Is space capable of having a moral character, of being good or evil? Can architecture effect the actions of those who occupy it? Markus Miessen in his piece titled “The Statu(t)e of Liberty; Spatial Location as a Blueprint of Evil”, raises these questions as well.
What I find interesting is Miessen’s examination of the creation of isolated geographical locations to match the isolated political and ethical ground that was created by the United States government and used to ignore and violate basic human rights at places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. “Camp X-Ray (at Guantanamo Bay) is an island, on an island, on an island” (p.46), this physically isolated spatial setting is used to strip prisoners of access to judicial framework, association to territory (they become placeless) and even the spectacle of punishment (as defined by Foucault). In addition to the effects of detachment from the exterior, the introverted effects of the space are also designed to deprive. Isolated prisoners cells are meant to cause chronic depression, suicide, interpersonal rejection and psychiatric disorder and trauma. Clearly the design of the built space plays a key role on the activity within it but Miessen asks us whether there should be an Architectural Geneva Convention to prevent this from happening. To this I would answer no. Here’s my reason, I think the architecture plays its part as an island of ethical lawlessness and as a psychological hammer because it is supplementary to the conscious will of those who wish to do this. While the architecture can be designed to do these things for these people, it cannot do it without them. What I mean to say is that if the normal laws of the Geneva Convention are followed, there would be no reason for an architectural version. Without human will, I don’t think the architecture can be given a moral character. This means it cannot be judged bad or good.
Miessen cites an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo carried out in 1971 where he asked “what happens when you put ‘good’ people in a ‘evil space’?” To determine this he placed students in a prison in the roles of guards and prisoners. After six days they had to stop the experiment as the students in the roles of guards became sadistic and the prisoners began showing severe signs of depression. This might seem to be pretty damming evidence for the argument of evil architecture but I would counter this with one observation; when they were given their roles they were also given subliminal instruction on how o behave. They were told to be either guards or prisoners, both being terms loaded with behavioral meaning. Now had they been strictly given instructions on their duties the outcome might have been different.
When we discuss the role of architecture in relation to fear and safety it is impossible to separate it from the events that are associated to them and these events of actual or anticipated terror and tragedy are human (for the purpose of this study). Human interaction with the built environment around us is what ascribes significance, emotion and affect to an otherwise inanimate world. Human emotion is a fickle thing and as a result, meaning in architecture can also change. Because of this potential for a changing understanding of architecture, I feel that the built work itself therefore cannot hold meaning in its own autonomous way and therefore cannot be judged evil or good without the tinted lens of the human eye.