A documentary exploring how architects can help reform the criminal justice system
Frank Gehry: Building Justicewhich is scheduled to be shown at ADFF: NOLA, showcases how student architecture studios led by Gehry developed proposals for more humane prisons.
Thanks to initiatives like the Art for Justice Fund, the Open Society Foundations, and a plethora of insightful reporting, The American criminal justice system has come under significant scrutiny and pressure for reform. Some of these changes were so high-profile—such as widespread cannabis decriminalization and pending major federal legislation—that they faced opposition from powerful lobbyists on the part of private prison companies. However, despite the depth and breadth of criminal justice reform, one very important element has remained mostly neglected: the design of correctional facilities.
Enter Frank Gehry, who has focused on this topic since 2016, when he was invited by billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations to be part of a study on prison design. Gehry’s efforts, specifically the student prison design studios led by the American-Canadian architect, are the focus of the documentary Frank Gehry: Building Justice, which is scheduled to be screened at the upcoming edition of the New Orleans Architecture and Design Film Festival. “What if we started treating people like human beings, what would prison look like?” Jerry asks in the documentary.
At first glance, Gehry may seem an odd choice for a prison reform initiative. But Soros and the foundation’s then-director Chris Stone believed that Gehry could bring outside-the-box thinking to the project, as well as increase visibility to the issue. As for Gehry, he chose the architecture studio—specifically the master-level studios at SCI-Arc and the Yale School of Architecture—as a way to introduce prison design into school curricula and plant the seeds of reform in a new generation of designers. To help bring the project further, Gehry asked acclaimed director Ultan Guilfoyle to document the process; Guilfoyle previously directed the 2014 documentary Make Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture He produced the documentary by Sydney Pollack Frank Gehry sketches. “When Frank asks you if you would like to do something with him, there is only one answer: ‘Yes!’, even if you know that there will be challenges and difficulties in the future, which there already have been!” Guilfoyle explains.
Given the complexity of criminal justice reform, Guilfoyle carefully worked to have a low-impact presence while filming Jerry and the students throughout the process, which included studio discussions, site visits to several prisons (both local and foreign), and conversations with former inmates. . Among these stories, Susan Burton’s story provided a particularly insightful insight into life behind bars: After being a prisoner in California prisons for two decades, Burton was able to turn her life around and started the New Way of Life Reintroduction Project, which helps newly released prisoners adapt. With life abroad. “I experienced firsthand what I feel when I’m there, and what it does to a person’s soul and psyche,” she says in the film. “And that should be part of what was thought into this project.” A reformed system needs a more balanced view of prisons: “There are some people who, yes, we need to be safe from, but as we provide that safety for our communities, how do we treat those people?”
Burton accompanied the students on their trip to see Scandinavian prisons, which she says provide a much better correctional model. “The architecture there creates a place of healing, not a place of lack,” she says. Metropolis.
Perhaps the idea of healing becomes the main question of the film: is prison a punishment or rehabilitation? “The American regime is committed to harsh sanctions, bordering on brutality. “It starts the moment you walk in, and it doesn’t stop until long after you walk out,” Guilfoyle says. The film is not about popularizing specific design solutions. Rather, it is about understanding the challenges of prison design and the process undertaken by Gehry and his students. To be sure, when looking at the broader criminal justice reform movement, architects represent a small piece of a very large puzzle. However, as Yale student Jolanda Devall points out in the film, architects have a role to play: “What an architect can do here is show the future or suggest something the country can aspire to next.”
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