the advice of human rights lawyers, would have forbidden AIA members to “design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” These practices are considered violations of human rights by the United Nations and other international human-rights organizations. Last December the AIA rejected the amendment basing its decision on the recommendations of an opaque panel composed of seven AIA members convened by AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling, who was quoted by Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times thusly: “If we begin to stipulate the types of projects our members can and cannot do, it opens a can of worms.”[i] This provoked ADPSR President Raphael Sperry to ask, “is there nothing so odious that the AIA wouldn’t step in? What about concentration camps? The AIA is basically saying business is more important than human rights.”

Whether architects side with the AIA position or with ADPSR, it seems clear that the question of ethics is at the core of our practice as design professionals, and is too important an issue not to have consulted the membership at large. This should not be considered a closed case. AIA members can make their membership count by demanding a membership-wide consultation. Only in this way a positioning of the AIA regarding the limits of ethics will have any authority.

But the question of ethics is not limited to whether or not to impose a code. It also involves protection of the “conscientious objectors” in the design professions who choose not to be involved in the design of certain spaces, buildings or objects out of their sense of ethics and morality. I twice personally faced such choices. The first time, in a summer job while still a student in Argentina, I refused my boss’s request to design a barbed wire “cage” to separate minors convicted of a crime from other boys in the yard of a State institution – which cost me the job. The second was years later, when I rejected being included in a list of “the best American architects” to design mansions in a development by Tom Monaghan, owner of Domino Pizza, because he was a major financial supporter of causes inimical to women’s rights. This meant self-exclusion from a work opportunity that was being embraced by other architects better known than I was.

I am sure there are many stories like mine that should be made known. And I am also sure that the more common situation would be like that of a friend of mine who was working for one of the largest architectural offices in the US in the late 1970s. The office’s practice included designing palaces for Middle Eastern potentates that included harem quarters, which she was assigned to design. My friend, a feminist, felt she could not object or request a reassignment if she wanted to keep her job; instead, she developed an ulcer for the duration of the project. There is no question in my mind that the AIA Code of Ethics should include enforceable protection from firing or retaliation for those who will not, for ethical and moral reasons, work on a given task – this is another major pending assignment.


Susana Torre is an architect and feminist scholar who grew up in Argentina, practiced and taught in New York, and now lives in Carboneras, Spain.


[i] Michael Kimmelman, “Prison Architecture and the Question of Ethics”, The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2015,