Architecture and Abolition

Just Architecture

Volume 6, Issue 11
April 3, 2021

Following the murder of George Floyd, a group of artists, activists, designers, and organizers collectivized under the moniker Design as Protest and quickly assembled a list of nine “Design Justice Demands.” Among them was a striking call: to “cease support of the carceral state through the design of prisons, jails, and police stations.”1 The suggestion that a refusal to design something—refusing to give an idea physical and spatial form—might support the abolition of that thing demonstrates the power that we currently place on architecture and design thinking. But what power do architects truly have to make or unmake the criminal justice system?

Proposals to challenge the carceral state by refusing to build new prisons go back decades. In 1976, activists published a booklet titled “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists” which included among its three main goals a moratorium on all new prison building. In 2014, the San Francisco-based Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) filed a petition with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) calling on the organization to censure member architects who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers. The AIA finally adopted the demand in 2020.2 And yet prison construction continues apace. A quick scan of articles tagged under “prison construction” by The Marshall Project reveals numerous prisons slated for new construction in Los Angeles, Alabama, Kansas, Nebraska.3 The rise of for-profit prisons has contributed to this spate of new buildings.

The field has, sometimes cautiously, supported alternatives. In 2017, Frank Gehry led a studio at the Yale School of Architecture which asked students to propose projects that would “house three hundred men convicted of serious, primarily violent offenses, serving sentences between five and 15 years” (a standard that imagined the US was in step with incarceration rates in other developed nations). For abolitionists like CUNY Graduate Center geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, simply reducing prison populations is incompatible with abolition: “Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don’t we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?”4

By 2019, in collaboration with the same nonprofit partner, Impact Justice, Yale hosted a studio re-examining the criminal justice system altogether, this time through the lens of restorative justice. Restorative justice, which involves the direct interaction of victim and offender, is an inherently spatial practice: “the circle”— a simple ring of chairs—is the central site of encounter, of healing, of sentencing. And yet the “circle process” is often carried out, in the words of Justin Carbonella, Coordinator at the Middletown Youth Services Bureau and participant in Yale’s 2019 studio, “in spaces designed for other purposes”—schools, church basements, conference rooms.5 Just as the refusal to design prisons might, eventually, mean the end of prisons, opting to envision dedicated spaces for restorative justice might help us institutionalize the practice—first through potent imaginaries, and eventually in built form.

Might restorative justice offer an alternative model for architecture, in return? The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, one practitioner of the process, offers this framework: “If restorative justice were a building, it would have four cornerposts: 1) Inclusion of all parties, 2) Encountering the other side, 3) Making amends for the harm, 4) Reintegration of the parties into their communities.”6 What would an architecture of inclusion, encounter, and healing look like? It requires refusal, yes. But also the active disruption of the systems that feed the carceral state.

Alongside Design as Protest’s call to end the design of prisons and police stations was a demand to end “all efforts to implement defensible space and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) tactics.” CPTED—exemplified by “defensive” tactics like spikes to deter sleeping and sitting, trimming tree canopies to support site lines and surveillance, and aggressive use of light and sound—is known to disproportionately criminalize people of color. Their continued use, like that of prisons, is justified by the perception that they offer more “safety.” Many state powers still see CPTED practices, as they do prisons, as effective and indispensable. In fact, numerous national crime prevention groups offer online certification courses for designers. A restorative justice framework might offer a new approach to shared spaces—one emphasizing coexistence over criminalization.

The Bay Area nonprofit public policy organization SPUR undertook a project in 2019 to understand the current conditions and challenges of San José’s Guadalupe River Park. By far the most-cited concern of surveyed park-goers was the presence of unhoused people in the park. In step with rising housing costs, the city’s population experiencing homelessness had risen from 1,747 in 2017 to 6,097 in 2019. 38% of this group live in public spaces, and like homelessness nationwide, are disproportionately people of color.7 Rather than propose common CPTED interventions like removing park benches and public restrooms, SPUR embarked on a process rooted in research and dialogue with all park users. They also cited numerous case studies: a shared public “living room” in Seattle designed to foster encounter and empathy between housed and unhoused park-goers; in Copenhagen, a park designed with zoned lighting to accommodate those who might need to sleep there overnight; in Atlanta, a social worker hired by Woodruff Park to support positive interactions between housed and unhoused populations.

One can imagine further interventions: public spaces for safe drug use, free storage lockers for the unhoused, anti-surveillance zones in parks. The nine Design Justice Demands begin with refusal—”divest,” “discontinue,” “cease”—but eventually move toward action—“reimagine,” “advocate,” “center.” The architecture of abolition must first refuse, then reimagine and radically intervene.

  1. Design as Protest, “Demands,” Design As Protest, accessed March 22, 2021,
  2. Mabel O Wilson, “Carceral Architectures,” e-flux, accessed March 22, 2021,
  3. “Prison Construction: The Record,” The Marshall Project, accessed March 22, 2021, .
  4. Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 17, 2019), ↩︎
  5. Emily Abruzzo et al., Space for Restorative Justice (United States: Published by Impact Justice and Yale School of Architecture, 2019). ↩︎
  6. “About Restorative Justice,” Restorative Justice, accessed March 22, 2021, ↩︎
  7. “Coexistence in Public Space,” SPUR, January 27, 2021, ↩︎

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Volume 6, Issue 11
April 3, 2021