Trendspotting: Daunting Times


The 11th International Architecture Exhibition of Italy’s Venice Biennale 2008 closed in late November. An interesting aspect of the Biennale, as with many recent architectural exhibitions, is that architecture does not dominate, but one does not leave without being made aware of substance, representation and transformation.

Aaron Betsky, the director of the 11th Biennale, summed up the experience pretty well in the exhibition catalog: “Architecture is not building. It is the way we think and talk about buildings, how we represent them, how we build them.” Participants, the likes of which included Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron, and many other enthusiasts, interpolated the theme of “utopian visions” from their personal definitions of architecture’s enigmas.

While meandering through the 30 international pavilions in the Giardini di Castello, I was mesmerized by the range of possibilities when the building is viewed as a vehicle for the communication of community values rather than the expression of the egos of the owner, architect or occupant. I found myself thinking time and again about prison as an expression of a community value and not as a building.

Years ago in this magazine, I suggested that we were doing the environment and energy conservation a disfavor by continuing to push correctional facilities further into the hinterland. Not only does this increase our carbon footprint, it diminishes the opportunity to recruit and retain qualified staff and removes the community from the process.

As we enter 2009, we face the daunting task of managing a prison population that appears to be increasing while the economy shrinks.

Hardly a state department of corrections has escaped a budget reduction and additional cuts are being anticipated as soon as state legislatures are seated in January. Compound this reverse math with a more universal commitment to energy alternatives and sustainable justice and we can easily see that the traditional approaches to prison location, design and operation will fast become candidates for the archives.

As a tradition-laden service, success in changing attitudes about corrections and correctional environments will be measured in small victories unless new entrepreneurs emerge. Who would they be? Different from museums, hospital wings, and university athletic facilities, corrections has no benefactors. Quite the opposite, we allow ourselves to simply be grateful that we’re funded at a level to meet the most minimum standards of care.

California is truly trying to change that paradigm. With one of the largest building programs to improve the medical and mental health standards of care for prisoners in the world today, a new mode of operation and design is being examined through the mandate of the federal court.

The design process is characterized by futuristic methods for envisioning a much bolder statement about the environment, economy, energy consumption and sustainability. Future articles in this magazine will track the progress of California in achieving a new vision for the care and treatment of sick and mentally ill prisoners.

The federal court may not be completely comfortable with the role of entrepreneur in California, or elsewhere, but through the intervention (as was the case so frequently in the 1980s), the federal court has redefined the boundaries and provided, to some extent, a glimpse of that utopian vision that the Biennale exhibitors were asked to promote.

At a time when the term “bail-out” is exclusively pejorative, the 9th District Federal Court is requiring that owners, operators, designers and builders to opt-in to create new methods of visioning the future and to do so at a better value for construction and operation.

As this issue of Correctional News hits the streets, the United States will be completing a peaceful transfer of power — something we take for granted in our democracy. Regardless of how contentious election campaigns have become, we have a remarkable capability to release and admit with apparent grace. While the new congressional and White House occupants acquaint themselves with their surroundings, the nation and world faces as daunting a time as has been experienced in 70 years.

Resisting the urge to devalue the correctional system by under-funding, or just plain ignoring, needs will be very difficult. Faced with this possibility, the opportunity arises to ask again: Who are the correctional entrepreneurs? We need not be surprised if historical ones (the courts) and new ones (the private sector) emerge as vision leaders.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, one of the candidates said something that has caused me more than a few minutes of contemplation: “In a time of change, security flows more from initiative than inertia.” This statement can be applied to the economy, the environment, national defense or designing prisons.

Change is the theme that has been chosen to inaugurate the new administration. We will all be required to define security about many aspects of the environment and the economy in relative degrees of comfort with our traditional inertia or our creative initiative.

I hope the debate includes the notion of sustainable justice in all of its ramifications of governance, operations and design.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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