The Great Debate

Prison Architect Videogame

Prison Architect Video Game

Recently in the architecture blogosphere there has been a query raised: “Should Architects Design Prisons?“.  My belief is that in order to tackle the damage being done by our prison industrial complex a multifaceted approach must be taken. Getting architects to stop designing prisons or to re-envision them for rehabilitation are certainly valid paths.  However I would add that there are other questions we can ask besides should architects design prisons or not. The reality is that the overriding attitude among correctional leaders and our general public is that these spaces should be for punishment and the road to re-envisioning these as places of refuge or rehabilitation is a challenging one in this country. So I would propose that we think outside of the box and find some additional ways of tackling these issues. To start the discussion I will offer two avenues my practice is engaged in. One is to  support alternative systems such as restorative justice that could  make the building of prisons at the scale we have known it nearly obsolete. In New Zealand where Restorative justice has been a federal policy for 20 years there are less prisons  being built because these programs are creating a less violent culture.  A second direction I propose is that  architects begin to think about  how we can use our expertise to engage stakeholders and the public in rethinking their attitudes around incarceration from  the inside out.

Visiting Room Redesign-Chester Prison Design Studio

Visiting Room Redesign-Chester Prison Design Studio

In response to this call for change my practice, FOURM design studio  has begun to design spaces for restorative justice programs and run design studios within prisons and jails to give agency to those that live, work and run these institutions. We teach everything from the philosophies embedded in Foucault’s Panopticon and the basic tools necessary to represent spatial ideas that can be done from within the highly constrained rules of  these institutions.  The result to date is an increased understanding of how space manifests the values and social political structures of our culture. It was a powerful experience for the men , staff and leadership inside the prisons where we were teaching.  We are close to winning a grant to continue this work and will publish a toolkit for others to do this work.

In addition to reaching out to those inside the system it is imperative  that we are speaking  to those  that do not and cannot  see all the impacts their actions are having.  For example, during a studio I co-taught with social scientist Barb Toews we spoke with students about the video game called Prison Architect being done by Introversion. The looks on their faces was devastating to see and mirrored the feeling of pain, disgust and disbelief I had when I first heard about it at the Game Developers Conference I went to earlier this year.  Oddly enough my practice also designs architecture for independent video games with very different themes such as spatial awareness.  I understand that like many video games the genesis of this one came out of a desire to not waste work done for another pilot game called Subversion. While their intent is most likely not to do harm the message they put out into an industry that reaches a massive audience is upsetting and  perhaps even a setback for those of us interested in change. I plan to reach out to Introversion with some thoughts about how they might be able to reframe their mission and share a message from the men in Chester Prison.

All these examples remind me that change really begins with a depth of awareness.  My hope in writing this letter is that we begin to expand our dialogue beyond the question of should we be designing prisons or not.  I would suggest we try to come together and generate more nuanced ideas on how designers architects planners and even video game developers can begin to redress a system that is hurting us all.

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