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Wednesday, June 6, 2012


The Last Word BY THOM NICKELS ICON MAGAZINE JUNE 2012 Thom Nickels Rarely if ever does the design of a new prison get the attention of the architectural community. What usually happens is that old, abandoned prisons get noticed but for quite different reasons. Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, for instance, was built in 1896 and designed by an architectural firm, Wilson Brothers & Company, whose name sounds more like a shoe manufacturer than a reputable architect on the order of, say, John Haviland, who designed Eastern State Penitentiary. In general, architects of note seem to rarely design prisons, almost as if they find the whole process counter-inspirational. The Holmesburg design copied the layout of Eastern State Penitentiary, especially the way the lighting of individual prison cells came through sun light slits in each cell roof. Holmesburg’s fieldstone walls have a foreboding and medieval look, and the prison’s spoke and wheel design radiates outward Eastern State style, a kind of Mandela or stone sun radiating not light but rays of appalling conditions, like abuse and torture. Holmesburg, of course, was a prison steeped in scandal, going back to 1922 when The Evening Public Ledger called it “the worst prison in the United States.” This summing up practically duplicates Charles Dickens’ comments on ESP when he toured it in 1842. The small and otherwise quaint town of Holmesburg took a particularly hard beating from Philadelphia when it was selected as the dumping ground for incarcerated undesirables. Up the street from Holmesburg Prison is the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility. Two buildings in such close proximity give a good portion of the town the look of a barbed wire camp. This is no Neiman Marcus strip mall. No doubt the people of Holmesburg never wanted their town to be a force field for medical testing in the 1950s, when University of Penn dermatologist Albert Kligman, got the green light to test radioactive isotopes on unsuspecting convicts, or when the CIA did their part when they tested psychotropic drugs on prisoners. Prisons designed today may not have the look of ESP, but what happens when architect-designers start acting like sociologists? How do you build a chic prison that would make prisoners feel better about themselves than those poor souls in Holmesburg? Is it possible to design something that would make everyone wish they were incarcerated there? Two students from the Penn School of Design, Andreas Tjeldflaat and Greg Knobloch, set about doing just this. Their goal was to design an alternative to traditional prisons in the United States. Called the 499.Summit – Skytropolis, the final design of this new urban penitentiary includes three towers in the shape of an arch, with each arch symbolizing incarceration, transformation, and integration. ‘Static’ is something the design is not. The circulatory feel of the proposed structure is an illusion because it is really something akin to frozen treachery on the verge of unfreezing and lashing out, a sort of pit bull Cyclops or a robotic cop straight out of George Orwell’s Ministry of Love (1984). It is clearly evident that the architects have never known or visited someone in prison. The implied mission statement of the design is that it would reduce reacvidism because of the symbolic flow of the “healing” of the building’s circulatory parts (symbolizing transformation and integration) that resemble monstrous human appendages. Skytropolis is nothing but an academic exercise in dark satire. Where has anyone read that exterior spaces can work interior changes in the lives of prisoners? Buildings may soothe, comfort and provide a sense of aesthetic pleasure, but to say that they can change internal physiognomy is delusional. If anything, this towering, cold design does little to produce feelings of peace and happiness, especially the all-seeing eye lens screen at the top, which ought to have a flashing neon sign reading: A college example of spectacle over substance. *** EXCESSIVE PEDOPHILE SPOTTING In Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, there’s a story called Hands that speaks to a certain mood in the nation today. That crisis is called extreme Predator Spotting. Can you spot a predator? In Anderson’s story the main character is not really a predator; he’s someone who has been mistaken as a predator because as a school teacher he had been a little too free with his hands. A lonely man of quiet power, as a school teacher Adolph Meyer would think nothing of caressing the shoulders or the tussled hair of his male students in order to give them encouragement. Sexual abuse was not on this man’s mind, but one day one of the students, plagued by a forbidden fantasy, accuses Meyer of using his hands for other things. Without benefit of a trial or hearing, the townspeople beat and attempt to hang Meyer, forcing him to move to another town and change his name. In a nation (and world) heavily tarnished by child sex abuse, it is understandable if Predator Spotting (PS) has gotten out of hand. After all, look at Jerry Sandusky: athletic coach, all American family man, and churchgoer. When the Penn State crises erupted students and residents there were shocked that a respected pillar of the community—a married heterosexual man-- was being branded as a pedophile. That shock expressed itself in countless interviews with students and residents trying to make sense out of the accusations, and attempting to piece together the allegations with the man they thought they knew. Once a pillar of the community, Sandusky didn’t fit the stereotype, but the Penn State folks, if they’d been up on the subject, would have realized that the classic predator is not “detectable” at all: there’s no Oscar Wilde flamboyance, no lavender perfume. While it’s a good thing that real cases of child sex abuse continue to be prosecuted, has the attention given to this issue over the last ten years has now led to an era of overcompensation? Are we entering a fever pitch era where “any cost” could mean a kind of Orwellian overreach? Consider a recent suspension of a Delaware County Catholic school principal after a “safe environment” training course was implemented in the school. The trainer no doubt went into St. Madeline-St. Rose parish school with good intentions. The mission was to elaborate on appropriate boundaries between students and teachers. In some presentations like this, one can easily imagine a trainer asking the students to review in their mind what they have experienced from teachers that made them feel uncomfortable. One can visualize this as a test question that students feel obligated to answer. “Reach!” the trainer may have said, “Can you tell me if any boundaries were broken? Think! Think!” According to news reports, a few kids raised their hands and pinpointed the principal. They complained that “he did things to make them feel uncomfortable.” The Predator Spotting Alarm then went off. A private huddle among administrators followed, and then the kids are brought into a room and questioned. A female student said that the principal put the manufacturer’s tag back in her shirt. A male student said that the principal put a wet finger in his ear. Other male students complained that the principal entered the restroom when they were there. As a result of these accusations, the principal was put on leave while police and the DA investigated the charges, which in the end were dismissed. Meanwhile, the professional reputation of the principle lies in ruins. He may be transferred to another school but wherever he goes there will be a cloud of suspicion over his head. Administrators won’t hire him for another school because of his controversial background. Supporters of high velocity PS will say that this is a small price to pay for the thousands of children who continue to be abused nationwide. That’s an easy thing to say when it’s not your reputation or future on the line. My eight years in a Catholic grammar school and four years in a public high school entailed many encounters with teachers who made me feel uncomfortable. The nuns, for instance thought nothing of walking into the Boys Room when they felt that the boys were in there too long. Looking back, I was ear lobe pinched, ruler slapped, and made to clap erasers, and these were the comfortable experiences. .