As I walked through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., last month, I found myself wondering how hatred for people perceived as different could so consume a population and ultimately be sanctioned and dictated by the state. I could not help but see associations between the Third Reich’s successful propaganda machine in conjunction with our country’s early 20th-century immigration policies and our country’s current immigration policy. And I could not help but be alarmed by how history is repeating itself—how the laws in the 1930s and ’40s that could have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are happening again today.
Though the policies are different, the result is the same: refusal of entry to those fleeing life-threatening violence, persecution, and hatred. As one museum text panel states: “The United States could have absorbed many more, but it did not. Bound by immigration quotas, influenced by popular anti-immigration sentiment, and hampered by the anti-Semitism at the State Department, the United States government remained callous in its unwillingness to help.”
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy has treated asylum seekers as criminals. It has left thousands of children in custody without a parent, to navigate their hearings alone—to survive alone. Our government is responsible for what many medical experts argue will be lifelong detrimental effects on these children.
Images of the facilities (see here and here) have shown the types and qualities of spaces that those in detention must endure. What is the role of the design profession regarding these abhorrent facilities? Where is the profession of architecture’s voice in this humanitarian crisis? Moreover, what is the ethical role of architects in engaging in the politics of such contested spaces?
The few architects and designers who have opined publicly on this issue have put forth essentially an either-or argument: either reject all such work or engage and design more humane and supportive spaces for detainees.
However, the situation is not so clear-cut. Turning our back on the design of such spaces means big-box stores are converted into migrant warehousing, shelter spaces are modeled after dog kennels (“los perreras”), and prefabricated “temporary” tents become the standard housing for asylum seekers. If architects do become involved, we could at a minimum bring to light what has been kept from the public through data mining, mapping, and diagramming in order to reveal the spatial machinations taking place.
Instead, we must ask the more important question: How can architects participate politically in critical current debates including and extending beyond immigration policies? Our skill set is much broader than object-making. Architects visualize and represent space, complex networks and systems, and spatialized power relations. We understand zoning, codes, and environmental conditions. We can—and should—reveal abuses of power through spatial tyranny. We can expose the tactics currently employed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection operations subverting the legal rights of those claiming asylum in manipulating and altering spatial conditions of the border. Our built environment is where policy and reality collide.
Architects cannot remain silent nor apathetic. If more of us become engaged in the political arena, there is hope for a more equitable society and the spaces that support such a society. We must use our expertise to identify and reveal spatial injustices and raise greater public awareness about what these injustices look like on the ground in real time, in real space. In other words, we must antagonize and shame citizens and political actors through the skills and power we do yield.
You can make your voice heard by collaborating with local architects (see “How to Take Action” below) at the U.S.–Mexico–Canada border to uncover what is happening and visualize the findings for public dissemination; by volunteering your architectural services to those providing shelter and support for immigrants released from detention; by regularly calling your elected representatives; or by running for office yourself.
To do otherwise means that the discipline maintains the status quo of allowing these injustices to continue, thereby remaining guilty by association.
Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.