Design dialogue: Designing for justice


By Gregory Cook, AIA, CCHP


What is good design? According to Vitruvius, when considering architecture it should successfully incorporate ‘firmness, commodity, and delight.’ [1] A more comprehensive modern assessment might go on to include honesty, innovation, clarity of intent, sense of place, and sustainability, among other attributes. These metrics are universal and are not limited to any specific project type, yet in my admittedly short tenure as a project designer working on criminal justice facilities I have come across a reluctance among many to fully assess our designs based on universal criteria due to what are seen as the limitations of our program or the restrictive nature of how the buildings are operated.

We are challenged to deliver projects that meet the programmatic, operational, budgetary and aspirational goals of our clients. This is true no matter the client, though the parameters may vary widely across project types, locations, and clientele. I would like to offer for consideration that there is no need to view our projects as different, or lacking opportunity for creativity and innovation.


Challenge of Perception

The mission of our criminal justice facilities is essential to our democracy and to our culture. With few exceptions, criminal justice facilities are publicly funded projects that require the architect to take on a role as a steward not only of public dollars but also public trust as well. Our projects’ core functions are essential to public safety. Staff in our facilities are often exposed to risks that are dramatically outsized compared to the community. Our projects must be designed understanding the reality that funding for maintenance and operations will always be precious.

These are the issues that are often seen as drivers for the design process, and rightly so. But these issues that can be seen in one light as limiting can also be liberating, allowing architects to hone in on the essential components of a project and offer simple, clear, efficient solutions. We’re required to do more with less, but with a potentially better outcome that is not weighed down with extraneous details. As Dieter Rams succinctly stated in his Ten Principles for Good Design, ‘Back to purity, back to simplicity.’

But there can also be a tendency to oversimplify. This is much more than a functional diagram - design excellence transcends pure function and finds beauty in the interplay of forms, light and shadow, and the elevation of the human spirit. It’s not an embellishment, it should be inherent, and it reflects our values as a society.


A Changing Landscape

As architects in the public realm, we design buildings that provide benefits and support for communities. There is a growing expectation in our communities that the institutions that have been historically charged with meting out punishment should instead focus on the rehabilitation of inmates and reducing recidivism. This shift comes after years of expansion of the incarcerated population in the United States due to policies related to drug enforcement and the closure of mental health treatment facilities. As a result, facilities designed strictly for punitive measures are functionally obsolete, providing officials and designers an opportunity to reconsider what a facility designed for justice can and should be.

The design of our justice facilities, then, will need to reflect the facilities elevated role as a more visible and important component of our social infrastructure. Facilities in the past have often severed vital connections to family, culture, nature, and education. To be effective, new, community-based facilities will need to provide bridges for the disconnected individuals in our society, encouraging human connections that ultimately strengthen the sense of self. Architecture and design, regardless of building type, can create and enhance the connections that bond us as human beings.


Designing for the Best-Case Scenario     

The criminal justice system has long been a dead end for many of those that are involved – a never ending cycle of trauma, addiction, mental illness, and poverty. This outlook is changing, as political and community leaders have rallied together to decry a costly system that has done little to improve public safety. This shift has been reflected in the design of our correctional institutions already as communities have moved away from the largely opaque bunkers of the 80’s and 90’s to more contextual approaches of the past 10-15 years.

As our society has been taking an honest appraisal of what a correctional facility, or a courthouse, or a police station, should do, we should respond with designs that should not mask or try to hide a buildings function, but share it honestly. Our buildings are about reconnecting to the community, building bridges, providing opportunities, and keeping our citizens safe and healthy. Our design solutions should be reflective of that.

Designers are innovators, and we enthusiastically take on new challenges to move our profession forward and to do our best to improve the human condition. Recently, prominent architects such as Jeanne Gang and Frank Gehry have added their voices to the conversation regarding the design of criminal justice facilities. While their efforts have centered largely on rethinking incarceration and law enforcement by conceiving of new types of facilities, I believe that there is ample room for design innovation within the criminal justice system as it exists today.

[1] Attributed to Sir Henry Wotton in his 1624 translation of Vitruvius’ de Architectura



Gregory Cook, AIA is a Senior Project Designer in HOK’s Chicago office.


(Return to the cover of the 2017 AAJ Journal Q2 issue)