Architecture effectiveness put to the test
Can architecture restore or rebuild humanity? We may be about to find out, as the Eric Moller Arkitekter designed Halden Prison has been holding inmates for around six months.
The Norwegian prison system is reportedly more successful than many at reducing reoffending rates. Prisoners have many freedoms - for example having their own keys for their cells. But Halden Prison takes a step further even than this.
Moller won the job in open competition, for quality of design and the integration of landscaping. It's the landscaping which has satisfied partner Rikke Hansen most. The feel of the area inside the prison wall is more like a holiday camp than a correctional institution.
The key principle is one of humanity - treat people like animals and they will continue to behave as such, but give them the opportunity and surroundings to realise their inner humanity and build on it, and the people who are released may be more human than those who went in.
The prison is not without brutality, the arrival experience, and the perimeter walls are finely finished but nevertheless intimidating masses of concrete. Anyone seeing them can be in no doubt of their key purpose. This is just as well, because Halden's inmates are killers and violent criminals.
Once inside though, the sensitive landscape, light buildings, with much local timber on display, and shockingly large windows allow prisoners a dialogue with their surroundings far different to those charicature American prisons you see in the movies.
It should be a nice place to work too. Prison staff have a much better working environment here, and this, it is hoped, will allow less conflict between inmate and guard and allow the staff to play their part in rehabilitation more effectively.
In a way, Halden is the continuation of the development of correctional systems away from the medieval oubliette and torture chamber and an embodiment of a mature society's focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. We will have to wait to see if it works, in some cases for a long time, as certain inmates will spend decades inside. But Halden Prison is a fine advertisement for the concept that fine architecture can, perhaps, make people better.