By Rahsaan Thomas
A group of incarcerated men with no architectural experience, created design ideas for a better America that were displayed in a museum overlooking New York’s Central Park.
“It’s surreal. It’s something to be proud of,” said Noah Wright, one of the four incarcerated designers of the Genesis Project. “Sitting in here, you don’t expect that people want to hear what you have to say. It’s a new and exciting feeling.”
The Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum exhibit displayed more than 60 design ideas about building a better society. The exhibit, called “By the People: Designing a Better America,” included the contribution of three teams of men incarcerated at San Quentin.
One, Project Genesis, envisions a community where everyone has something at stake and the motto, “Do good and you will receive good in return.” Members start living there in a tent and then build tailor-made homes with the aid of the community.
The other three Project Genesis designers are Chanthon Bun, Vaughn Miles and Omid Mokri.
Daeanna Van Buren spearheaded getting prisoners’ restorative space ideas included at the Smithsonian. She took time out from her own practice, Designing Justice, Designing Spaces, and held a workshop inside San Quentin teaching how to design restorative spaces.
“If I’m designing a building, it’s not for me; it’s for the people,” said Van Buren. “It’s a place for you, so I have to do it with you. I’m not going to interview you; I’m going to show you how to design and you build the model.”
Van Buren made a security-friendly tool kit that prisons allow her to bring inside for incarcerated people to make models.
When the Smithsonian called on her to submit her students’ work, she teamed up with Inside Prison Project’s Karena Montag and Williams James Association’s Duya Alwan to call on incarcerated men for the project. Artist Amy Ho, architects Pryce Jones and Zoey Parsigian also helped with the workshop.
“Nobody was talking to incarcerated people, and they stand the most to gain in the changes,” said Van Buren. “Slaves built the pyramids, slaves built the Taj Mahal, and slaves built the White House. When we go to build an equitable society, the people who are going to use it should have a say in the design.”
Richard Zorns, Chris Marshall, Tommy Ross and Michael Williams designed A New World, another model displayed.
A New World seeks to make Restorative Justice an experience positively reinforced wherever you turn. It is filled with reminders of Restorative Justice concepts, like video screens of people reciting, “Violence is not the solution to any problem.”
“Restorative Justice is an experience,” said Zorns. “If you give it the opportunity, it can bloom, blossom and become something. I would like to see it built. I think it would bring communities together.”
The Restorative Justice Design Group was created by Gary Harrell, Manuel Murillo, Orlando Harris, Chris Christensen and Mark Stanley. They envision a community designed to foster healing for people who caused harm, the people harmed, their families and the community. It features circular living spaces and an open atmosphere.
“We created an atmosphere that was open so they (people) would feel nature and a connection to the area,” said Harrell.
Van Buren added, “The reaction: People were really inspired; they were moved by it. I think people are ready to be dispelled of the myths of who an incarcerated person is. They want to see the whole person. I think our project taps into empathy and makes people see in a different way.”
“These were like thesis projects,” said Alwan. “They were comprehensive approaches to address why people land in prison. One had a drug treatment center for families.”
The workshop started with five teams of which the three design models were chosen.
“I was worried they were only gonna pick one,” said Van Buren. “The fact that they choose more is a testament to the quality of the work.”
Ho added, “I love that this project is a reflection of people who have been incarcerated themselves, instead of just academics and politicians. The amount of creativity and talent that was expressed through this project was incredibly inspiring.”
The exhibit runs until Feb. 26 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., Manhattan; 212-849-2950; cooperhewitt.org.