by Karen Lu, AIA, NOMA, and Mary-Margaret Zindren, EVP/Executive Director


Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of the New York Times, in his June 12 column “There’s No Reason for an Architect to Design a Death Chamber” adds his voice to what should be – and we believe will be – a comprehensive and years-long reckoning for the profession of architecture and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as an organization. 


Kimmelman notes the commitment made by the AIA Board of Directors in its recent statement following the murder of George Floyd: “we will review our own programs” and “ask our community to join us and hold us accountable.” The process of accountability has begun.

Members of the architecture community and the community at large are bringing attention to the disconnect between the AIA’s policies – explicit, implicit, and silent – and the values espoused by the AIA Board of Directors in their statement: “We stand for human and civil rights, the universal respect for human dignity, and the unbiased treatment of all persons. …evidenced not just by the policies we adopt, but in the words we speak, the actions we take, and the buildings we design.”


Kimmelman is right that an urgent conversation on AIA’s policy positions related to death chambers, solitary confinement cells, jails and prisons is needed. He frames this as “the least” that the organization can do – and he is right. We must have this conversation, and not let it become the only conversation.


In recent days, much attention has been focused on criminal justice reform. We’ve heard reporters refer to what has been happening here in Minnesota, around the nation and around the world as “protests against police brutality.” This narrative is a woefully incomplete, reductive and expedient description of why people are protesting, what they are calling for, and why many Black people have little hope that the comprehensive and transformative change that is necessary will actually take hold.


The design of prisons and detention facilities, the behavior of the police and the structural racism within the criminal justice system are just a few adjoining facets of a much larger diamond, purposefully cut to create the inequitable systems White people in the U.S. have long enjoyed. These systems are not broken; they are working as designed.


So, yes – interrogate past actions and inactions related to the architecture of imprisonment. And also examine the disparities in access to capital, quality education, and healthy spaces; racist land use practices; environmental injustices; and the everyday undercutting of potential that has created the inequitable practice and outcomes of architecture we have today.


Each wave in the movement for broad-based racial justice has, in effect, been reduced to a single issue in order to demonstrate action and to stop cities from burning – abolition of slavery, voting rights, school desegregation, fair housing, etc. If police brutality and design of prisons and detention facilities become the hyper-focus of this effort, we will have failed.


We need to do more than the least of what this moment requires and recognize that we, once again, have the opportunity to undertake foundational change. We urge architecture critics, students, artists, community leaders, and policymakers to continue to see the AIA Board of Directors’ statement, and the statements of all AIA-related organizations including AIA Minnesota, as an invitation to compel integrity and action within the architecture community; to hold us to account and strengthen our resolve to eradicate systemic racial injustice in all its forms from the profession of architecture and from the built environment.


Karen Lu, AIA, NOMA, and Mary-Margaret Zindren, CAE. Karen is the president of AIA Minnesota and Mary-Margaret is the EVP/Executive Director of AIA Minnesota, AIA Minneapolis, AIA St. Paul, and AIA Northern Minnesota.