Behind Tschumi-red Corbusian glasses resides the misguided mind of Raphael Sperry. Parading as an architect-activist, his most recent (if not most eloquently named) article entitled, “Why a Prison Like Pelican Bay Should Never Be Designed Again,” Sperry provides childlike suburban insight into the state of American prisons. The result is an all-American hashtag screaming #firstworldproblems.
Sperry first describes American prisons as places of “intolerable unfairness,” providing extraneous examples of trashed birthday cards and finite undergarments — boy, it’s nothing like a lost birthday card that really gets my blood boiling, as if society could stop tweeting for two seconds to lick a stamp. Plato showed us that societies inherently create intolerable unfairness, but we live with it simply because we have no other choice.
To better judge the effectiveness of a prison, one must first define the point of a prison in its broadest sense. Put simply, prisons exist to separate certain individuals from the rest of society for the safety and good of the people. By extension, solitary confinement is a prison within a prison. In addition, to differentiate incarceration from banishment, there is a certain level to punishment and the loss of freewill attached to prison sentences. It is why we have prisons instead of pre-apocalyptic Smokers (but let’s not get into pirates).
As you read on, you begin to realize Sperry cannot define, “humane.” Without defining minimal standards, Sperry states, “Prisoners are not typically our clients, but they are part of our world, and they deserve the same minimal standards as anyone else.” Frankly, if he did begin to define minimal standards, we could find examples across the world of people who have not committed crimes living in “sub-minimal-standard conditions.” Is it not a better use of our time to donate used inmate apparel to the less fortunate across the world? Now that’s symbolism… Let’s be real, architects are a luxury. The world doesn’t need us, but we like to think it does, sometimes so empathetically as to allude to the Hippocratic Oath as Sperry does.
The gaping hole in his argument is that he misunderstands Thomas Jefferson’s view that, all men are created equal — before the law of course, but after the law, well… things might not be so equal anymore (but that’s your fault for breaking the law, and if you want to talk about your substandard nature vs. nurture that led you to commit a crime, then you can take it up with Thomas Hobbes). While we’re on the topic of fairness (as if there were some universal measure of the bottom-line), Sperry comes off as one who is not particularly well-travelled, blasphemy for an architect, this “servant of society,” for if Sperry had ever lived in China, spent a week in India, or visited a Thai prison, he would understand that people are born into places far more inhumane, intolerable, and isolated than Pelican Bay Prison. Suddenly American prisons don’t seem half-bad, you realize that at least America provides clean underwear for its inmates, a dry place to sleep, food, and clean water — and even solitary confinement, isolated showers, and “yard” time become luxuries to those who have been raped, drugged, and beat in any prison. To those born into extreme poverty, the American prison would be a step up in living conditions. Simply because Americans have inherently been born into more freedoms, more luxuries, and more disillusionment, should they expect more even as inmates? It seems like a highly culturally relativistic notion coming from a “social justice activist” who throws the word humane around like an AmEx.
On technicalities of sentencing, punishment, and mental stability, these are issues affected by law, not architecture. Neither is it the charge of architecture to rehabilitate people, and to try would be brutum fulmen — or would it? The truth is, people for centuries have lived, survived, and thrived in places less “humane” than this Pelican Bay Prison and will go on to do so.
Finally, the over-arching term, “mentally ill” is far more complex than the way Sperry uses it. Figure this, how do we differentiate the mentally ill from the criminally insane or the anti-social? Was the inmate ill or unstable when he was born? Was he ill or unstable when he committed his crime? Was he ill or unstable when he entered prison? Is it the role of society to rehabilitate the mentally ill?
Should architects design spaces particular to the rehabilitative needs of each inmate?
Poetic huh? Write a thesis. Then get back to us.
Like an impetuous and premature first-time or waking up without beer goggles, sometimes the world reminds us of humbling experiences that have defined our youth and sculpted us into the fine human beings we are today. This week, I awoke to a most nostalgic email that oozed ambition, dripped desperation, and stunk with virginal entitlement. To introduce an exhibit that needs no introduction, behold — the best cover letter ever written:
Applying For Internship
To whom it may concern:
Work experience for teenagers? Yes, but that does not mean basic training, simple task, naive teenagers, etc. I am proficient in AutoCAD, Photoshop and Sketchup, and I am only grade 11. There is no doubt about my communication skills, as I am the top 5% of my grade. Leadership? no problem. I am the leader of student government and have operated many volunteers and activities on my own.
I am looking forward to having a part-time work experience at your studio. Please reply to this email if you are interested in me — I really need your favor.
[big fish, small pond]
Leader of Student Government,
SUIS High School
For those of us consumed in deadlines and change orders, what has become of us? Have we lost the fierce determination that once propelled us through architecture school? Naivety aside, we must applaud this kid’s initiative and blind confidence – a confidence to leap into the unknown and tackle any and all obstacles. For those who applaud the daring, who shall bequeath this young man the favor he so audaciously desires?
One of our obsessions has been, and always will be, scaffolding. There is something about it; this thin wiry layer that echoes its contents. Maybe it’s the way it billows, maybe it’s the way it conceals. All I know is that I want to climb into it.
We’re walking around Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor area, a healthy mix of commercial, retail, and the occasional memorial. Berlin is still a young town – new developments are still going up, and that means scaffolding. A lot of scaffolding.
Scaffolding sets the urban stage. Scaffolding is here today, and gone tomorrow. But here in Berlin, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Behind a flimsy fortification of construction hoarding, a tarnished grey fabric clung and rippled around a clumsily large surface. Hardly seeing the edges of the building behind it, the fabric rippled around a large billboard placed on it – a billboard of white space from none other than Apple.
In a city so newly temporary, is it possible to use these scaffolding-screens as theaters? Can we have screenings at these screens? Maybe the drive-in theater will become instead, the walk-in theater.
There seems to be two camps in terms of representation: people who love silhouettes and people
who love people. We’ve all made both, and quickly we seem to put ourselves into one camp or
the other. There seems to be very little middle ground.
I like people. The starkness of the silhouettes populating the scene give off a coldness, a
ghostliness, of a not yet conceived project. It seems to keep a project in another world entirely—a
world devoted to the abstraction of the render, pristine with shiny materials and black figures.
Zaha Hadid employs the use of the silhouette, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who
has visited her work. There’s inaccessibility to it, a lack of a connection between the computer
rendering and the actual build work. The intangible computer model somehow is translated into a
built architecture, but the blatant disrespect of the human experience still evident in the obvious
struggle to build the unbuildable. She employs the silhouette with shiny spaceship materials to
create a sterile, pristine world.
On the other hand, Archigram conveys scenes that are composed more of people than of
architecture. In a sense the people communicate more the interpretation of the architecture rather
than the scale. The architecture is more present in the actions and interpretations of the people
than the actual build object.
I’m not interested in communicating with clients, which most people say is the reason why
visualization firms such as Luxigon and Labtop employ the use of the person instead of the
silhouette. The innocent bystanders who somehow end up in our renderings exhibit their
emotions, personality, and style, giving another layer of interpretation for the viewer. Very
carefully we curate our renderings to present the people we like, the people we identify with,
the people who will interact with our projects the best even just through the fantasy of the 2D
rendering. We invite the same people back to the party over and over again.
So what are you, a horse or a zebra?
Trained and tested in the flames of inadequacy, the fertile ashes of destitution provide for the emergence of the ripe succulent — so is the rise of the promoted intern. There’s nothing quite like that point in an architect’s career where they go from being an intern to having interns. For some, this is a gradual transition, for others, the brilliant metamorphosis comes with the casualness of a coin flip, such abrupt transitions contain a moment of eureka. Through being spit on, kicked, and blamed for your supervisor’s oversights — you really begin to think about how you treat other people, especially those who are in a place you so recently crawled out from. These are my post-destitute reflections on how to treat interns:
1. Assume interns are as smart as you and kindly compensate when necessary. Simply because an intern doesn’t know what a bulb tee is, can’t spell, “spider joint,” and thinks flashing has something to do with Tiesto, doesn’t make them useless. Your job as an architect includes utilizing their strengths and developing their areas of weakness.
2. Always take credit with “we” and accept blame with “I.” This is more a rule for the workplace in general. Don’t be the dick that “doesn’t make mistakes.”
3. Give of your time. There will always be too much work to do, training your interns right the first time will prevent you from having to redline every fifteen minutes. It’s the whole, “teach a man to fish…” thing.
4. Approximate time you expect work to be finished by and be forgiving if they don’t deliver exactly as you expect. Interns are rarely subversive. Consider the fact you might suck at explaining things.
5. Don’t assign busy work. If there is nothing to do, suggest your intern to work on a tutorial.
6. And this next one has happened, otherwise I wouldn’t say it — don’t take food from interns. Even if they offer, you should be hesitant. At no point ever should you snatch up food from an interns desk munching happily as you condescendingly explain a project.
7. Stop Talking. Leave the friendly banter for the bar, ’tis better to give directions and go. You’ll increase productivity and your interns will respect you for sparing them the obligatory small talk. In some situations, the small talk can be helpful, but keep it to a minimum.
Alternatively, if you’re still an intern:
1. Ask if there is work to do. Don’t sit around expecting work to find you — that’s how you get assigned busy work.
2. Don’t sigh like a little bitch.