On Today’s Show: Should Architects Say No to Designing Cells for Solitary Confinement?; The Petersen Automotive Museum Changes Gear

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Alameda County Juvenille Justice Center Interior Day Room, Courtesy of Beverly Prior

A hunger strike in California state prisons has cast a spotlight on living conditions, specifically indefinite solitary confinement in Security Housing Units, known as SHUs. And it’s not just human rights groups and inmates who are concerned about them. Raphael Sperry challenges his fellow architects to ban the design of SHUs. Beverly Prior reflects on a career in prison and finds that good design can help rehabilitation, while Joe Day reflects on the simultaneous growth of American prisons and museums.

Back on the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, the Petersen Automotive Museum shifts into high gear, with a dramatic “face-lift” explained by Terry Karges.

Should Architects Stop Designing Cells for Solitary Confinement?

pelican bay shucell

Last month several hundred inmates in California’s overcrowded state prisons started a hunger strike. Their main goal was to bring to an end indefinite solitary confinement in Security Housing Units, known as SHUs. Some inmates have been in such cells for many years, a practice that has been declared torture by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Authorities say the strike is a power grab by gang leaders.

But this is not the first strike over SHUs and it is not only prisoners and human rights groups who are concerned.

Raphael Sperry is an architect based in San Francisco who heads Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. He wants his colleagues to consider their role in the creation of solitary confinement and he has called upon the American Institute of Architects to update their Code of Ethics to ban the design of SHUs.


Even though the client, not architects, determine the program for prisons, he argues that just as prison doctors refuse to participate in execution so prison architects can refuse to be party to torture, and in doing so, can show leadership in a rethinking of incarceration.

Improving Incarceration By Design

Solitary confinement can be imposed in any prison but it is specifically designed into Supermax prisons, most notoriously Pelican Bay (a SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison is shown above; aerial view, right). DnA contacted the architects of Pelican Bay and the designers of some Supermax prisons but did not hear back. We did however talk with Beverly Prior, below left, president of HMC and Beverly Prior Architects in San Francisco. In the early part of her career she worked on California prison projects; now she focuses on juvenile and adult detention facilities at the county level.

How does she feel about Sperry’s challenge to the profession? Prior has some fascinating answers. She says some in the field of justice design wanted nothing to do with Sperry but that she and others found it enlightening, prompting them to discuss their own concerns with prison design.

Beverly Prior

While she believes that there will always be an architect who will step in to design SHUs and there will always be some people who need to be separated from other inmates – for their own and their fellows’ safety – on the whole, she says, it is a practice that is used far too often. She talks about what drew her to prison design in the first place – the 1980s recession when the only growth area was prisons! – and how in recent years she has found the job more rewarding as the attitudes across the incarceration industry are changing – from the courts to the probation officers to the prison owners. She believes that at County level especially, there is more emphasis on creating rehabilitative environments and approaches to detention.

Specifically she cites a project she is most proud of: the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. There, she says, the County supported community involvement in just how much detention there was for the youth; they supported more education and continuing resources, and they supported design features like natural light in the day room and more visibility, and public art throughout.

Of course the question arises, is there evidence that such an environment improved outcomes? She argues that yes, a change in the planning that permitted staff to sit amidst inmates, rather than at a distance, observing them remotely, resulted in better relations between guards and inmates, and less tension generally.

Finally, Prior also believes that out of crisis, AB 109, the bill that demands the release of thousands of prisoners from California’s prisons, has actually produced hopeful change. She says that every level within the judicial system grasps with the problem, and together are arriving at what she hopes will be a less punitive system, tailored to local communities and to rehabilitation, not longterm confinement.

Alameda Co Juv Just Exterior
Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, Courtesy of Beverly Prior (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“Corrections and Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime.”

Another architect who has also looked at prisons is LA-based Joe Day. But his perspective is an unusual one, and has resulted in a fascinating book called “Corrections and Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime.”

Corrections and Collections coverDay’s research grew out of the discovery that “after two centuries of incremental growth, the number of correctional facilities and museums in the United States tripled, from roughly 600 prisons and 6,000 museums in 1975 to more than 1,800 prisons and 18,000 museums by 2005,” and that that both have contributed to urban renewal since the depressed 1970s.

While Joe Day’s book primarily looks at prisons and museums through the lens of architecture, specifically, extreme Minimalism — he remarks that in the 1960s architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable “lamented that museums had become neo-penitential architectures” — it is also an examination of society that, as a result of changes in the 1970s – harsh drug laws and tax code changes that has produced two extremes: the “beautiful and the damned.”

MOMA-lobbycropWe’ve become a society, he says, “that parses its freedoms ever more carefully. In museums we see freedom of expression raised to fetishistic extreme.” And, he says, “we’ve also become incredibly good at honing in on every variation on the criminal code to put away far more people for far more reasons for far longer sentences than ever before.”

“‘Corrections and Collections’ is a story of our polarized two percent, the one percent that fosters the construction  of some incredible buildings for art and the nearly one percent that we now incarcerate. These are the extremes of American life at the moment.” (Shown, above right, crowds at MOMA.)

Peterson Automotive Museum Accelerates the Changes on Miracle Mile

And speaking of museums. . .

More dramatic changes may be coming to the Miracle Mile.

View west of Petersen
View west of Petersen Automotive Museum; rendering by Kohn Pedersen Fox (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Just a few weeks ago, LACMA unveiled its proposed “inkblot” by architect Peter Zumthor that would replace four of its early buildings, the three original structures by William Pereira and the Art of the Americas building by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. Now, just yards away, the Petersen Automotive Museum has announced its own dramatic overhaul, reconfiguring its interior, and wrapping the building in “ribbons” of steel conceived to evoke speed, in a design by Eugene Kohn of New York-based corporate architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox.

The museum’s executive director Terry Karges talks about the design that promises to give the museum “a facelift,” while dramatically changing the interior (but not the basic structure) and the installation to make exhibits more immersive, and absorbing, displaying everything from automobile fashion to car design and technology to experiential exhibits that create for viewers a sense of what it’s like to drive at over 200 miles an hour.

He also argues that the overhaul will transform a building that currently attracts little attention from passersby into a “gateway” to the Miracle Mile, joining LACMA and other destination to become a complex of museums. DnA asked if he and Michael Govan have exchanged notes about their respective design projects. Find out the answer on this DnA.

New entrance to Petersen
Rendering of Entrance to Petersen Museum by architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)


The release of plans for the new design have been somewhat overshadowed by news of how some of that construction money is being raised, to be explored on an upcoming segment on KCRW. Jerry Hirsch, automotive business reporter for the Los Angeles Times, set off a firestorm when he reported thatthe Petersen is quite under the radar selling off 100+ of its vehicles” in order to finance capital construction,” in what he describes as a breach of its public trust.

Moreover, he reports that the museum is trading popular American cars for French Art Deco vehicles – Voisins — owned by the museum’s Board Chairman, Peter Mullins. And he says the nine million dollars worth of cars that have been sold includes important cultural icons like a Duesenberg that belonged to African American dancer and actor Bill Bojangles Robinson, signaling the success of an African American man at a time of great struggle.

The museum rejects the charges, saying a founder’s car museum differs in its rules from an art museum and that everything they are doing is above board, ethical and approved of by the car enthusiasts that make up their board and supporters. Karges says that it is no problem to sell off cars from its 400+ collection because if ever they need access to one for an exhibit, it can be easily gotten on loan.

David Undercoffler, the auto writer for the Los Angeles Times, bemoans the sale of the cars, especially two classic Ferraris, but he is generally excited to see changes at the Peterson, whose space and installations are undeniably far less exciting than many of the cars on show. In fact, says David, the most interesting display these days at the Petersen, is not on exhibit at all, it’s the vault tour, that for an extra $25, gives a small group of visitors a tour of the cars in storage, including a Mercedes once owned by Saddam Hussein and some cars owned by Steve McQueen.

Plans for the Petersen Automotive Museum do not involve scrapping the vault tour.

Listen up for this conversation on a future DnA.