Architecture, Crime and Punishment

Studio Gang’s entry in this year's Chicago Architecture Biennial is a research project that re-imagines the police station not as a single building, but as series of interactive social spaces within a community - that changes the nature of 'policing'. A number of deaths over the last few years at the hands of the police in US cities has put policing and the criminal justice system at the top of the political agenda – the protest movement Black Lives Matter is impacting already on next year's Presidential election.  After reading the President’s Task Force on Policing report released in May this year, Jeanne Gang and her studio set to work on developing research designed to explore a gap in the document – it didn’t address architectural or spatial issues around policing.

Polis Station looked at the evolution of architecture in policing: from the 18th Century Watch Box; to the first buildings solely designated as police stations in the 1850s; through to buildings designed for the motorisation of policing in the 1930s; to the police station as an island surrounded by extensive parking lots in the 2000s.   

Studio Gang's summary of the project states, “Today the vast dimensions of urban space work to isolate the police and their stations from the communities they serve. Officers now commute long distances to work at large stations surrounded by parking lots, and they patrol their multi-neighborhood districts from their squad cars. Opportunities for meaningful, everyday interactions and engagements with their fellow officers, as well as their district’s residents, are far too rare. Polis Station proposes that police stations be reoriented toward their communities and become sites of social connection where officers and neighborhood residents can find many opportunities to interact.”

Studio Gang’s project connects the station as physical building to wider social policy. Indeed the name 'Polis' seems like a nod to the Ancient Greeks’ idea of polis as community. So Studio Gang’s police station is connected to a Trade School; a rehabilated building used for vocational training and separate shared fabrication and maker spaces; housing for public sector workers including police so they can reside within the community; an urban landscape nursery to provide job training for citizens returning to the community (in the same spirit as Urban Growth we featured in A New House for London); a space for mental health support services, former prisoners need ongoing support; and a meditation garden, an “outdoor ‘quiet room’ for emotional and psychological wellness.” As you can discern from the list, each architectural idea is a spatial, designed response to items in the President’s report. You can see how each element of this imagined urban space connects with others in quite unique ways. The police station is dispersed and distributed, part of a network of buildings, practices and activities - designed by the architect but informed by discussions with the community.  

Indeed, architecture, space and materials have always embodied the official philosophies and policies on policing and criminality. Most famously the oft-cited panopticon design of prison reformer Jeremy Bentham in the 19th Century, with its central guard tower as an all-seeing eye, fosters the idea in the mind of the prisoner that they are being watched – thus policing themselves. Critics such as philosopher Michel Foucault argued the architectural plan used paranoia as a discipline for 'normalizing' behaviour – not a creative response to developing in prisoners a productive sense of self and a better relationship with society on their emergence from prison. It's a criticism that resonates among the professionals of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility. 

Douglas Hurd, former Home Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and former Chair of the Prison Reform Trust, writes in the introduction to Prison Architecture: Policy, Design and Experience that “prisons are public buildings, and the public is entitled to have its say about them. How large should they be? Where should they be situated? What access should the community have to their facilities? What messages should their design promote: inclusiveness (prisons as part of their community) or exclusiveness (prisons apart from their community)? Is it possible for designs to encompass both ideas (since prisons should be good neighbours, even if their function is to separate out offenders from the community at large)?”

Exploring the role of architecture in relation to prisons is not limited to architects and policy-makers. The Atlantic magazine’s Will Partin examines a recent release by UK games-maker Introversion of Prison Architect­, a game whose aesthetic and playability, if not storyline, is a twist on the city building genre of such games as Sim City and Cities: Skylines. “Introversion has been transparent about its desire for Prison Architect to provoke reflection about the American prison-industrial complex,” argues Partin, “and to do so in a way that does not exploit the suffering of those caught behind its jaws of steel. And, to a degree, Prison Architect achieves this goal.”

The review of Prison Architect is an opportunity for Partin to take us through a brief history of prison architecture, from renaissance art theorist Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on prison design, to the policy shift in the 1970s and 1980s in the US from rehabilitation to retribution. But, to crunch Partin’s sophisticated engagement with the game, Prison Architect isn’t capable of dealing with the overwhelming and primary issue of race in US prisons, citing a deeply telling statistic – “One in four black men born since 1970 has experienced prison firsthand.”

(Screengrab from Prison Architect, Introversion Games)

The key issue for Partin is that while there is cultural and social knowledge built into the game that displays some well-meaning behind it, there is also knowledge that is excluded. “Systems do not think for us. Like prisons, they establish the limits of what can be thought. They do not simply teach; they regulate what there is to be taught." Which is why Studio Gang’s project is so important. Architects and urban planners can shift the limits of how we think about the relationship of prison and community – and how architects think about the discipline of architecture. Their design shows how policing and prison policy can be played out in the built environment.

There are many studies supporting such directions in architectural thinking already out there. Alec Spencer Honorary Professor, Criminology and Criminal Justice, Department of Applied Social Science, Stirling University and former Director of Rehabilitation and Care, Scottish Prison Service presented a report to the Scottish Parliament in 2007. “Someone recently asked me about the design of new prisons. What should we be creating? Over the following ten minutes I explained about the architecture, the need to design in softness, open spaces, light, calm, colour, normality in terms of functions – accommodation (one’s home), the shop, the health centre, the school or college – in fact like a village behind walls. But I also observed that none of this was of any use unless I could also be told what it was to be designed for – what was its purpose, what was it meant to achieve, what are the outcomes and who is to be incarcerated in it? How could one design an appropriate prison if you could not define its purpose?” Indeed, when there is so much research showing the lack of causality between lower crime rates and incarceration, we need smarter thinking. And what's more, the curation of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is really driven by the idea of public engagement. It's not only that architects need to help policy makers. This agenda needs to be taken to the wider public. 

We also need to redefine for architects and policy makers, the necessity to incorporate the design of buildings and spaces into policing and criminal justice policy. When video games offer more public engagement about prisons than politicians, it's clear that the spatial storytelling of architects such as Studio Gang is a social and political necessity. 

John O'Reilly

(Studio Gang's Polis Station at the Chicago Architecture Biennial​)

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