Grey Room

The Image of the (Inner) City: Frederic D. Moyer and Carceral Aesthetics in the Great Society

Steven Niedbala

Frederic D. Moyer and the Department of Architecture of the University of Illinois, Urbana. Design for recreational space, 1971.


The issue of prison design is most often met with anxiety in mainstream architectural discourse, inspiring a flurry of provisional, largely symbolic solutions to meet the occasion. This flutter of activity belies a reluctance to address the fundamental proximity of carceral logic and an array of concepts operative in contemporary urban planning. The 2020 protests against racialized police violence in the United States forced the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to reconsider the issue of its members’ involvement in the design of prisons and other carceral spaces. While the national organization issued a boilerplate call for professional diversity, the New York chapter of the institute (AIANY) stressed that it was “beyond the role of design professionals to alleviate an inherently unjust system” but still urged its members to “no longer … design unjust, cruel or harmful spaces of incarceration within the current United States justice system, such as prisons, jails, detention centers, and police stations.” Yet the conceptualization of the city as a system composed of discrete behavioral encounters prefigured the precepts of neoliberal criminology, in which crime is figured as irruptions in the visual and spatial order of a regulated urban aesthetics. Contemporary discussions of race and the design profession must contend not only with the historical role of practitioners in the development of the prison system but also with the traces that carceral ideology has left in other branches of the field, most prominently in the racialized conception of the “urban” itself.