A conversation with Raphael Sperry, architect and advocate for a prison design boycott
By Lauren Cerand
Architects are not particularly known for their activism. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed the back page of the Architecture Newspaper (which, like many people, I read for the deliciously tart gossip) was devoted to a radical call to action last month. I recently spoke with Raphael Sperry about his rebel yell for “No More Prisons” and the concrete implications of the campaign for the world beyond the design community.
What has the reaction been to the prison design boycott campaign since you launched it in September ?
There’s been a lot of support for the campaign from within the design community. There are definitely people who appreciate what we’re saying. There have been individual comments from people who are confused or hostile.
How many people have signed the boycott to date?
Right now, it’s not as many as I would like, and there are reasons for that, but it’s about 40 architects and a hundred-some other supporters.
.…I had a conversation with a person who works at an architecture firm that has designed a federal prison that included a death row. And I asked this guy about designing the execution chamber. That’s pretty heavy. And he told me, “It’s just a room.” I don’t believe that that’s true. But it can be rationalized that way. So some people will do that, but I think that in the design community, a lot of people understand it’s not just a room. He said, you know – “Okay, we had to make sure the door was big enough to fit the gurney they had to have to roll in people,” because it’s lethal injection so they’re strapped down to a hospital-type gurney. So that was the special design constraint.
Is the function of prisons so essentially flawed that there can’t be a form that’s positive or useful to society?
I’d say yes. Not everybody agrees with me. I don’t think everybody has to agree with me to sign this pledge, either, because the first level that this operates on is about prison expansion. It’s not about prison quality. The United States, last year, hit the benchmark of more than two million prisoners, which is more than the population of most of the cities in the United States. And per capita, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. … We’ve got to find some way to deal with the problems that send people to prison.
As taxpayers who fund these institutions, members of the public have a vested interest in this campaign. How can non-architects effectively support the campaign?
You can sign up as a supporter who’s not an architect. People can donate money to Architects and Design Professionals for Social Responsibility [ADPSR]. I don’t want to make a big pitch out of your article, as I don’t think that’s necessarily appropriate, but I will tell you it’s entirely volunteer-run, including my time and it has a miniscule budget ... There are a lot of great groups that exist that challenge this, and most of them are not focused around design. A lot of them are run by former prisoners who know firsthand what’s wrong with the prison system and others are run by families of prisoners and those groups don’t get attention from people who care about design. And they need it. I’m just starting to look for partnership with those other organizations to see more clearly how we can support them. I feel like we have resources that we haven’t even tapped into yet. Families of prisoners do not have that many resources.
Are there two or three that you have in mind -- or even one -- that you look to as examples of doing the right work around these issues and galvanizing support?
I wish I was a little further along and had talked to them, but there’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California. They have a campaign called Books Not Bars. The leader of that organization is named Van Jones, and he’s supposed to be terrific. There’s a group that’s been around a long time that’s called Families Against Mandatory Minimums and I haven’t talked to them, but they’re standing up for the right things.
What do you hope to achieve with the boycott of prison design?
In addition to raising awareness, I want to develop a list of architects who are willing to take ethical positions and identify themselves as the ethical leaders of the profession. I’d like to open a broader debate about the ethics of the built environment, what should be being built, how architecture and design serves the public interest, what the roles of individual professionals are in meeting those goals and it seems like an important topic to start on. I would like to develop a list of signatures that will serve as one more tool the rest of society can use to combat prison expansion. We’re not going to do this alone.
It seems to be in the contemporary era, with concerns about sustainability, anti-sweatshop production methods and fair trade that there can be a political aspect to the idea of “good design”. Would you say that’s something that comes into play here, or is the idea of “good design” still only about form and function?
I’m not sure I entirely understand what you mean by good design.
I’m interested in the way that, once upon a time, something could just be aesthetically appealing or well-constructed or innovative in the method by which it was produced or conceived, but now I think -- especially among people who are under 35 -- there’s a real sense that there’s another level to it, whether it’s about being ethically- or politically-conscious and concerned about the origin of the materials being used. I wonder whether that movement matters to people who are design professionals or if it’s still way out there in terms of saying, “That’s a really great car, but what kind of emissions standard does it have?” or “That’s a really great dress, but how was it produced?” Is there a sense in the design community that political perspectives – prison work being beneficial or not beneficial to society – are coming into play more than they might have 15 or 20 years ago?
Well, I think so, and I think that the fact that I’m not the only one who’s been doing this campaign and that the rest of ADPSR and all of the board members really wanted to support it indicates that that thinking is there in our own organization, and is reflected in the interest it’s gotten, because you know, there have been articles, or at least mentions of it, in Metropolis and architecture magazines and other places. And I think what it means to the design community is shifting -- design thinking is a really powerful approach to the world -- and applying it at a different level to the process and to the systems in which things get designed. Cradle-to-Cradle was developed by designers working in the environmental sphere. What it said is, “Not only are we designing the object, we’re designing the whole process in which the object gets produced.” There’s still the design but now you have to design the process and I’d say we need to re-design the prison system or no, not just the prison system. We need to re-design the justice system. When people break the law, when they hurt society, what happens to them? How does society respond? It’s really broken. That’s a huge design challenge. We really try to focus on alternatives to incarceration. Through New Village Press, which is part of ADPSR, we’re publishing a book on alternatives to prisons.
Although they’re insidious on a slighter scale, shopping malls are notorious destroyers of public space. Could you see the principled approach of this campaign applied to other kinds of design in the future?
Well, it’s not like, one by one, we want to go along and not design anything anymore. It’s not just shopping malls. I think urban sprawl is a really, really pressing issue. And I think in a way a lot more architects designers and planners – it affects us much more in our day-to-day work than prisons do. For those of us that don’t do prisons, well, after they’ve signed the campaign, then how can they be involved with ADPSR? Of course, they can be part of a speakers’ bureau that will talk about this campaign or can call up their colleagues and get people to sign up or they can spend time coordinating with other anti-prison groups and going to public hearings and stuff like that, which would be great. But in terms of their day-to-day work for the clients that they actually have it’s not going to transform that work exactly. Whereas every project we do makes a statement about larger planning on another scale, both the scale below and the scale above. The scale below has to mostly be about green building and we’re still working on that. When you’re designing a house, you are selecting all these sub-components: How are they produced? What’s that impact? The scale above is like, is it an urban in-fill project? Is it going to require people to drive thirty miles every day? I think what’s next would really be trying to work on that. We have a new chapter forming in Eastern Washington State, in Spokane, that wants to work on this very issue so I’m excited to see what they can come up with…
Raphael Sperry is the president of Architects and Design Professionals for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). He’ll be discussing the Prison Design Boycott at the Center for Architecture on Monday, April 11. For details, visit adpsr-ny.org.