Architects, Silence, and Human Rights

As some of you may know, I am on the board of Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility, which is a professional organization that advocates for ethical practices in both the social and environmental arenas of design, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning.  Our president, architect Raphael Sperry, has been leading the organization for the last two years in petitioning  the American Institute of Architects(AIA)  to amend the Human Rights Standard of their Code of Ethics to prohibit the design of spaces intended for torture or killing (in effect, execution chambers and supermax prisons that use solitary isolation.)


Sadly, late last year the AIA indicated that they will take no action to address the participation of architects in designs intended to degrade, torture, or kill people.

 “The AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types. The AIA Code of Ethics is more about desirable practices and attitudes than condemnation,”

Raphael Sperry’s op-ed on CNN  and a very powerful piece in the New York Times on this disappointing decision summarize AIA’s narrow and legalist arguments against human rights and present ADPSR’s forceful response.

Ferguson protest,New York. Carlo Allegri_Reuters

Ferguson protest,New York. Carlo Allegri_Reuters

I was hopeful that in the wake of the changes we see happening in criminal justice policy that the AIA would be part of this shift. I also thought that the leaders of my professional organization would have the courage to make this much needed change in our code of ethics given that the Black Lives Matter movement has initiated the first honest dialogues on race we have had since the civil rights movement.

Ferguson protest-Oakland.Stephen Lam_Reuters

Ferguson protest-Oakland.Stephen Lam_Reuters

Perhaps many in the AIA are ignorant( either willfully or because of the blinders of race, class, and gender privilege) of the fact that a disproportionate amount of those who are executed and who find themselves in solitary confinement are men of color. They should consider that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture has stated that long-term solitary confinement is a form of torture and a violation of human rights. The United Nations has urged the United States to desist in its use of death and long-term solitary confinement as a form of punishment and control in our prisons. It is public knowledge that these practices are racist, dehumanizing and violate human rights so why would my profession condone our participation in the creation of these spaces as an ethical practice when so many other professionals including doctors, psychologists have not? Why do we remain silent?

DJDS Re-envisioning Justice Architecture 140827

Perhaps it is the shocking lack of minorities (including women) represented in the leadership positions of our profession or our tendency to be a bit self-absorbed. What I know is that the AIA has always been a conservative organization and sadly does not represent my values. I know that we have a long way to go in reducing the fear we have of the other and the discomfort that comes with changing our identity as well as the economics of business. That said, the arc of justice is also long and there are many leaders in our profession who believe this decision was made in error. The AIA may decide to adopt this amendment to our code of ethics in time.  However, what is right and what is wrong here will still be the same.

ADSPR Exhibit: Willie Worley, Jr. Brown Creek Correctional Institute in Polkton, NC

ADSPR Exhibit: Willie Worley, Jr. Brown Creek Correctional Institute in Polkton, NC

ADPSR continues to advocate for changing the AIA ‘s code of ethics to prohibit the design of spaces intended for torture or killing and if you would like to support this work please sign our petition or join ADPSR . We are stronger in great numbers!



ADPSR Exhibit: "Architect's Dream" by Aron D Castlin and Ricky D Matthews, Pelican Bay D-I in Crescent City, CA

ADPSR Exhibit: “Architect’s Dream” by Aron D Castlin and Ricky D Matthews, Pelican Bay D-I in Crescent City, CA

First article on restorative justice and design!

7.23.14 Peacemaking Room Render

Near Westside Peacemaking Center Rendering

I have been speaking with reporter Lee Romney for the last year or two about doing an article on Restorative Justice and Design. She had wanted to come into one of the jails or prisons with Barb and myself but we had been struggling to find a time and place where this was possible. As seen in my last post Lee was able to take photos of our workshop at the San Bruno Jail and get the last piece of the puzzle for her article. While the title is a off to me the article itself tells a story about how we got here and where we might be able to go if we include everyone if our vision for creating a society that fosters healing and transformation. If you have some time today please take a look and let me know your thoughts. I hope this won’t be the last article on this topic!






Designing Justice Designing Spaces Update

Photo by Lee Romney

Photo by Lee Romney

I know that some of you are following the designs studios my partner Barb Toews and I have been doing with everyone from peace builders to incarcerated men and women with our Designing Justice Designing Spaces Project.  It has consumed my entire month of June so while you may not plan to use our DJDS toolkit I wanted to pass on the post I shared through our DJDS website with everyone.  If you are planning to use it and aren’t on our list please let me know!

Last week Barb flew back to Lancaster after our 3 week road show of testing the toolkit through a variety of courses and workshops. Our efforts took us from a university in Virginia to correctional institutions in Philadelphia and San Bruno, California.  We are exhausted but happy! We successfully piloted a new class and 2 workshop formats. We learned a lot from both the participants and the different processes.


Photo by Lee Romney

During our first 10 days together, we taught Peace by Design at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peace building Institute (SPI). We had an engaged and diverse class of peace builders from the US, Canada, Iran, Liberia, and Afghanistan.  Together, we created a studio environment where we engaged in dialogue on the ways in which the design of spaces in which peace building and justice work happens is important to achieving its goals. We also taught design skills which students applied to the creation of design concepts for a new peace center proposed to house  EMUs Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). After a week of interviewing students, faculty, and staff, building models and much drawing, students presented three distinct design ideas to Daryl Byler, the director of CJP, EMU’s provost and an architect from a local firm with whom EMU works. Over the next month, the graduate students will be compiling all that was learned and created to produce a report for the architect and school.  I love that the work from our class will be able to help the school move forward with their vision!


Photo by Barb Toews

The second and third events over the last few weeks included workshops inside two county jails. After Barb and I rested for a weekend in our respective homes, we drove the two hours each way from Lancaster to The Cannery, a correctional facility for women in Philadelphia, for an intensive two day/10 hour workshop that we called Designing from the Inside Out. The Cannery was a far more chaotic environment than I had previously experienced as a wave of noise hit me walking through its 15 foot high barbed wire fences.  In what was to prove to be a theme over the next two weeks, Barb, myself, and 9 students crammed into a tiny trailer, where we often had to improvise our class plan to help the students understand the philosophies of restorative justice and what a justice based in love might look like. For most of the ladies it could start with having some decent food in the jail. We tested a couple of new tools with furniture blocks and even created a new one on the spot. Such is the creative energy when space, time, and resources are limited.

The nature of our work is production intensive. Papers, pens, pencils, customized rulers to reduce security risks, triangles and that need to be created for every group of students. We never know exactly how many we will have until the day a workshop starts. Barb and I have spent many nights and early mornings preparing these materials, which left little time for sleep and rest. This was greatly ameliorated, when we came back to the Bay Area, with the active involvement of our intern, Francis Goyes.

We were about to enter into a 5-day/10-hour intensive workshop at the San Bruno Jail in San Francisco County and her help, along with volunteer Kelly Gregory, proved to be invaluable as we now had 18 students with whom to work in a small room on the pod. The supply list was approved in time but on the day we learned that we could not bring in red and blue folders/pens that would signify any gang alliances among our group. Francis sat on the floor of the jail lobby folding paper to create new folders. We also started to reorganize our entire week plans as we found out Saturday was no longer an option for us to teach.

Photo by Lee Romney

Photo by Lee Romney


Sitting in an opening circle with the 18 men, I knew we were going to have a great workshop. Coming from Community Work’s Resolve to Stop the Violence Program, these men were already well versed in restorative values and practices. This allowed us to engage more quickly with how it intersected with design. We created a group collage with images that represented current justice spaces and spaces for a justice based in love (a process created during the Cannery  workshop). We also taught model-making, perspective drawing, collage, diagramming, and visual diaries. With time between classes, the men were also asked to interview staff, other men on the pod, or family members about how to create a restorative justice or healing center. They chose their own final projects and, after getting through the usual difficult process of choosing groups, they dug into their designs this past Monday, after a weekend break. Their work represented some of the most sophisticated we have seen thus far and everyone did their homework!  By Tuesday, we had developed two more tools that helped them to learn how to work in groups and prepare for a presentation. I could not have been prouder as the men presented their work, with pride, in front of RSVP staff, correctional staff, the entire pod, and journalist Lee Romney from the LA Times who took these great photos.

Photo by Lee Romney

Photo by Lee Romney

It was an incredible end to an intense 3 weeks. Barb and I always have to take a little time to recoup but as our next set of deliverables to our amazing funder (Fetzer Institute) is due on Monday, we must keep going. Getting the first photos from one of our workshops yesterday is helping me do that and I hope that you will be inspired to join us.

Photo by Lee Romney

Photo by Lee Romney

Restorative Justice City Part I

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In response to the crisis caused by the prison industrial complex cities like Oakland are working towards the creation of a restorative justice city by developing new policies, education and training rooted in these philosophies and systems.  In support of these efforts On May 6th FOURM design studio joined, Bright Research Group and The Institute for the Future to facilitate a workshop on the creation of a physical infrastructure for the expansion of restorative justice in the City of Oakland. To the best of my knowledge it would be the first workshop where designers and researchers would team up with restorative justice practitioners, local government and criminal justice stakeholders to investigate the spaces, places and infrastructural programming needed to support the rise of restorative practices.

Selecting Images

Our day began with a peacemaking circle beautifully opened by Sujatha Baliga and Nuri Nusrat of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. It was a chance for us to get a taste of what it feels like to be in circle and to open dialogue on the values of our current justice architecture. Our circle collectively shared words like grandeur, linearity, isolation, fear and power around our experiences of courthouses, jails, prisons and detention centers. In a second round those in the circle shared their story around an image they had chosen from a large pile we collected for the day. Using restorative justice philosophies and values as a starting point the leaders in the group held up images of nature, home spaces, breaking bread and freedom as qualities of spaces where we feel truly nourished and safe. How could these be applied to our Justice Spaces?


I spoke to the group about work being done in evidenced based design to create spaces that heal better and presented the million dollar blocks mapping project as a case study in our justice architecture. I also showed efforts we had made on a smaller scale to address a need we had found for built spaces where circles for peacemaking could occur. However, it was when we broke into small groups that the innate knowledge of the experts in our community emerged instantly with little provocation.  We asked leaders to respond to queries such as:


Why do we need a restorative justice center or infrastructure and what community needs could it respond to? What is the current RJ infrastructure like in Oakland now?  How does this facilitate or prevent your organization from achieving its goals?


As we came together in a large group many leaders agreed that there was a need for an infrastructure that was micro localized where on site restorative practices could happen. Jason Walsh from Community works spoke about the need for a ”space” linked to practitioners in the community. I partnered with Lieutenant Armstrong of the Oakland Police Department who spoke about the need for an emotionally safe place in our communities where we could learn new behaviors around resolving conflict when it arises. He also identified our recreation centers as places where this could occur picking up on the theme of adapting and enhancing existing buildings for Restorative Justice practices than many leaders agreed on as one strategy for moving forward.

These needs and assets were then mapped over the City of Oakland with labeled game pieces and blanks for new ideas and suggestions where leaders were able to investigate the   infrastructure they would need to address their goals.  Where does it go? How do you get there? 




Our three groups generated a diverse and exciting range of ideas that included the incorporation of food justice to conscious social services that would be incorporated into mixed use restorative centers addressing a variety of needs. Retreat centers in the Oakland hills with associated transportation emerged from one group while another thoughtfully deliberated over the creation of neutral zones. Was it possible given our current context? Many explored the development of a Central  RJ center . Some suggested it would be needed as a center for creating new policy and where the training of police, city officials and staff would occur. Others included re-entry, social services and day reporting into this module. All groups looked at a distributed network of RJ centers mixed with criminal justice and social service components that targeted the keys areas of Fruitvale, East Oakland West Oakland, Downtown and some in North Oakland.  As this new layer of restorative infrastructure started to emerge it was exciting to get a visual representation of how we could begin to support great change in our communities.


I was humbled and grateful that these amazing change makers took their time to participate in first stages of creating this vision. I also know they believe in this new paradigm and understand that it will take all of us working together across an array of disciplines and sectors to make it a reality. I believe there was great momentum and excitement among our leaders and for me  the Creating a Restorative Future for Oakland workshop was truly one of the most rewarding professional moments I have had along this journey. I know that on the day I walk through a landscaped courtyard across a barrier free threshold to our first restorative justice center I will never forget it was born of the efforts we made that day.

The Coast to Coast Community Process

Last week I had a very successful visit to Syracuse New York where we began community engagement to create a peacemaking center in the Near West Side. Prior to leaving I invited some folks to my home to begin the conversation on creating these spaces by asking “What values does our current justice architecture communicate?” We had a lively conversation that teased out the qualities of these spaces and helped me more than ever to understand how the design of our courthouses actually elicits a diversity of feelings from excitement to guilt and fear.  Afterwards we began to visualize what values spaces for peacemaking should have. I asked each person to generate 5 “playing cards” that would form an extensive and eclectic deck that I then brought to Syracuse to work with the community around these same themes.  It was fun and surprisingly intense as folks cut images from magazine and one by one sat with me to explain why they chose them. I feel so grateful to have this amazing community that supports my work and I want to take this space to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Moving on to another amazing community across the country,  I spent my first day  visited the Near West Side neighborhood in Syracuse again. While there I had the chance to meet the architects we are collaborating with, Ashley McGrath. Their representative, Jason Evans, is a passionate advocate for his city which came out as he brainstormed to help us develop our process for the design engagement workshop.  The following day Jason and my clients at the Center for Court Innovation spent an entire morning helping us create the materials we needed for the event in addition to those I brought from that gathering at my home.  As I watched these practiced and erudite lawyers cut out little circles for peacemaking rooms and consultation spaces with complete focus and deliberation I asked myself what I had done to deserve these wonderful clients.

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That night with Jason and Marc Norman’s help I led the Center for Court Innovation, students from Syracuse University and community members such as Paul Nojaim( who owns Nojaims Supermarket the most amazing  community grocery store I have ever seen) through a peacemaking circle. The circle helps those unfamiliar with peacemaking to understand the process.  It also creates an opportunity for participants to express themselves with playing cards, objects and materials about spaces in their lives and community where they go to resource themselves.


This phase then led everyone to participate in a diagraming and spatial visualization exercise. They broke into teams where they created a narrative and bubble diagram of the spatial sequences that a victim, offender or community member might experience when they entered a peacemaking center.

As always I was amazed at the insights that come out. We debated about separate entrances and the stigmatization of this architectural feature the neglects to understand that offenders are often victims themselves.  Participants came up with ideas for flexible spaces that doubled as libraries and break rooms for moments when decompression is required during the intense process of peacemaking. These ideas very much resonated with me as well as the creation of spaces for solitary reflection comprised of mirrors and views to the landscape.

I cannot express how powerful and inspiring the collection of stories and thoughts from the community has been so far. I look forward to my next set of events in April and know that it will yield even more valuable content as we continue to create these new spaces across our cities.


Alternatives to Prison: Restorative Justice and Human Rights


Mediation Womb Trio Close Up1 (1 of 1)

On March 26th at 6:30 PM  I will be giving a talk with Raphael Sperry titled Alternatives to Prison: Restorative Justice and Human Rights at the offices of the San Francisco AIA chapter.  Led by Raphael Sperry, Architects Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility is working to change our professional code of ethics to say we will not participate in the designing of spaces for death and solitary confinement.  Raphael will be presenting the amazing progress on this campaign to date and I will be speaking about our efforts to create a new infrastructure for restorative justice and peacemaking.  Given the political focus and awareness of the state of our prison industrial complex it should be a lively discussion and I hope that you can join us for it regardless of your area of expertise. This is an issue that affects all of us and we each have a unique perspective and talent to contribute to making this much needed change.  Hope to see you there!

Changing the Face of Architecture


When I was in school at Columbia I was the only African American student in the MARCH program for much of the time. That number only ever increased to maybe 2 or 3 and none of them were women. While at school there was no black student group and no push towards creating more diversity in the school or the lack thereof in the profession.  Unlike recent efforts being made at  Harvard’s Graduate School of Design there were no strategies to bring in women and design critics of color to the school. I remember the shock on my face when I went to a midterm review in my second year and architect Mabel Wilson was on it. I had never seen a black person on a jury in all my 6 years of architecture education never mind a black woman. I was nearly in tears because I realized in the moment  just how isolated I had felt. I also thought “Thank god I am not the only one!” Mabel was brilliant of course and inspired me to keep going as I saw my future self physically mirrored in the profession for the first time.  I believe that an extension of this lack of diversity also meant that there was little or no discussion of the role that architects play in addressing the social and environmental inequities around us despite being located near Harlem and viewing the city as a laboratory for learning.


Fast forward 15 years and I find myself amidst a welcome sea of change in all these areas.  While at Harvard I was able to be present at the birth of the African American Student Union at the Graduate School of Design being led by another Loeb colleague Jean Lauer Brown. Through her leadership and those of the students in the group I felt supported by them and the Loeb Fellowship in a way I had not previously in my education.   I was so  proud of these 20 students when  they reached out to Kanye West in response to a series of interviews he delivered referencing his growing interest in design and his experiences with race as an artist in the United States. African American students in architecture have long had to lie low and try to tough out an education that did little to embrace their unique cultural view point  or address their concerns and interests.  As more students of color are coming into the  GSD  (  20 out of 700- not enough but better than 1) they are able to organize themselves and  the power of their unique contribution can emerge.  As I read through the rounds of e-mails they generated to get the letter to Kanye just right I hoped that this could be a catalyst for an understanding of these issues. I was thrilled when I heard that Kanye West and his team responded to say that he would be in town for a concert on Sunday evening and  wanted to meet with the group’s leaders. They met on Monday and Kanye led a very thoughtful conversation regarding the trajectory of design discourse and practice as well as the under-representation of minorities in design disciplines. Following that, he was inspired by all of the amazing things the students shared about the work and  invited the Graduate School of Design students to be a part of his concert.

I have always hoped that our successful African-American  citizens with privilege and capital would raise the awareness of the lack of minority representation in the creation of our built environments.  As a professional African American designer for the last 20 years I cannot express how emotional and exciting it is for me to see momentum in this direction. It is time to for architecture and design to be both diversified and democratized so that our built environments reflect the wealth of perspectives that we all have to contribute. Everyone benefits when all of us are at the table and I personally just  look forward to seeing myself reflected back to me a little more often.