Issue 13, Volume 18
The criminal justice system, as it stands, is not delivering great outcomes. Our prisons are rife with sexual and physical abuse, they dehumanise and stigmatise those who enter them, and if we are looking at their function as making our societies safer, they don’t even work. This project is a conceptual exploration of what an alternative model might look like. It aims to allow the conceptualisation of an intangible concept, namely restorative justice, and how it might adapt the symbology and edifice of Australia’s current justice system.
The current model of criminal justice grew out of a punitive model, making it structurally resistant to incorporating social reform as an institutional goal. This leads to the mentally ill, and those who may be victims themselves, being warehoused in prisons, where they are subjected to more fear and violence, leading to the release of more damaged people back into society.
If we are to look at reform, we can’t view the prison in isolation. In order to implement structural change to a broken system, we have to travel up the chain to look at the court, and then, to the community from which both ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ come from. The current legal system categorises ‘offender’ and ‘victim’ as distinct and adversarial entities, removing them from the communal fabric of their shared experience. This distinction is a false one, because crime (especially violent crime) is to a large extent a symptom of a broken community, not only of individual moral failings.
A seemingly radical alternative to the current model is Restorative Justice, a system for addressing and preventing harm that moves beyond punishment and aims at healing. Instead of a system based on law, Restorative Justice is a much more individualised and non-hierarchical system that tackles each case on an individual basis.
Under this system, instead of someone who takes from another being branded a thief, and the victim gaining only the empty satisfaction of revenge-through-sentencing, this system sees both members of the community come together, to attempt to heal the rift that the action has caused. A structured discussion, set in an adaptive space, would allow for a more nuanced response than the punitive system we have today. Restorative Justice as a system has been trialled, and leads to higher victim and offender satisfaction, as well as lower recidivism rates.
My project provides a space for this new form of justice to take place. Situated in the current Melbourne CBD Justice Precinct, the project breaks down the current court buildings – representations of hierarchy, scale, monumentality, and a punitive justice system.
It uses the pieces of the previous court buildings to create a vision of a new future. This fragments and adapts the Supreme Court to become a new symbol of Restorative Justice, while the fragments of the other courts are spread horizontally across the site, deconstructing its barriers and integrating it into the community which it serves. The project tears down the central tower of the Supreme Court, its scale originally intended to evoke intimidation and awe, replacing it with a central garden and gathering space that steps down into the earth – emphasising that this new precinct’s heart rests in the ideals of growth, community and communal discussion.
The architectural intervention is simply a framework in which justice can begin to occur. It attempts to move away from a government or lawyer’s vision of justice, with the loose architectural framework instead becoming a system in continual flux, and an organism of communal restoration.
On a smaller scale, what replaces the courtroom are what I’ve named “Refabrication Circles”. The courtroom is laid out to instil awe in the Judge – the living embodiment of “the Law”, and deliberately splits the parties, to make it easier for them to perform their parts as adversaries. In contrast, the Refabrication Circles remove the suggestion of hierarchies by simply providing a canvas in which the users can design their own spaces. Instead of the court, which is designed on a one-size-fits-all basis, the Refabrication Circle creates a customisable space that recognises our pluralistic society and people’s different needs. Rather than a space designed to evoke awe and intimidation, with distinct spaces for each of its players, the design principles of a “Refabrication Circle” are focused on the need for transparency, a framework for specificity, and the encouragement of community engagement in their own justice system.
These “Refabrication Circles” achieve these principles with 3 spatial elements:
1) The circle itself, a central zone where discussion between those who have been harmed, those who have harmed, and mediators or professionals relevant to the case takes place;
2) Fabric veil dividers that allow the spaces to be split and configured in various ways; and
3) A kit of parts taken from the fragments of the previous courts, which can be used as tables, chairs, props, and canopies.
In some areas, fragments have simply been arranged to form a circle of tables and chairs for discussion. In others, the dividers have split the space into different areas, allowing moments within the structured discussion where different parties can split and discuss certain issues. In some parts of the site, large fragments of the previous courts have become canopies. The flexibility of the kit of parts allows users to construct large tables to discuss around, and the minimalist intervention of the circle allows it to even be ignored if unnecessary for those particular proceedings.
These Refabrication Circles are located both internally and externally. They are the spaces which the project is built around. The internal spaces of the previous Supreme Court allow for formal Restorative justice practices to take place, using the same loose framework of circle, veil and fragments.
The breaking up of the spaces creates a sense of porosity within the once very closed off building. In some areas, the configuration of the veils allows for intimate one-on-one mediation, while other areas create more open forums that encourage others to join and discuss.
The internal spaces of the formal Restorative Justice area hold memories of the previous court, but the building has been opened up to continually allow transparency and a link back to the community.
The centre, where the tower once stood, is a garden that steps down: a symbol of growth and community gathering and discussion.
Meanwhile, the external area becomes a landscape of informal Refabrication Circles. This improves access to justice and normalises the justice process, integrating it back into the community, as it creates a public landscape in which people can walk past, watch, and even be involved in the justice process.
Research has shown that areas with higher social cohesion and closer social bonds have lower rates of violent crime. In this way, the project not only attempts to create a space for Restorative justice to take place on an individual level, but it also attempts to stitch together our social fabric through an open, public forum, creating a space where justice is no longer punitive, hidden, and entrenched in power dynamics, but rather open, communal, and adaptable to each individual case.
What is created in the end is an act of communal restoration, where the fragmented memories of a broken system are rearranged to create something that works towards a collective growth.
This project was first presented to an RMIT Architecture panel, discussing the architecture of prisons. It has been reproduced with permission, as a work of potential interest to MLS students.
Yiling Shen is pursuing a Masters of Architecture at RMIT University.