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Designing Incarcerated Environments

Designing Incarcerated Environments
Deanna VanBuren - Wed Feb 29, 2012 @ 01:52PM
Comments: 4


As we being to envision new typologies for justice some of our work may need to be from within the system itself. We may  always need spaces for incarceration but our attitude about how they are designed and what kinds of facilities they are can change. Examples such as the Leoben Justice Centrein Austria or Norway’s Halsden Fengsel Prison show how we can re-envision the prison as a place of rehabilitation rather than punishment.  When we shift our attitudes about prison design there is an opportunity to take a public interest design approach and include those living inside of prisons to be part of the process.  

One example of how this is happening is in work of Barbara Toews, a PhD candidate at Bryn Mawr University. Barbara is a restorative justice practitioner working with women in prison to design spaces that address their needs with a focus on privacy.  Much of this is done with interviews but she also uses other graphic media to gather usable data for her work. She and I have been chatting about the best means and methods to achieve the results taking into consideration that her time with inmates is short and acceptable materials are limited in a prison setting.  With these limitations in mind we discussed digital vs. haptic mediums for working with those who do not normally use the tools of an architect. Our conclusions were that while digital tools can be fast and facile it requires specified training and thinking so for new users is it inherently an alien tool that can often make it hard to get and communicate information. In addition digital programs such as Sketch up can be incredibly literal which may limit creative thinking. In many cases the tool itself can begin to control you.


Model making on the other hand is a haptic tool so inherently something that people are generally more familiar/comfortable with as we have always worked with our hands. It is a form of crafting so you have more liberty to manipulate your environment. Model making is an abstraction of the literal that is understandable and can be redefined and reinterpreted.  It does not have to be neat or clean but can be a messy process that conveys more emotion than a digital tool. Finally through all my years of experience physical models are by far easier for people to understand space without a doubt. Therefore several discussions in our office and with Barbara come up with the idea of just using a variety of papers that would convey her need to represent different levels of privacy through transparency. The folding and ripping of paper along with glue sticks would allow the women she was working with to fluidly convey ideas through a series of paper models. So far Barbara feels comfortable with this direction and the materials are being approved for use in a prison setting.  



 “Like our time, contemporary court architecture is about effect, not substance; about reassurance, not inspiration; about how great we have been, not how great we might become. For our new direction-for architecture of leadership that will help us move toward what we need next we still have to wait.”

-Paul Spencer Byard

That concludes my blogging for the month of February. I hope that it gave you some idea of how we can begin to envision alternatives to incarceration and support policies and people who are pushing the agenda forward in all parts of society. As the late and great architect Paul Spencer Byard calls out for an “architect of leadership” I feel confident that our time of waiting is over and the next steps are already being taken. It is this re-envisioning of a new type of justice that will help us to become great. Being uniquely gifted members of society we as designers can lead by seeing and responding to the things in our communities that are not working. Social Justice Reform is just one of many and all we really need is to have the courage to step out and play our part.

Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.

Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility



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