Creative Gulag

By Bryan Finocki, 7 February 2007

The creative creativity gulag has finally arrived, (some of us have been expecting this for some time) brought to you by the architecture team responsible for some of those magical regenerative touchstones Londoners will remember for transforming their communities into hubs of 'imagination', crap coffee and expensive housing. Release your creativity. ha ha ha


Creative prison[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via Metropolis.]

Back in 2005, English architect Will Alsop announced that he was working on a project to explore alternative prison design in the U.K. Looking at the problem of incarceration in England as a spatial one where prison space is overwhelmed and generally poorly designed, Alsop teamed up with activist arts group Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation), and together devised a kind of design studio to examine how the design of prisons informs their effectiveness and challenges attitudes to current prisoner rehabilitation. To do this, the process would need to be mainly driven by prison inmates themselves, and so inmates from HMP Gartree prison in Liecestershire were selected to participate.

Well, the results can be found in a new exhibition that is showing at the Yard Gallery of the Architecture Foundation in London called “Creative Prison” (more will supposedly be available at in the future). Described on Rideout’s website, the show features Alsop's designs, sculptural interpretations of them by prisoners working under the tutelage of sculptor Jon Ford, a short film by squint/opera imagining the interior of the speculative prison, and other videos by Shona Illingworth that apparently reflect more upon the current conditions of incarceration as experienced by inmates today.

[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via BBC.]

An article in the New Statesman begins by saying that asking inmates to design their fantasy prison has produced innovative results. A fantasy prison. Hmmmm….what a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, emphasizing rehabilitation and education through ways in which the outside world might be able to interact more appropriately with the prison population, Alsop came up with a fictional facility drawn mostly from the prisoners' ideas as well as successful real-life schemes from around the country. “The group,” the article tells us, “named this imaginary place HMP Paterson, after the reforming pre-Second World War commissioner of prisons Alexander Paterson” and worked “from the assumption that inmates would be from the "super-enhanced" category C - those who had earned trust and privileges. Any transgression of Paterson's rules would result in a return to a normal, Victorian-style building.”

[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via BBC.]

The layout of the prison mimics that of a college campus with separate living modules, or “blocks,” as Alsop calls them (though I prefer module since block is still such a carceral-centric term). While being typically brightly colored like most of Alsop’s work, the inmates would “live in clusters of between 12 and 15” and would “be able to control how long they spent in their cells at the end of a day of work or training." Each block would include a communal kitchen, common room and an enclosed garden.

[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via 24 Hour Museum.]

Alsop explains: "You are locked in the block, not the cell.” […] "You give the prisoner the key so they can lock themselves in if they wish. The biggest threat to them is being attacked by other prisoners."

[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via BBC.]

The general premise is that this prison campus allows for people to essentially share the features of the facility. “A swimming pool, for example, straddles the jail wall. Cameras, tags and heat-sensing equipment would work in tandem with security barriers to protect the community, while eliminating the need for a fortress-style wall.”

[Image: Will Alsop, The "Creative Prison" Project, 2006. Photo via 24 Hour Museum.]

Other important features suggested by the inmates included a Visitors Center where families could interact with inmates in a photo shop, in front of unique backdrops so that families could have pictures of themselves without the stigma of some prison wall looming in the background, the process by which would also allow families to share more time together in a familial context. There were of course proposals for skate parks and elaborate speaker systems for richer musical enjoyment.

[Image: The Prison Alternative, by Matt Wittman, 2003.]

A friend of mine, Matt Wittman, a landscape architect who did his thesis at UC Berkeley modeling prison alternatives, proposed an original tower scheme that envisioned inmates existing in a vertical institution, where the more problematic inmates lived closer to the top (somewhat detached from the community) and worked themselves towards a gradual rehabilitative descent back to ground level, experiencing different forms of education, vocational and therapeutic programming on floors along the way.

[Image: The Prison Alternative, by Matt Wittman, 2003.]

The idea was to eventually graduate at ground level earning greater freedoms through out different stages of progression, ultimately towards more wide open access to the prison grounds where interaction with the community at large became more interwoven. From here the inmate would in a matter of terms, wean themselves from the prison by slowly building their own place back in the community again within the proximity of rehabilitative relinquishment.

Of course, there is the argument, as I have explored before, that architects should not be assisting in the design or building of prisons at all anymore, because by doing so only adds to the systemic problem of a prison-industrial-complex, which has produced an entire industry of incarceration, a landscape of recidivism underwritten by policy which overcriminalizes and by business practice which literally rakes in billions of dollars by building and maintaining prison facilities. Raphael Sperry, president of ADPSR (Architects, Designers, Planners for Social Responsibility), who started the admirable Prison Design Boycott, makes a great point when he argues that architects may better effect prison reform by throwing their support behind more political actions that are seeking to unravel the profit and political power motives that mainly drive the expansion of the prison industry and the subsequent production of criminality and recidivism. There are root issues that need to be addressed in addition to the spatial complicity for which architects perhaps play into when designing prisons.

[Image: El Paso County Criminal Justice Center, Correctional News, 2006.]

Amidst all of this, it is no surprise that a newly renovated prison project in El Paso, Colorado is almost a perfect resurrection of the famed panopticon. Divided into four separate wards, the circular structure allows minimal prison personnel to supervise the facility from a central vantage. You can read all about the construction process here, the folly of creating too much transparency, and the loss of privacy inmates forfeit to afford a panoptic structural regime.

Anyhow, I applaud Alsop’s project for trying to address the issue of how we as a society house and pretend to reform our incarcerated populations. And certainly for working with inmates themselves, who no doubt should hold a prominent voice in that debate and ultimately in the exploration of achieving more humane solutions for accommodating them. Many members of the public feel that we shouldn’t even bother to care about the way we treat inmates, and that they simply should be locked up for good, in the most dismal of conditions, out of sight and out of mind. But a society is only as good as it treats its least respected people on the totem, and the modern prison industry shows nothing more than how systematically inhumane, unthinking, unfeeling, uncreative we have become in the face of rehabilitating our criminal society.

But perhaps it is as much our criminal system that is in need of rehabilitation as it is our prison structures themselves. When you think about the banlieues outside Paris, the miserably failed public housing through out the United States, the common place detention facilities now facing the world’s refugees and immigrants, the state of our militarized public schools, it’s almost as if we have completely accepted the prison structure, the carceral institution, as a common denominator architectural form in the evolution of global urbanism. So, we try to work within that context and make the prison infrastructure more humane, more efficient, practical and aesthetically positive, but aren’t we still complying with the bigger picture failure of accepting this structural model in the first place, of further accomodating it? That is to say, we can innovate alternative prisons, but shouldn’t we be putting equal if not more emphasis on devising alternatives to prisons altogether? So, yeah, what would a fantasy prison look like, but how about - what would a fanstasy rehabilitative society look like, can we imagine this without stooping to the production of more prison space?

If you are more interested in the "Creative Prison" project there is apparently a book that was created in the process -- The Creative Prison: Creative Thinking in the Prison Estate -- of which you can order on the Rideout website.