Correct architecture and the architecture of corrections
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, September 19, 1998)

Lofty dreams of cultural expression mingled with the cruel realities of crime and punishment at the three-day American Institute of Architects conference that ended Saturday in Toronto. Courthouse design was the conference theme, but a less exalted subject kept pushing its way onto the agenda: how to keep criminals and terrorists from killing judges, lawyers, and citizens. Courthouses are part of "the corrections industry," the jail-building, jail-equiping business, which has its own language and its own ambience.

The distinction between correct architecture and the architecture of corrections sometimes blurred, though the conference organizers tried to segregate the two themes. At the western end of the Convention Floor of the Royal York Hotel, 500 or so professionals listened to eloquent speeches about the noble and inspiring face that justice can present to the world through the right sort of architecture. At the eastern end of the same floor they picked up their free copies of Correctional Building News, a trade journal advertising precast concrete jail-cell modules, maximum security sprinklers that can't be activated as a lark by people with too much time on their hands, and "safe, sanitary padded cells."

High ideals at one end of the convention, high fences at the other.

Many architects and engineers in attendance were hoping to profit from what others consider lamentable trends. Americans have become habitually, even insanely litigious, thereby vastly increasing the need for courtroom time. Meanwhile, major criminal trials run longer every year. This means the country needs more courthouses, delightful news for architects. The U.S. federal government alone has a $10-billion (U.S.) courthouse-building program, which means $500-million (U.S.) or so in architectural fees. Canada is building courthouses too, but not at such a pace.

At the west end of the convention floor, James Beight, a Washington architect, was explaining that "No other building type communicates as much about our society as does the courthouse." Courthouses, he and his colleagues agreed, are a little like medieval cathedrals: they express the will and the hopes of the people.

At the other end of the floor, in the trade fair, a salesman from Gallagher Security was anxious to talk about non-lethal perimeter electric fencing. Gallagher has taken a firm stand against lethal fences, for five reasons, given in its literature in this order: they're too expensive, guards don't like working near them, they don't perform well in snow and rain, they endanger wild animals, and finally, "the moral and legal issues surrounding lethal fencing are as-yet unanswered." This means that killing people for trying to escape from prison may or may not be acceptable practice. However, Gallagher can surround your building with a non-lethal perimeter fence that delivers "a short, sharp, but safe and humane shock," harmless to birds and even people with pacemakers. Any rabbit who happens along will be surprised, admittedly, but he'll live through it.

In the design symposium, Arthur Erickson, the architect of the Vancouver courthouse complex and many other structures, demonstrated once more that after he talks for ten minutes about the immense store of wisdom he has accumulated over the decades, everyone feels that something important has just happened although no one can recall anything he said.

On the same day, the vice-president for technology of an architecture firm in Peoria, J. Michael Henson, discussed the need for glass-enclosed spaces in courtrooms to contain unruly prisoners during their trials and for courtroom walls made of what he called "ballistic-rated materials." Like other security people, he spoke in euphemisms. In this world, there are no jails, only "facilities"--and "ballistic-rated" means bulletproof. Sometimes, Henson explained, police officers in courtrooms are forced to use their weapons, and "if they have to fire a round they want it to stop at the wall and not hit the secretary in the office next door."

Larry Richards, dean of architecture at the University of Toronto, was addressing the issue of timelessness in architecture. He showed a picture of the Parthenon, also a picture of Skylab. He suggested that "architecture is about time" and our feelings about lightness and heaviness have been altered by space travel and the Internet. "Like it or not, most of us here are living in cybercities."

Over at the trade fair, some visitors were learning new terms, such as "detention hardware," which means everything from handcuffs to electric doors, all of it made for "the detention market." Frank Dozier, director of computer security for the federal courts in Washington, explained that architects must consider security, which can be endangered by courthouse managers who aren't careful which maintenance people and phone crews they admit to their buildings. They could be agents, ready to steal secrets from garbage. Even the cleaning staff are suspect: "Enemy governments and the Mob have enough money to buy cleaning crews." Eternal vigilance is the price of secrecy.

Robert Campbell, the architect who writes brilliantly about architecture for the Boston Globe, was explaining that in past generations the courthouse usually embodied communal values, which are hard to identify today. "How do you make a building that is both a memory and an invention at the same time?" Campbell asked. "It must represent our tradition to us--and represent the continuity of that tradition."

Back at the trade fair, a salesman from Waco Composites Inc., of Waco, Texas, was explaining ArmorCore (slogan: "The bullet stops with ArmorCore"), a form of fibre-glass panelling. It covers doors, judicial benches, even the walls of whole courtrooms. The salesman had a picture of a judge sitting behind an ArmorCore bench decorated with the scales of justice. The salesman was explaining to a group of curious architects that if someone manages to get a rifle into the courtroom, and fires even a 7.62mm lead core full metal copper jacket bullet at the judge, and if the judge takes the simple precaution of crouching behind the bench, why, then, the judge will live to rule again another day. ArmorCore is ballistic-rated. And it's easy to install.

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