Children walk in single file between military-style tents.
Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, on June 18. Mike Blake/Reuters

Some architects believe it’s their duty to try to improve conditions for immigrant detainees in the U.S., while others urge a total boycott of such work.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the U.S. military to round up people of Japanese descent on the West Coast and confine them in camps inland. The Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was a resident of New York at the time, so he was exempt from the order. But he did something unusual in response: He decided to intern himself.

After talking with the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who encouraged the idea, Noguchi drove himself to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona and checked himself in. He hoped to start an arts-and-crafts program for his fellow internees and make conditions in the camp more humane. “I felt this war very keenly, and wished to serve the cause of democracy in the best way that seemed open to me,” he had written in an essay before leaving for Poston.

Noguchi drew up plans for new amenities at the hot, dusty camp: an arts center, gardens, ball fields, a swimming pool. But these came to naught. Ultimately, he was a prisoner, too—albeit one with special privileges that the other inmates resented—and had to fight to be released from the camp after seven months.

Noguchi’s story is unique, but relevant today, as many Americans express shock and outrage at the detention of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, especially of children separated from their parents for weeks or months. News reports have revealed abysmal conditions in some immigrant-detention facilities. One 16-year-old said he spent two days packed with dozens of people into an “office-sized,” windowless room that had one toilet. Another woman described a Texas holding center as “la perrera”—the kennel or dog pound—on account of the chain-link cage in which she and others were held.

One facility that has received significant scrutiny in past weeks is the Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville, Texas, which occupies a former Walmart Supercenter. After receiving a variance from the state to boost its capacity, the shelter now houses nearly 1,500 teen boys (most of whom crossed the border unaccompanied), with five boys sharing bedrooms intended for four. The bedrooms don’t have doors or ceilings. Black mesh reportedly covers the windows, and the boys stay inside 22 hours a day.

A dormitory at a shelter in Brownsville, Texas, in an undated handout photo obtained on June 17, 2018. (Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Handout via Reuters)

What is the role of a socially conscious architect in this crisis? In theory, at least, architects could improve conditions by designing (or lobbying the government en masse to insist on) facilities with sufficient space, natural light, good ventilation, access to the outdoors, and some degree of privacy for individuals and families.

But would efforts at improving conditions in detention facilities under ICE and other agencies, from the outside, be as futile as Noguchi’s were from the inside? And would they mean capitulating to an unethical system?

On June 20, two groups of architectural activists issued a statement urging a total boycott of design for immigrant detention. “The Architecture Lobby and ADPSR [Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility] call on architects, designers, planners and allied professionals to refuse to participate in the design of any immigration enforcement infrastructure,” the statement read, “including but not limited to walls, checkpoints, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, detention facilities, processing centers, or juvenile holding centers.”

The main professional body of U.S. architecture, the American Institute of Architects, has not endorsed this boycott. It is unclear who is responsible for the designs of detention facilities currently in use. Some were likely designed for different purposes; some may be the work of government-contracting firms or engineering firms, possibly with the involvement of architects. A licensed architect presumably would have had to sign off on the renovation of the Walmart that is now Casa Padre.

The question many architects are wrestling with is whether to work toward reforming immigrant detention or whether to refuse to be any part of it. This goes for the U.S. penal system as a whole, as well. In recent years, American architects have proposed radically rethought prisons and jails; new-model “humane” detention facilities are being built in other countries. Frank Gehry, one of the world’s most famous architects, taught design studios in 2017 on the future of incarceration at Yale and Los Angeles’ SCI-Arc. Yet since 2012, hundreds of other architects have pledged not to design prisons or jails at all as part of an ADPSR boycott.

CityLab asked Keefer Dunn, an architect affiliated with The Architecture Lobby, and Dana McKinney, an architectural designer at Gehry Partners, to share their views. Their responses are below.

—Amanda Kolson Hurley

Refuse together

Keefer Dunn is an architect and co-founder of the Chicago-based architecture firm Pigeon Studio. He is a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an advocate for labor reform in architecture and beyond as a member and the former national organizer of The Architecture Lobby. He hosts a radio show and podcast about politics and architecture called “Buildings on Air” from WLPN-LP Lumpen Radio.

Several weeks ago, The Architecture Lobby and our colleagues at Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) put out a joint statement condemning Donald Trump’s immigration policies broadly, and calling on architects to resist and refuse to become involved with the spatial manifestation of these in detention facilities. The Lobby has been involved with similar actions regarding the southern border wall.

In a handful of instances, we’ve received comments from well-meaning colleagues that it is better for architects to be participating in these projects in order to mitigate their ill effects. However good the intentions, this point of view is incorrect. Instead, I would urge the substantial number of architects who are appalled by families being ripped apart and the dehumanizing of people to think about the political nature of our work differently.

Architects often overestimate our ability to set the terms of our work or change the public discourse. While I do not speak for the Lobby as a whole—we are a radically democratic organization with many members and as many opinions—many of us advocate for a strategy of collective non-participation. This is not an abdication of responsibility, but rather a recognition of the fact that if we want to help build a more just profession and society, we must focus our efforts on changing the context of our work as architects.

Belief in the power of “design thinking” tells us that our buildings and spaces might have some positive effect on politics and the economy, and helps us find meaning in a profession where we work too long for too little. It’s a nice narrative, but it obfuscates the simple truth that politics is about power.

Although we might believe in the power of architecture, this “power” pales in comparison to the power of the carceral state, of finance capital, and of a system that has naturally tuned itself to extract as much value from the land and workers as possible without regard to the wellbeing of either. Architecture’s power doesn’t hold a candle to racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other oppression that benefits the entrenched elite through division.

We cannot pretend to outsmart societal structures that permeate every institution and every facet of our lives. When we approach design with a solutionist mindset, we presume that society’s ills are the result of a broken system. But the system is working precisely as intended. Engagement in the design of projects like the border wall, or prisons, or detention facilities, will never be on our terms. No rendering, bright idea, or clever pitch can change that. 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.

We have the ability to change the rules of the game—that is, the political and economic context that undergirds our profession. It’s a huge task, and there are no shortcuts. Our task is to realize that the power that we do have is not as designers, but as architectural workers who are necessary to the functioning of the construction industry.

Individual refusal on ethical grounds is a great start, but it is only through building a critical mass of people who refuse together that we can pressure our professional organizations, employers, and politicians not to accept the status quo. We need to make it hard on the powers-that-be through the actual or threatened withdrawal of our labor. This means actions like strikes, pledges by firms to not work on these projects, work slowdowns, boycotts, and other organized workplace actions.

This kind of organized refusal from below is not a pipe dream. It is what has brought about every progressive reform in the history of this country. If we want to see an end to inhumanity and go beyond it to build a better world, we must band together for what we believe in, and against what we don’t.

Confront the inhumane

Dana McKinney is an architectural designer at Gehry Partners in Los Angeles. She incorporates principles of social justice throughout her design and research, with an emphasis on prison reform, aging in place, and affordable housing. She co-founded EcoCity Studios to teach at-risk youth design and software skills. While attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design for degrees in architecture and urban planning, she helped establish the inaugural Black in Design Conference in 2015.

Our country is in the midst of a human-rights crisis. The abhorrent conditions of immigrants in detention, pending decisions on their bids to enter the United States, are, to put it frankly, shameful.

In response, The Architecture Lobby and ADPSR issued a joint statement denouncing and calling on designers to boycott any involvement in immigration detention. Although this position is understandable, and in some ways admirable, now is not the time for designers to abdicate their professional and ethical responsibilities. Absent significant policy reform, the government will build more detention centers. Instead of refusing services in building detention facilities, design professionals should take the lead and devise alternative environments to house immigrants with dignity.

Design should serve everyone, especially vulnerable populations. Instead, it has historically benefited those who are most privileged, much at the expense of low-income, black, brown, and immigrant communities. Today, undocumented immigrants stand among the nation’s most at-risk populations, a consequence of their race, national origin, class, and language.

The U.S. government will construct new detention centers. Designers should view this as an opportunity to serve the undocumented individuals and families who ultimately inhabit them. I challenge designers to subvert attempts to dehumanize immigrants through caging and isolation, and propel a humane alternative. We can encourage the government to house immigrant families in safe, well-serviced environments.

Each day, undocumented immigrants are confined to detainment centers, state and federal prisons, and soon, to “tent cities” on military bases. Immigrants are often housed in cells inside utilitarian buildings surrounded by chain-link fence. Windows may only allude to fresh air, and provide a mere sliver of natural light.

These buildings are incompatible with the notion of compassion. In the spirit of reform, we should challenge every inexcusable physical condition across all design practices and scales.

The use of constraint and isolation is dehumanizing, debilitating. Designers can advocate for a radical and humane alternative: the complete erasure of detention facilities. We can integrate undocumented families into urban centers and allow people to live in the larger community as they waited for their day in immigration court.

Cities offer tremendous resources to supplement immigration services: proximity to social infrastructure, healthcare, transit, and public programming. Temporary urban housing, in lieu of traditional custody, could provide sanctuary for immigrants awaiting adjudication and access to these resources.

We should not presume the criminality of undocumented people. We should view them for who they are: people seeking refuge or a better life. Detention facilities control immigrants’ whereabouts at the unnecessary expense of their freedom. Ankle monitors and other technology can provide the same custodial benefit while preserving autonomy.

Designers must insist that families remain together. Today’s state-sponsored practice of family separation echoes that of the American slave trade—it destroys relationships, erodes generational memory, and has a particularly harmful effect on youth. Families deserve a home that affords privacy, space, and warmth, all of which reinforce humanity and protect intimate personal life.

Design is fundamentally a human-centric endeavor for the benefit of all. Architects, planners, and designers should never construct inhumane environments. We must compose spaces that protect the well-being of the entire public. In the context of immigrant detention, we must advocate for the humane treatment of immigrant families through alternative physical environments.

Now is the time for action. We must stand up for the vulnerable, rectify this human rights crisis, and steer the nation toward more compassionate reform ahead.

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