Loeb Lab 4: Visualizing Justice

While too few architects are turning their attention to the crisis in communities of color, whose young men continue to be incarcerated in disproportionate numbers, Deanna VanBuren (LF ’13) has been calling attention to the injustices in our justice system. She has become an articulate voice for the potential of Restorative Justice and in her design studio, FOURM, she has also been examining ways that design can effect change. She shares some of her ideas in this essay for the  Loeb Lab.

As a designer seeking to transform our vision of justice architecture, I am often asked if I want to design a new kind of prison or courthouse. While this is one approach, it does not address the overall problem of distorted values of punishment and retribution that permeate our current system of justice. So I offer an alternative. I propose that architects, designers and planners begin to support the potential found in the grassroots revolution of restorative justice and peacemaking practices growing in our country and around the world.

Howard Zehr, the grandfather of restorative justice, describes its aim as to "collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” He characterizes the challenges of restorative justice through a series of questions: Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Whose obligations are they?

Restorative Justice practices are many and varied, but they all answer the questions by bringing victims, offenders and the community together in an open dialogue to address the harm done by offenders, who can then make amends and return to the community unstigmatized. 

As this model grows we cannot afford to wait and see if it fails or succeeds on its own. As designers, architects and planners we must begin to understand the values of this new system and start to ask our own questions:  Where is it happening? What does it look like? How do we engage? As I seek to answer these questions in my own practice, FOURM design studio, what emerges is a multi-scale and multi-faceted approach that involves relocating justice infrastructure in the city and re-envisioning its forms, spaces and devices as well as the design process.

To start we need to bring our justice architecture from the periphery where it has migrated over time and integrate it back into the urban fabric. The courthouse will need to be replaced with emerging decentralized problem solving models like the Community Justice Centers of Brooklyn and San Francisco. They must be in close proximity to new elements that I envision as Restorative Justice Centers, where party to party dialogue can occur as an alternative or in conjunction with the adjudication processes of the CJC’s.  As an alternative to the academies of law, these centers of reparation will be integrated with restorative justice campuses for education and training that we will need as we begin to integrate a new system of justice into our society.

As these old and new centers of justice are woven into the fabric of our neighborhoods so will be our spaces of incarceration. With restoration and rehabilitation as a primary value we will no longer need the volume, bulk and punitive aesthetic of our current prison infrastructure.  Instead, micro-prisons or hybridized prisons combined with schools, courthouses or housing (as in the work of 499.Summit) must be developed to reintegrate necessary containment successfully into our communities. These will be supported by Opportunity Network Centers, like those currently under development in New York, where probationers can access services in environments that are designed to facilitate their re-entry to society. 

Monolithic to Individuated

Monolithic to Individuated

While appropriate siting for these spaces is crucial to the vision of a restorative city we also need to respond in form.  The monolithic and intimidating structures we now associate with our justice architecture will give way to more organic and appropriately scaled forms that represent the values inherent in the philosophy of restorative justice.

Centralized to Decentralized

Centralized to Decentralized

For example our proposals for the Mediation Womb incorporates the circular organization of restorative circles as it splays out to provide spaces for up to 25 people with separate entrances for victim and offender. Another example can be found in the tower of light of the new Constitutional Courts of South Africa whose articulated volumes and varied textures respond to the scale of the adjacent neighborhood and the body.  

In addition to its external impacts this application of organic form, highly textured surfaces, and abundance of light, color and natural materials applied on the interior of our justice spaces will support the intensity and humanity inherent in restorative justice processes. Existing furniture systems can be adapted or new ones can be created that allow for containment and engagement in circle. Interiors like this will support our connection to one another and are a positive move away from the institutionalized aesthetics we have come to associate with our justice architecture.

In spaces of RJ globally, the unbuilt realm has often been the site of restorative justice processes. A prime example is the use of shaded areas under sacred trees in African-South African restorative practices. Constructed landscapes also support healing and reparation in the public realm through the integration of passive and active restorative spaces, such as those seen at Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial, the reflection gardens at the Constitution Courts Building of South Africa and the victim offender murals of Philadelphia.  As we learn from tradition and look to a future city based in restorative values we will need to embed spaces for peacebuilding as well as recreation in our parks and plazas.

To develop design solutions that engage with and reflect restorative justice, the top down practices we may have used before must give way to a public interest design approach. The design process itself can be healing and reparative long before the ideas it generates manifest in the built realm. The processes FOURM design studio has developed with stakeholders, like the peacemaking palette and a tool kit for design studios in prison, use the values of restorative justice to create spaces that foment change.

Architecture, says Lisa Findley, "is the primary spatial way for people to represent themselves in the world, and architects have the opportunity to participate in the restructuring of the spatial and physical world toward a goal of great equity and justice.”

While we architects cannot entirely solve the social problems that restorative justice addresses, we can begin to deploy our influence and our imaginations to conceive of new forms and devices to support its potential. The physical realms we imagine can inspire others to become involved and engage with this revitalized paradigm. Through the thoughtful design of current and future restorative justice spaces, we can increase our capacity to heal our communities, rather than support a failing system designed for retribution.

All images courtesy of FOURM Design Studio.

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2 Responses to Loeb Lab 4: Visualizing Justice

  1. Lucas Thomas says:

    What a fanastic article very well written, as a university student of architecture I found your opnion on restorative justice really helpful towards my degree and found this article brilliant. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

  2. Great piece. I know that a sense of “otherness” feeds into the struggle for prisoners post release- and often leads to re-entry into the system. Design clearly has a great potential
    to feed back a sense of place and importance to individuals, no matter what their lot in life.

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