Documentary Film Explores How Architects Can Help Reform the Criminal Justice System

Frank Gehry: Building Justice, which is set to screen at the ADFF:NOLA festival, showcases how Gehry-led student architecture studios developed proposals for more humane prisons.

frank gehry building justice documentary
Frank Gehry and a student model from one of his studios on prison design Courtesy Frank Gehry: Building Justice

Thanks to initiatives like the Art for Justice Fund, Open Society Foundations, and a slew of insightful reporting, the American criminal justice system has been under great scrutiny and pressure to reform. Some of these changes have been quite prominent—such as the increasingly-widespread decriminalization of pot and pending major federal legislation—and have faced opposition from the powerful lobbying of the private prison corporations. However, despite the depth and breadth of criminal justice reform, one critically important element has remained mostly overlooked: the design of correctional facilities.

Enter Frank Gehry, who has been focused on the subject since 2016, when he was invited by billionaire philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundation to be part of a study on prison design. Gehry’s efforts, specifically student studios on prison design led by the American-Canadian architect, are the focus of the documentary Frank Gehry: Building Justice, which is set to screen at the Architecture & Design Film Festival’s upcoming New Orleans edition. “What if we start treating people like human beings—what would prison look like?” asks Gehry in the documentary.

At first glance, Gehry might seem a peculiar pick for a prison reform initiative. But Soros and the foundation’s then-director Chris Stone thought Gehry could bring outside-the-box thinking to the project, as well as higher visibility to the issue. As for Gehry, he selected the architecture studio—specifically, master-level studios at SCI-Arc and the Yale School of Architecture—as a means of introducing prison design to school curricula and planting the seeds of reform in a new generation of designers. To help further broadcast the project, Gehry asked renowned filmmaker Ultan Guilfoyle to document the process; Guilfoyle had previously directed the 2014 documentary Making Space: 5 Women Changing the Face of Architecture and produced of Sydney Pollack’s documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. “When Frank asks if you’d like to do something with him, there is only one answer: ‘Yes!’, even if you know there are going to be challenges and difficulties ahead, which there were, aplenty!” explains Guilfoyle.

Given the complexity of criminal justice reform, Guilfoyle worked carefully to have a low-impact presence while filming Gehry and the students throughout the process, which included studio discussions, field visits to several prisons (both domestic and abroad), and conversations with former inmates. Among the latter, Susan Burton’s story provided particularly acute insight into life behind bars: After being an inmate is California prisons for two decades, Burton managed to turn her life around and started the A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, which helps newly freed inmates adjust to life outside. “I have had firsthand experience what it feels like to be in there, what it does to a person’s spirit and psyche,” she says in the film. “And that needed to be a part of what was thought about in this project.” A reformed system needs a more balanced view of prisons: “There are some folks that, yes, we do need to be safe from, but while we are providing that safety for our communities, how are we treating these people?”

Burton accompanied the students on their trip to see Scandinavian prisons, which she says provide a far better correctional model. “The architecture there creates a place of healing, not a place of lack, of [deprivation],” she tells Metropolis.

frank gehry building justice documentary
A studio critique in Frank Gehry: Building Justice Courtesy Frank Gehry: Building Justice

That idea of healing perhaps becomes the film’s main question: Is incarceration punishment or rehabilitation? “The American system is dedicated to penal harshness, verging on brutality. It starts from the moment you enter, and it does not stop until long after you are outside,” says Guilfoyle. The film is not about disseminating specific design solutions. Rather, it’s more about understanding the challenges of prison design and the process Gehry and his students undertook. Granted, when looking at the wider criminal justice reform movement, architects are one small piece a very big puzzle. Nevertheless, as Yale student Jolanda Devalle points out in the film, architects do have a role to play: “What the architect can do here is to show a future or propose something that the country can then aspire to.”

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