Lock ’em up and throw ’em the key: Will Alsop’s Creative Prison.

I was talking to a designer type who’d been to see Will Alsop’s “Creative Prison” exhibition. Good haircut, good clothes, a general air of youthful right-on-ness about him. You’d have him down as the target audience for such an exercise: the concerned liberal seeker of solutions to society’s problems. Except that he wasn’t. I asked what he thought of the show. He pondered for a moment. “Trouble is,” he replied, “It started to bring out the Daily Mail reader in me.”

Yup, lock ’em up and throw away the key. The very idea that a prison might be useful and tolerable, if not actively enjoyable, is a hard one for us. Prison is meant to be a place of punishment, where justice takes its course and the middle classes exact their revenge on their tormentors. OK – so if you’re caught, you pay your dues, you are released, and then what? Chances are, you’ll quickly re-offend. Because prison hasn’t taught you to do anything else. And so the prisons fill up to capacity and the problems get worse. This is where Will Alsop comes in.

Alsop has never to my knowledge declared any political preference. He enjoys the good things in life: good food, good wine, holidays, politically incorrect cars. He sees no reason why everybody shouldn’t have a better time of it, and that includes prisoners, if that means they’ll go straight as a consequence. Needless to say, the Home Office has had absolutely no input into the exercise. So it’s down to Alsop to get tough on the causes of crime. Specifically, the crime-engendering condition of being in prison.

When I go to meet Alsop in his Battersea studio I’m reassured to find him chain-smoking, with two bottles of wine in front of him. Drawings are scattered all over the table. There’s been a design meeting: Alsop appears to be redrawing the London edge-city suburb of Croydon. “The developers are gathering round like wasps. The investors and store chains have been ringing me. There are billions of pounds lining up. Croydon is pregnant with opportunity.” Given his reputation for larking about (he has in the past suggested buildings in the shape of giant teddy bears and Marge Simpson’s beehive hairdo, just to get people to sit up and take notice) there’s the ever-present danger that a wine stain on a drawing might evolve into some huge red crescent-shaped Croydon building. What the hell: we pull the corks, splash the wine into the glasses and settle down to an afternoon’s discussion.

Alsop, it’s fair to say, is not over-attentive to the business side of architecture. High profile though he is, his firm has had to be bailed out before now (“I had 16 months with the worst venture capitalists in the world, ever” he remarks) and is now lodged within Britain’s largest and most acquisitive design group, SMC. His role, it appears, is to sprinkle the magic-dust of high design over the commercial outfits in the group, get on with doing his colourfully eccentric buildings and masterplans (Croydon follows on from Barnsley, Bradford, Walsall and the “urban village” of Manchester’s New Islington, now being built), and, if he wants, do some personal projects that yield no money at all. Such as The Creative Prison.

Alsop believes in meet-the-people research. Commissioned for the job by the arts rehabilitation group Rideout alongside artists Shona Illingworth and Jon Ford, he promptly went to jail. Namely, HMP Gartree, which has murderers in it. He talked to the lifers (“they’re seriously naughty boys”), he talked to the guards. “I’d never been to a prison before, and I asked to be locked in a cell. I was in there for ten or 15 minutes. I was very happy to get out.” He puzzled that the beds were so needlessly short; that the place was built so badly built it froze in winter and stewed in summer; and found to his surprise that the food wasn’t bad. But the thing that struck him most was that there is almost nothing, apart from the odd pottery class and menial jobs – for the inmates to do. Some of the pottery, he observes, is up to art-school standard. But there’s nowhere to display it. “What they really want is to learn a job- plumbing, carpentry, whatever – so that they can have a skill when they’re released.”

For Alsop, there is an essential confusion in most people’s attitudes to prison. “It’s the idea of punishment heaped on punishment. The punishment is to be taken out of society. That’s fine. Not even the prisoners complain about that. They know why they’re there, they accept that. But then they’re punished further. The showers are appalling. It’s where a lot of nasty things happen. Why can’t they have a shower in their cell?”

So the idea of the Creative Prison emerged: instead of large blocks, a village of smaller buildings, each self-contained. You have your own key to your cell – to protect you from the other inmates – but you can’t get out. There are shared kitchens, workshops, allotments. Instead of a security wall or fence, the prison is ringed with equally impenetrable lower buildings that act as an interface with the outside world, a kind of halfway house. In other words, it is made clear that there is an exit strategy other than escape: learn to be useful.

What the Creative Prison reminds me of most is not so much a holiday camp as a high-security university campus. The same small cells, the same shared facilities, the same class of (you hope) stern but fair overseers. The difference being, that this is a vocational campus, inhabited by dangerous people, that you emphatically won’t be able to stroll out of the gates of. It makes sense: the idea of the university evolved from that of the monastery, and what is a monk’s cell if not, um a cell?

“It would obviously cost more, but not that much more,” says Alsop. “I’ve had a positive response from inmates and guards. Other experts in prisons have been interested. The harshest response has come from other architects. I was shocked by that.”

Shocked, but not I think surprised. Alsop is an architect who has managed to stay resolutely just outside the mainstream. In all his career, he has never designed anything quite so provocative as a prison that looks interesting and might actually be useful. Because he can’t help designing buildings that look like they might be fun. And we will always have a problem with the idea of prisoners having any kind of fun.

But it’s worth a try. Alongside the hasty prefab barrack-block arrangements that are built these days and manage to make Victorian prisons seem close to humane, there ought to be room for one closely-monitored Creative Prison. Would Alsop’s idea work? Would re-offending rates fall? There is only one way to find out. Build one. If it fails, you can always turn it over to students.

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on February 11, 2007. Explanatory note to non-UK readers: the Daily Mail is a hardline-conservative newspaper.

Link: www.architecturefoundation.org.uk