Design, Interiors, Projects
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Liberamensa: design in prison

How good or bad can an architecture be? and an interior? With Liberamensa Andrea Marcante and Adelaide Testa (UdA from Turin) rethink the food hall of a Milan prison: an interior design project with a social purpose.

To understand the meaning of a project like  Liberamensa and how much in a good or in a bad way architecture and interiors can influence people’s behaviours, it is interesting to go back to a prophetic book. In High Rise, written in 1976, GJ Ballard told the story of the fall to hell of a group of citizens living in a brand new building, thoroughly conceived in a contemporary style and full of comforts but designed – with the higher flats becoming progressively bigger, nicers and better illuminated – to underline social differences. The consequences, that were very well illustrated also in the recent movie by Ben Wheatley, were indeed disastrous.

Foto C. Ripamonti

Ballard’s thesis was not born from a logical analysis of the relationship between architecture and social behavior (he was a visionary novelist, not an architect or a sociologist) but from his personal sensitivity towards the mechanisms that rule social relationships.

And conclusions, once prophetic, are now now also confirmed, quantitative and qualitative data and research at hand, by a dense literature on the subject. For example regarding the effects of green on the well-being of hospital patients (as we wrote here). Or those on the reduction of recidivism on prisoners of “human” prisons like that of Halden in Norway (on which an excellent article in the New York Times was written).

It is precisely these considerations that have moved Andrea Marcante and Adelaide Testa of UdA Architects when they proposed to redesign the canteen of the former Prison of Vallette (now Casa Circondariale Lorusso and Cutugno, in Northen Italy). Working in tandem with the Ecosol cooperative (which has been creating training and work opportunities within the prison for 10 years) and with the Compagnia di San Paolo, Marcante and Testa have designed and implemented a zero-cost restructuring of the penitentiary restaurant: the companies that they contacted for the furnishings, in fact, they agreed to supply them for free.

«The idea was to create an internal pilot designed on the quality of the daily life of those working in a detention center. And to use the restaurant as a rehabilitation site, in fact the inmates will be employed as chefs and waiters», explains Andrea Marcante. «Liberamensa was born therefore for internal prison users and police officers. It is true that the evening will be open to the public, but this “public” use is secondary to that of serving internal staff. In this, it is a unique project in Italy (the InGalera restaurant in Bollate, near Milan, where the inmates work with a starred chef, the public is only and exclusively outside the prison). This is why we have not canceled the clear and strong signals about where we are: in a prison, in what a prison could be – and is, in advanced countries like Norway, where in fact the recurrence rate is the lowest in the world – if it was designed starting from the not only practical but also emotional, psychological and social needs of the human being».


Foto Clerico

It is, therefore, a small but significant contribution in a wider discussion: that of the need to design public places – especially those in which people are forced to stay, from hospitals to municipal offices to schools – not so much with “style” how much starting from total respect for those who will attend and use them.

«It’s paradoxical», says Marcante. «Architects are involved in renovating private homes or building new buildings (though rarely for public buildings). But Italy is made above all of a huge amount of pre-existing buildings to be reclaimed, modernized and transformed. Yet it is very rare for architects to be called to do so. Because it still makes an interior design project coincide with an image of luxury that clashes with public buildings. Even if – data confirm – re-designing a place well or badly it costs practically the same. But in the first case the gain is considerable in terms of duration and above all of quality of experience».

As for prisons, for example, New York Times reports how much the cost of a prisoner in Halden’s prison model costs almost three times as much as that of one hosted in a US detention center. But also how, in the long term, the non-recidivism and the impact on crime (which decreases) thanks to the re-education, in the end save the Norwegian state mountains of money (without counting the greater social security).

Starting from these considerations, the architectural project that has been created has simply superimposed on the spaces an aesthetic code able to dialogue with the pre-existing, thus giving it back value but above all dignity. Almost nothing has been removed, explain the architects: «the score of the windows is enhanced by a screening with two-dimensional portals in laminated by Abet, while the gratings of the railings are punctuated by colored glass and the floor in marble tiles, alternating with the ceramic surfaces by Mutina, the graphics of Studio Fludd and the curtains by Kvadrat. New furnishings: long tables with variable geometry, on design, make possible multiple combinations and complemented with Lago chairs of clear “school” inspiration and impressive metal tube chandeliers made by OM Project in collaboration with Creative-Cables ».

We are still a thousand miles away from a place like Halden. But certainly a project like Liberamensa represents a significant step in the right direction. «It is not about goodness», says Marcante, «but, as far as the companies involved are concerned, it’s all about combining social commitment with a new business model, of which we hope the authorities capture the potential – which are concrete and advantageous for everyone».


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