Meet the architect imagining a world without prisons
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Deanna van Buren has one piece of career advice for women — and black women in particular: “Follow your own guidance”.
The 48-year-old activist-architect applies this rule not only to her own personal and professional development, but also to her business and its projects. Van Buren is co-founder and executive director of California-based architectural practice Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), and one of just 502 African-American women architects in the US.
Her not-for-profit company’s ambitious agenda is a world without prisons, as set out by her in a 2017 TED Talk.
“I don’t have a lot of mentors, I have followed my own intuitive sensibilities,” she says, speaking via Zoom from an office in Oakland, California. “It feels good to me, and it’s not sanctioned by the systems in place. If you follow the systems it’s going to be wrong, because it wasn’t designed for you.”
Van Buren says her architectural practice is “black, female-led”, and three-quarters of staff are people of colour. “It breeds innovation. The more diverse your staff, the better your stuff is going to be.”
DJDS’s target is the US justice system, and the disproportionate presence of black people in its facilities.
The US has the largest prison population in the world at more than 2m, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. Black men and women are more likely to be imprisoned than any other ethnic group, with a rate that stood at nearly 600 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2018, according to Statista, the data company.
DJDS was founded to counter the traditional architecture of justice — such as courthouses and prisons — with buildings and infrastructure that would form part of an alternative known as “restorative justice”.
The firm’s best-known project is Restore Oakland, a 20,000 sq ft community centre opened in 2019. The building was adapted specifically to help in resolving conflict between perpetrators and victims of crime, and as an alternative to prison, while also providing jobs training and business incubation.
Its restorative justice rooms are as far from a civic courthouse as is possible to imagine: walls that can be reconfigured, community artefacts, artwork pinned to “expression walls” and flanked by “peacemaking zones”. A similar peacemaking centre designed by DJDS and the local community is operating in Syracuse, New York.
Van Buren’s practice was founded in 2015 with a developer called Kyle Rawlins. It had taken her some time, she says, to work out how her profession might contribute to activism and social causes.
As the daughter of a music professor growing up in rural Virginia, she never met an architect. “But as soon as I heard about it as an option, I knew I would be one,” she says. “I would make spaces for myself at the side of the house, or in the forest. There is something about the construction of an environment that is innate to me.”
She won a scholarship to study architecture at the University of Virginia, followed by a masters degree at Colombia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation — traditional training for mainstream careers.
At big, established firms in the UK and Australia, Van Buren worked on glitzy projects, such as shopping malls and entertainment venues in Asia and the Middle East.
That international perspective was invaluable: “As a black woman growing up in the US, to leave and experience life in other countries and to be seen in a different way, was important,” she says.
“By the time I got back to the US, I was a very different person, a global citizen and more accomplished.”
On her return in the mid-2000s, Van Buren discovered the emerging public interest design movement, which champions architecture that serves the needs of ordinary people. “I wasn’t sure how to do it, but I needed to make it happen rather than working on corporate projects.”
At first, she turned to the work she knew best: “institutional, developments, rich people’s houses”. She even worked on the headquarters of animation studio Pixar in Emeryville, California, and on lucrative architectural designs for video games. But she also had “a side hustle going on”.
“I started design-build work for non-profits, developing environments that supported the arts, and for social impact work. And I was waking up to the concept of restorative justice through the work of [civil rights activists] Fania and Angela Davis,” she says.
“No one had ever talked about designing for [restorative justice]. I was told no way I was going to be able to build a business doing it. But I knew the video game work was sustainable enough to [support me to] at least give it a try.”
The first venture: high school
Her first project, completed in 2010, was Castlemont Peacemaking Room, for Oakland’s pilot restorative justice programme in schools — which aimed to provide an alternative to pupil exclusions and expulsions.
The project had funding but the venue was “a junky trailer with nasty carpet and broken-down shelves”.
Grant funding was only available to pay for the work, not for the built environment, she says: “But you can’t start implementing programmes with no places for them to happen.”
Van Buren cleaned up the space, lined the walls with uniform bookshelves and replaced strip bulbs with domestic lighting. She drove a truck to pick up new carpet. Following the pilot, the programme was rolled out in district schools across the city.
More ambitious ventures followed as the vision of the business started to grow, the types of project started to emerge, “and I started to get more substantial grant funding to pilot ideas”.
A later project was the Women’s Mobile Refuge Trailer for women released from prison. Van Buren and her team started by asking 60 female prisoners in San Francisco’s County Jail #2 what they would need on release. “Often they were released in middle of the night and needed a safe space. They needed comfortable chairs, clothes and a caseworker — not beds.”
New president, new justice policy?
More projects are in development, including mobile refuge rooms for prisoners commissioned by a probation service, and plans to radically redevelop the Atlanta City detention centre.
“We need more and more spaces and places that don’t [yet] exist,” says Van Buren. And she is optimistic that restorative justice is a movement whose time has come.
During the US presidential election, the Biden campaign said his administration would expand “other effective alternatives to detention”, and consider increased federal funding for alternatives.
“We are watching and waiting to see their commitment to ending this system,” says van Buren. “Even during the Trump years, some of the most progressive things were happening in California. So, we could move even faster with a different administration.”
Van Buren speaks fast while also setting out her points carefully. Years of explaining a radical — and controversial — policy, and making the case for funding, have honed her communication skills.
“We are abolitionists and we have a hard line,” she says. “But we still talk to and listen to everyone.”
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