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July 27, 2005 || 5:28 pm
A couple of mini rants

This campaign to stop architects working on prison designs (via Design Observer) seems rather inconsistent to me. OK, so prison might not work very well and for sure there are too many people locked up. But I would bet a lot of money that the kind of architects that would sign up to this boycott have never been asked to design a prison in their lives, and I am sure there will be no shortage of people willing to sign off drawings for new prisons, given that I can't see clients starting to boycott architects who design prisons. Hell, there are probably architects who only design prisons.

Surely we should be actually looking for better prison designs. Will Alsop has, I have seen, being working on precisely that, with prisoners themselves. Isn't this a more intelligent and clever way to turn the prison paradigm around into something positive, using the power of good design to make an environment that allows prisoners to see some hope, experience some creativity and be stimulated by the environment that surrounds them? Even speculative designs for 'alternative prisons' might spark a much more interesting public debate on what prisons are really meant to achieve, which might ultimately lead to a much better understanding of why we need to imprison less.

And argh - I don't know why this blog on Christian musings on urban regeneration in Sheffield makes me feel so shivery. But something about "lives and communities fundamentally transformed through encounters with Jesus" being the definition of 'regeneration', and the fact that this guy actually works for a local authority regeneration department, makes me really worried. I'm not sure that the rest of secular (or non-Christian) Britain thinks that this is how their problems should, or can, be solved.

Kinda interesting to see that plastic shopping bags actually use way less energy to produce than paper bags. But of course, they aren't biodegradable. Still, my lovely and eco-friendly BF will be pleased to see that the ultimate recommendation is to use cloth bags for your groceries.



I'd encourage you to read this interview first(http://archinect.com/features/article.php?id=18212_0_23_0_M ). No matter how nice or comfortable or humane we make prisons, (some people might argue nicer prisons makes them more appealing and therefore contributing to recidivism). The boycott is an attempt to get designers to look at the prison-industrial complex that outputs prisons, and the larger ideological paradigm that asphyxiates our justice system on the whole. It's easy to say, hey prisons suck, but someone will always be there to design them so i better do so and make sure it is done well. when maybe we should be saying, hey building more prisons really only adds to a more systemic judicial crisis, and, is it right to contribute to prison construction (the commodification of a hideous megabusiness that is more fundamental to the way our society is structured than just prisons themselves)? Maybe we should be opting to lobby for prison system reform, not just better prison construction, which might only play into the hands of dubious "tough-on-crime" politicos and their private lobby billionaires. i think architects are naive when they just dive into the notion of prison construction for the sake of better design, when the issue of whether we need more prisons or not is bypassed. how to do we structure our society so that less prisons need to exist, and so that we aren't populating them simply for profit? can architects have a voice in that type of leadership, do we really want to build more prisons for the world we want to live in? is making prisons better by design really helping to expose the prison-idustrial complex?

By Blogger Bryan Finoki, at 7:25 pm  

Yes, absolutely, we should be lobbying for a much more reduced use of prison and in general judicial reform. I just don't think that asking architects to opt out of designing prisons is necessarily the most constructive way to go about it. I have absolutely no doubts (and I hoped my post reflected this) that there are far too many prisons and that incarceration is a generally inappropriate way to deal with many offenders. That's why I think if we looked at really radical ways of re-designing prisons as a way of critiquing the justice system, if might be more eye-catching and more stimulating as a way of making the debate visible and visualised (literally) for the rest of teh public. Eg, if you found through your research that x% of prisoners were minors/mentally ill/illiterate and you started to produce propositional drawings that reflected that spatially, it might bring it home to a lot of people that don't really understand or grasp the situation at present. Boycotts just seem a little bit of a waste of energy to me for this particular situation (though very effective in other situations)

By Blogger HL, at 2:09 am  

don't hate me...

"Eg, if you found through your research that x% of prisoners were minors/mentally ill/illiterate and you started to produce propositional drawings that reflected that spatially, it might bring it home to a lot of people that don't really understand or grasp the situation at present." Or you just might end up confusing the public even more. be careful, they are not all trained in thinking about proposals for spatial depictions of these things, but also don't underestimate the public for what they already know.

if you are interested in "publicizing the debate" for the general public, highlighting the abhorrence of prisons through re-design, that, in the end I am afraid, does not make the public think to themselves, 'hey, we have way too many horrible prisons, but since we can make them better designed, maybe we should stop building them altogether now.' I think the unfortunate consequence of designers' 'good intentions' to design more humane incarceration structures, may, in the end, oinly show we are capable of making perfectly humane and tolerable prisons. And that may confirm therefore that building more of them is perfectly okay, because we can make them now something other than the horrible places that they are. So in terms of public perception, better designed prisons (can) = a higher tolerance and increased respect for the functions they serve. i understand you feel the Alsop story helps the public understand a critique, but i think it only makes the public, in their short attention of the matter, feel okay about adding more prisons to the stock.

as for architects, what could be a more substantial critique of prisons (as gross ideological constructs) than a unified voice protesting their own profession's involvement with seeing them built? again, how do you critique the prison-industrial complex by designing better prisons? you only say by doing so, look how awful these places are, that's why we are redesigning them. its sort of like naively assisting in creating a more sophisticated cover up for a hideous system that's totally out of control. sadly, i fear that with nice humane prisons comes less public concern and scrutiny. b/c the public already knows how awful they are. redesigning them is an unneeded form of getting public confirmation of that. re-designing prisons to me, only says, you are still willing to work with the system, which is utilizing these horrible places to escape from larger institutional oversight and reform. by redesigning prisons, your critique of the system can only go so far as your designs can articulate, to a generally un-design savvy public anyway. but to stand outside of the equation altogether, now you are free to truly criticize the flaws of our justice system, and that means prisons are probably the last place you should look, at that point.

sorry to mini-rant, i know we all want the same thing, and as long as prisons exist i too want them to provide as substantially humane a condition as they can. but reworking bad ingredients (prisons) doesn't make the stew (justice system) taste any better. i just think we need to put our energy into the prevention of building any more prisons at this point rather than trying to humanize them, which may only encourage future development.

its a jam for architects, who want the benefit of designing better prisons to help make more prominent their importance in society to the public, and obviously to build nicer places for inmates. but i say, don't be duped into camouflaging the hideous irresponsibilities of our justice system. let's hold them accountable and put more resources into prison-alternatives instead.

By Blogger Bryan Finoki, at 6:03 am  

Don't worry, I don't hate you, it's a classic and really interesting argument about how, as citizens, we best go about changing things that are the preserve of our governments. I think my main issue is that architects are a small percentage of the population. We have certain skills, and how can we use those skills for maximum impact? Eg I think a nationwide petition/boycott/campaign to do with prisons that wasn't just the preserve of one profession would use the fact of sheer numbers to gain its effect, but I doubt a boycott by architects will have that much public impact/media coverage etc to really change policy. It can easily be written off by policy-makers as they don't really rely on architects to bulid prisons anyway, so why should they care if we boycott? Whereas our graphic skills, visualisation skills and so forth are unique to architects. How can we use them to create something that has way more media interest and potential public interest?

I didn't really mean design better prisons in real life - that's not going to happen, because the clients won't buy the designs. Even Will Alsop's project was not intended to be built. But it had huge media coverage in the UK and I think a really interesting and not at all 'comfortable' impact on the debate about prisons and prisoners in that country. And he's just one guy. So I was just wondering, couldn't architects all over the place start doing similar projects, if they really cared enough about the justice system - they could range from really amazing poster designs for mass transit, to exhibitions, competitions, etc. That would be more eye-catching and vivid than a boycott (which in this case is somewhat invisible and intangible, you can't go and see it anywhere, unlike the most effective boycotts - the civil rights movements ones)

anyway, that was just my idea...something about best use of our skills and our potential for impact and attention-grabbing on a mass scale. I don't think that this approach is in any way 'covering up' or band-aiding the fundamental problems, it is just 'how do you use design to highlight problems and demand solutions?'

If a boycott was the answer, shouldn't architects be lobbying the contracting industry to stop building the damn things? but that's of course a much harder thing to do (which is sort-of my point, that the architects boycott is the easy way out of addressing a really difficult area of policy to change - you feel like you are doing something when really you're not having major impact)

And the state of the US justice system is such an infinitely complex area to try and 'solve' - if such a thing is possible. Ultimately all one can do is lobby and pressure. I for one feel like I really don't know what kind of 'solution' I woudl like to see and I'm not comfortable putting my name to a petition that has huge policy implications that are really complex and that, maybe, we don't fully understand. Less prisons only works if there are changes to every other aspect of justice, and even pre-justice type areas like social security, education, social services, family support and so on. The need for prisons (and the increasing numbers of people being convicted) is a symptom of much greater things - why do people commit relatively petty crimes to start with, how can we support young people so they don't start criminal activity, how can we use probation/community service/education as alternatives. Etc. So I guess, if I was lobbying, I might focus on some of these areas. Which is why I work in urban renewal I guess...QED!

By Blogger HL, at 4:58 am  

well, i agree with so much of what you said, only makes me realize the sheer grayness of the debate. i do feel though the boycott is an effective way to engage the deabte though, and eventually as a way to lobby policy makers for reform. Certainly, the state does not need architects to design prisons, there are so many blueprints out there so contractors can do it on their own. And I say let them. Let them look like the marginalized gitmo-makers they are, and let architects free themsleves of those negative associations. It's not abandoning inmates, it's saying we as a coaliton of national architects are rather organizing to put that needed presure in lobby arenas now, and instead will aim to build more community centers, supportive housing, schools, social community services amenities, outreach facilities, clinics. B/c i think you agree, lobying for change is really the only hope. We can't build our way out of this prison mess, so why not commit to actually building alternative models. new constructs, embedded in the community, a disengagement from prisons... architects need to become activists, not just socialy responsible designers. they need to get into the political fray, with a voice of leadership they as a profession can establish there. i think both methods can be a powerful voice, but to me the boycott actually does more to lobby policy makers than speculative redesign proposals....

i agree wholeheartedly about architects finding better ways of using their skills to enlighten the debate to the public more. The prison design boycott is actually hosting a Poster Design Contest right now (http://www.adpsr.org/prisons/poster.htm).

what sorts of project sare you working on right now, any supportive housing? I am trying to learn as much as i can about building homes for homeless/low low inc people.

By Blogger Bryan Finoki, at 10:29 pm  

I've been working on a v.v.v. low income house prototype (built and currenlty being approved by USDA Rural Development), if you email my private email (see top of page) I can send you more info rather than put it in the comments...or if you read my blog pre-May you'll find out a bit about it, also there are some photos on my flickr stream (click on photo in top right of this page to get there...)

By Blogger HL, at 3:22 am  

Hi, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!
I have a lead generation site. It pretty much covers lead generation related stuff. Check it out if you get time :-)

By Blogger cash at home, at 5:06 am  

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