Studio Gang on Policing and Design

New City published a version of this post here.

Studio Gang really believes in basketball. They envision a future where basketball diplomacy unites Chicago’s black communities and the Chicago Police Department (CPD). But should improving “relations” between these groups be the designer’s responsibility?

Studio Gang’s Chicago Architecture Biennial installation is used to posit a design to do just that—improve community-police “relations.” The project, titled “Polis Station,” takes inspiration from recent events in Ferguson and Philadelphia as well as the 2015 Obama Task Force on 21st Century Policing report (which is a 21st century handbook on managing an increasingly diverse and unequal America). In terms of evidence, “Polis Station” relies on analysis of police station building types, charrettes, and interviews with academics.

“Polis Station” has two parts nestled on the sides of a Chicago Cultural Center staircase. One side is used to present a history of police station building types. As outlined by Studio Gang, stations have evolved from the 1700s watch box and the 1960s “fortress station,” to the 1980s “civic station” and current complexes characterized as “little more than a jail.”

Research on building types is aligned with a chronological word narrative. Specifically, Studio Gang, in small print, underlines the link between building type, police function, and slave patrols restraining wayward chattel. Tying building type to police function with nonarchitectural design elements, the Gang points to the 1958 introduction of side-handle batons just in time for the Civil Rights movement and the 1966 rollout of a network connecting police computers nationwide. As noted by Studio Gang, the policed also utilize technology like the cellphone video capturing the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by Bay Area transit police.

Within this context, Studio Gang presents its 21st century police station that isn’t really a police station. On the other side of the staircase, “Polis Station” is deployed to locate the police station within communities unlike the CPD’s Homan Square that is merely in a community. And communities like Chicago’s North Lawndale—where “Polis Station” is taking shape with a built basketball court on CPD property—need improved community-police “relations.” As referenced in the 2015 taskforce report and echoed in “Polis Station,” America’s North Lawndales also need social housing and services.

In fact, Studio Gang wants to “turn all police stations into community centers.” Former sites of repression would “be reoriented toward their communities and become sites of social connection.” “Polis Station,” or “Community Station” translated from the Greek, would be a place “where officers and neighborhood residents can find many opportunities to interact.”

New police stations as community centers might host computer labs where free Wi-Fi would be available for improved police surveillance. There would also be “shared athletic facilities for physical fitness and fun” amongst other “amenities.” To extend community beyond the station, centers, in a new police urbanism vein, would be proximate to “restorative gardens and green spaces to foster [the] psychological wellness” of police and those policed.

However, Studio Gang incompletely translates the Greek. “Polis” can connote “community,” and [community of] citizens. In Athens, as in the North Lawndales that Professor Ice-T might say don’t look like America, not just any body can be a citizen much less an equal citizen.

Several generations of social scientists have been wary of “relations” to characterize contact between white supremacist institutions like the police and communities of color. In Race Relations: A Critique, Stephen Steinberg asserts that the term itself blunts the historical and structural underpinnings of U. S. racism; it suggests that racism is a resolvable misunderstanding. Recent books on race and policing by Andrea Boyles (on a black community in a mostly white St. Louis suburb) and Ana Muñiz (on a Los Angeles Latinx neighborhood) restate Steinberg’s point, which is a relatively core social science assumption.

Using social dominance theory, Felicia Pratto and James Sidanius would suggest that a “polis station” renders fundamentally unchanged community-police interactions marked by hierarchy and everyday police aggression. This is the case even when police and policed share racial affinity.

Complicating “relations,” though, Dan Kahn and Tracey Meares (a member of the 2015 taskforce) claim that it’s easy for academics to tell racial minorities how to associate with police. Kahn and Meares contend that poor black communities with persistent security concerns think about policing and rights differently.

Returning to and building upon our original query, is it the designer’s social responsibility to improve “relations” between communities of color and the police? Or, as Raphael Sperry problematizes the work of architects designing “supermax” prisons, is it socially irresponsible for designers to “improve” the “criminal justice system” without recognizing and acting upon the historical and structural power differentials shaping this system? Recognition and action in a socially responsible way might mean turning “Polis Station” into the subaltern’s Panopticon used to monitor the police.

There are three things architects should remember when handed a politically charged brief like that handed to Studio Gang designers.

First, when architects focus upon building type, they must acknowledge the problem of oversimplification when attaching meaning directly to a building type. As postmodernists have repeated, there is more than one way “to read” a building just as “reading” contact with the police is perspectival and dependent upon variables like race, class, and their intersections. This is particularly important for designers and police to grasp by the year 2043—when, according to the U. S. Census Bureau, no group will be able to claim racial majority status.

Second, why do architects fetishize the charrette as means to participatory design? What do charrettes tell us, or, perhaps more important, can’t tell us? Further, what should architects do with this information, or information void? Should architects supplement the charrette with a sense of the social emerging from the social sciences—so that architects usher in a new social design research not just design research?

Finally, it is important for architects interviewing academics who, for example, study police bias to realize some things about academic work. Academics reflexively ground their work in previous scholarship. Relatedly, they can also reflectively interrogate their methods and the political impact of their work in interdisciplinary ways in books like Race, Ethnicity, and Policing.

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