Detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Image courtesy of Reuters.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Image courtesy of Reuters.

This post doesn’t facetiously refer to the pain of our studio experience or the reality that a glamorous firm often pays bills by drawing big box stores or acres of office cubicles.  The real issue of injustice and design, addressed well by Architect Magazine in December, is the work of architects in designing prison space.  Are we collaborating, condoning, or even fine-tuning oppression and torture?  The oppression of minorities and specific socio-economic classes under our prison system is statistically real and the spectrum of torture practiced in this system is deemed a criminal’s “punishment” by the U.S. federal and state governments.  Whatever your political and social stance, designing for punishment or torture is an issue facing architecture.

I cannot try to address the current judicial system and won’t wax philosophic about crime and punishment.  It is a family passion as we are a family of lawyers; I, as the sole future architect in the clan, must also analyze the human (or inhumane) consequence of punishment as a spatial experience.  No longer does society formally use social shunning or corporeal punishment.  Variations of both certainly exist in the system and contemporary society, but it is our contemporary judicial system that now metes out a specific space and specific duration of confinement as its primary means of punishment.  The history of prisons is interesting, especially the turn taken in the Enlightenment era given their philosophy of both optics and “observation is control.”  A study of prisons throughout history and through cultures is certainly indicative of where we are and what we value.  As a designer, you will be faced with the decision to collaborate, improve, or boycott this end.

Early in my graduate work, I was asked to support a petition of design professionals, agreeing that I would never participate in prison project work during my career.  It was a decision I believed in and readily committed.  I’ve since filled in several years of experience on my resume, and contrary to my architecture student’s vow to never sell out my design ideals, I have participated on some very questionable projects.  One was a maximum security psych addition to a hospital where I suicide-proofed the inmate/patient rooms.  Another destroyed acres of forest in the name of luxury resort development where the owners claimed staff facilities as affordable housing for the adjacent community.  I actively supported nonprofits and political movements that would help to somehow balance out my design karma.  Many compromises happened consciously and inadvertently.  I was frantic to reconcile my need to bring in a paycheck and my personal beliefs that were being smeared across my drafting board (i.e. my computer screen).

Sustainable Ideals & society's compromises. Image courtesy of Treehugger.
The extent of these compromises has yet to touch prison work, but I am actually under a gag order not to discuss another project on which I participated; I went to my office each day with an increasingly worse stomach ache, beseeching forgiveness of all my Conscientious Objector Gods. I’m hoping that I still have the deed to my own soul after that one.

In a recent Architizer article,  the phenomenon of prison design is discussed and those in the design field or simply those interested are asked to participate in a Change.org petition to prohibit the design of spaces for torture or killing.  (Feel free to jump in at any time:   Change.org|Online Petition Form )  The discipline of architecture is not a neutral zone.  We reflect values in every design decision we make, from what suppliers to specify to how to represent the project to the public.

The Recession has been a dark time for the building industries and we were all desperate for work, closing our doors, laying off coworkers and friends, doing contract work indefinitely, working multiple jobs to support our families, and jumping ship to other disciplines. We’re not out of danger and many of us are still struggling. Currently, I have acted more decisively in determining the fields in which I will and will not work; I now have some experience under my belt and feel as though I have the power to assert my beliefs in the workplace.  A moral decision vs. a paying client hasn’t been popular in my not-so-distant-past and may have played a role in my being laid off at one point.  I am a single mother and need a paycheck as much as my fellow Revit ninja at the adjoining desk. However,  ethical compromise is too costly–at personal, design industry, and societal levels.

This year has been one of amazing discovery.  It’s not simply been personal adventures (some not so easy nor pleasant), but I am happy my education has continued beyond my official graduation.

The River Walk, San Antonio, TX

I’ve trekked across Texas rather inadvertently.  I ran to San Diego to return a friend’s dog, had Thanksgiving in Philly & NYC, and finally returned to my beloved Oregon Coast after having been gone for five years. No other place feels like home and it was amazingly renewing.  I didn’t even know that I needed it until I got there.

We always make labyrinths when we hit the beach. Manzanita, Oregon

Place affects me so profoundly.  I guess that’s why I went into the design of it.  I’m sensitive to the light, textures, distances, and overall themes or intents.  I’m hoping to become one of those landscape or architectural designers that can create places that are memorable and perhaps unique.

Gardens at The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA

Plants were also some of my favorite discoveries.  I’m a desert girl, so the native species of the Southwest as well as succulents are my top interests.  They are gorgeous.

Succulent gardens in the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA

They are bold and have dramatic characteristics, given their need to survive in extreme conditions.  Of course, their climate -appropriate application makes me happy.  I’m hoping to get to know the native plants in the Mountain West, so I can be more effective in my role as architectural and landscape designer at work and consulting locally.

Chapel of the Cross, Sedona, AZ

The Chapel of the Cross is currently my favorite fusion of landscape and architecture. It is striking, bold, and so beautifully integrated into the amazing red rock of Sedona.  I postponed my roadtrip itinerary–happily sleeping in my car as I had no hotel reservation–in order to stay longer and keep going back.  I think I was Catholic for two days.  It was hard not to pray and revel in the spirit there.  I don’t know what I felt; but the point is that such a place does evoke sincere emotional response.  Again, my driving purpose in my career is to hit that mark.

Chapel of the Cross, Sedona, AZ

Connecting. There is magic in places like this. I wax poetic & dramatic, yes, but this place truly is both. Author's Image

The satellite St. George development was sagebrush, asphalt, red rock and sporadic patches of incongruent, over-irrigated lawn in 1984.  A couple friends and I rode our bikes beyond the new construction and happened upon Native American petroglyphs.

The cluster of rock carvings related an inscrutable story while creating the boundaries of a central place of ritual on a horizontal plane of dark brown sandstone.  Their placement beckoned visitors to continue into a dark, cool labyrinth created naturally from a split in a rock, just wide enough that one adult might pass.

Exploring the ridge outside of Snow Canyon.

Exploring the ridge southwest of Snow Canyon. Ivins, UT. Author's image.

The absent designers– the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo People–had defined this place for ritual or celebration and its purpose felt as old as the geology beneath it. The solar placement, cultural significance, and incorporation of human scale with nature were certainly more intuitive to the place than the starkly bright, stick-built houses creeping ever closer.

anti-contextual architecture. too much dependence on water & air conditioning.

I’ve returned more recently but never found the circle of petroglyphs again.  The houses that had once laid siege against the hill now successfully occupy it. That prehistoric place of ritual shaped by nature and human hands claimed all that was within view as part of its experience and yet remained amazingly intimate. I search out that experience locally and when travelling and have succeeded in finding fascinating pockets of place that are similarly indigenous and ingenious in design.  I did not outgrow my bias for this union of the built and the natural.  I cannot divorce the experience of architecture from the land and have been frequently puzzled at instructors who questioned why I insisted on drawing from site, history, and ecology in my design work.


My motivation is not the flat cliché of “letting the outside in,” but rather seeking out a unified complexity in design that results from integrated systems thinking. My method of design incorporates the use of local materials, intelligent response to climate and seasons, understanding native plants, and bold design work.

Finding stories in every crevice. Connecting to our environment. Author's Image.

Having lived in the widely diverse environments of the Southwest deserts, Idaho’s farmland, downtown Portland, and the metropolitan density of the Northeast, I know to first research how indigenous cultures and vernacular building traditions operated within local ecological systems to effectively shape an appropriate contemporary architectural design or urban planning intervention; I have successfully used this approach in creating sustainable and culturally thoughtful projects locally and internationally. The way I see as an artist and how I work as a designer is very much due to beginning my explorations on red rock.