“Since 2000, institutions of display and discipline have taken on transnational dimensions, many of them unanticipated and controversial. In the most literal of convergences, yesteryear’s prisons have simply been reopened as today’s museums.”
A few months ago, when I was just starting in on Joe Day’s book, Corrections and Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime, I was summoned for jury duty at the Los Angeles County Criminal Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles. This edifice, one of many erected during the Post-War redevelopment of Bunker Hill is the pinnacle of Late-Modern blandness- that unfortunate period in the 1960’s, when Modernist architecture went from being synonymous with democratic optimism to representing the irreconcilable inertia of the bureaucratic complex. From the Courthouse’s juror assembly room, one could look out on a downtown made up almost entirely of glossy cultural landmarks, unremarkable office towers, and a sprawling matte of government architecture, which includes two prisons. This cluster, marking the center of L.A.’s culture-money-power complex, stands as the perfect visual litmus for Day’s text, which when distilled, argues that we live in an economic context increasingly dedicated toward the physical storage of expensive objects and dangerous people. The space left over is just traffic.
“For all the talk of “warehousing” that marks contemporary discussions of both, prisons and museums remain highly specialized institutions, at once vaults and vessels for their respective holdings.”
It’s a rarity these days in architectural discourse to witness a book that critiques the discipline beyond its aesthetic or technological interests. Joe Day, an accomplished architect and academic teaching at SCI-Arc and Yale, presents a daunting traverse through the dialectical territory between visual pleasure and psychological pain. His taxonomy of meticulous diagrams and carefully curated photographs of the subject buildings relentlessly synthesizes and interrogates the nuances that transect our most dominant socio-cultural edifices within late-capital: museums and prisons. Day balances an aesthetic critique with a socio-spatial analysis, thereby making Corrections and Collections a discursive play-by-play that exposes the powerful systems of control at the center of contemporary culture, and catalogs their ruthless effects on society.
“Urban space is now more the result of bait-and-switch plays between developers and politicians, a chess game of familiar pieces played to consolidate tax bases and transit access. Within this new game, museums and prisons are the rooks that bookend either extreme of the market economy.”
What is most remarkable about Corrections and Collections is the exhaustive attention to how art and crime have such a totalizing impact on our social environment. If the late 20th Century post-modern analysis of culture was all about heterotopic spatial jungles, Joe Day makes it clear that we are entering a new period- one where the models of cultural consumption and the constructs of punishment are so similar, that the humanity contained within either system is obscured by the totalizing effects of a homogeneous and sinister architectural typology. This brutal territory, according to Day, is expanding at an alarming rate. As the systems of culture and incarceration merge their aesthetic effects into one spatial structure, they have the potential to redefine our cities as the dominant societal fabric, ultimately supplanting democracy and optimism, with elitism, terror, and despair.
This dystopian scenario, one of compromised humanity, is certainly one that we can do without.
Urban Operations is a Los Angeles-based architecture and research firm founded by architect John Southern in 2005.The studio specializes in design/build work and research projects that seek to expand critical discourse within the design profession. Through its research division, Urbanops.org, the ...