Pottorff‘s Balanced Approach Marries Vision, Perspectives and Needs
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fresh from a week-long camping trip with her husband, a lecturer in architecture, and six-year-old daughter, April Pottorff cuts the assured figure of one confident in her abilities, committed to her field and comfortable with the arc of life.
Pottorff, who specializes in adult and juvenile detention facility design, leads the Lexington, Ky., office of New York-based Ricci Greene Associates.
Pottorff had never considered a career in justice architecture before 1993, when she left New York design firm Edward Larrabee Barnes to join the developing justice facility planning and design practice at Ricci Greene.
“The firm was young and small, but growing,” Pottorff says. “It was a great opportunity to take on more challenges, and with that came the justice work.”
The stature and expertise of firm and practitioner have grown significantly during the intervening 16 years, as evidenced by the three Ricci Greene projects featured in AIA’s 2009 Justice Facilities Review [see page 48 for more details].
“Over the course of time, I’ve become a believer in what we do as a practice and at this point I’ve committed my career to it,” Pottorff says.
Pottorff cites the Denver Detention Center — one of the JFR jury selections — as the most satisfying project she has been involved with.
“Denver isn’t completed yet, but it’s a particularly exciting project for me because it really reflects the philosophy and approach that make me committed to what we do in justice,” she says.
The design team worked closely with Denver officials to shape the layout of the new facility to meet program needs. The project is scheduled for completion in April.
“With Denver, they were interested in providing the least restrictive environment possible, but the entire building was double-bunked, so we helped them develop the right operational plan and housing unit layout,” Pottorff says.
The urban surroundings of the Denver facility represent another rewarding element of the project for Pottorff.
“It’s not only about the stuff that happens inside, it’s about how these facilities can have a positive impact on the community,” she says. “That’s the difference between jails and prisons. Jails are civic buildings and part of the civic structure of the justice system in the community.”
”“Operations definitely drive design, but I don’t believe form necessarily has to follow function,” she says. “It’s exciting to see more jurisdictions becoming more open, creative and forward thinking about what these facilities can be.”
This year, Pottorff is chairing the AIA’s Academy of Architecture for Justice national conference.
As head of the firm’s Lexington office — the firm is headquartered in New York and also has a Rhode Island office — Pottorff feels a responsibility to emulate firm leaders Ken Ricci and Frank Greene in engaging with colleagues and staff and passing on knowledge and experiences.
“It starts with the owner, defining the mission and planning the operations in detail and then developing the right physical solution,” she says. “If we can make a difference and improve the environment, then that’s a huge step — because they are short-term facilities, jails often get short-changed.”
While Denver is clearly the latest and greatest project for Pottorff, a 1998 project in Kentucky — the Lexington-Fayette County Detention Center — was a pivotal experience for Pottorff that changed her perspective and approach to justice projects.
“That experience was a real turning point for me in getting beyond the technical side of these facilities,” she says. “The project gave me a real insight into facilities from [the owner’s] perspective — into how things really work, how you set up a plan and how everything you design impacts the outcome,” she says.
The project also cemented Pottorff’s commitment to the detention side of the practice. After principal Ken Ricci, Pottorff has emerged as the detention specialist within the firm, where she works closely with Laura Maiello, associate principal.
“What I learned has enriched all my subsequent work and influenced my whole approach, how I engage owners and users, and it makes me dig deeper into questions of how they want the facility to operate.”
The attraction to architecture and interest in the impact of urban design stretches back into Pottorff’s childhood and a trip with her parents to visit Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Ark.
“You walk up a stone path to a clearing with this beautiful, intricate wooden structure, and the whole envelope is glass, so it blends with the surrounding trees,” Pottorff says. “Even when you’re in the physical space of the chapel, you still feel the essence of being in the woods,” she says.
The architecture of the E. Fay Jones-designed structure of glass, steel, wood and stone, which comes in at No. 4 on the AIA’s list of top American designs of the 20th century, seems to embody Pottorff’s philosophy in her chosen field of justice facility design.
“That’s a place and an experience that stuck with me,” she says. “People react to the built environment and they know if a place feels comfortable or threatening, even if they can’t necessarily articulate what it is about the space that makes them feel a certain way.”
Professional commitments and a self-identified type-A personality bent notwithstanding, the birth of her daughter spurred Pottorff to try to strike a balance between career and family.
“It’s about setting the right example for her, that you can have a career and be successful at it without it being the only thing in your life,” Pottorff says.
“I’ve taken up bike riding and commute about five miles to and from the office,” she says. “It’s a great way to get some exercise without getting up two hours earlier to go to the gym.”
So, aside from the now annual family camping trip, what gets this one-time softball slugger leaping out of bed on a nonwork day?
“Well, I love to cook, so Saturday mornings I hop on my bike and ride down to the farmers market to pick up whatever is local and in season,” she says. “I love experimenting. I see a dish and tweak it. My family are great because they let me experiment on them,” she says.