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Roland Karthaus of Matter Architecture says that the crisis is exposing the philosophy behind much of our existing institutional architecture and needs to change.

This piece is about prisons and care homes and before proceeding, I want to be clear that in writing about these two building types I don’t believe they’re in any way equivalent – they’re not – but as institutional buildings they do have some things in common. They are also both types of building that I know a little about and they’re both being considered differently in light of COVID 19.  They both accommodate the provision of public, private or a mixture of both types of service and are designed primarily with the delivery of those services in mind. At the time of writing, prisons have not been affected as severely by the virus as many feared, whilst care homes have been affected as badly or worse – with a very large proportion of all COVID-related deaths so far occurring in them. Furthermore, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is the biggest provider of care to older men in the country and it seems likely that prisons will also be severely affected at some point. 

Both prisons and care homes have been in the news in recent years as austerity has seen drastic cuts to funding, leading to worsening conditions. Although potentially scandalous, their enclosed nature has meant that these conditions pass unnoticed by many. Of course there are both prisons and care homes that provide the highest quality services and they serve a crucial role, but at a fundamental level many of these institutions are based on the assumption that the best way to deliver their social goals is to gather people with similar needs together in a large building, or cluster of buildings, separate from their communities.  This is because they are labour-intensive services that are expensive to run and so the most economic model is to design the building around service efficiency. Cells or rooms are therefore frequently undifferentiated spaces, organised relentlessly on both sides of spine corridors, sometimes with little or no natural light into the circulation spaces. In some parts of the care home sector, the drive for efficiency has been pushed to its logical financial limits through privatisation and debt so that even the most efficient model in many cases has become extremely fragile without contingency or tolerance to change. In prisons, efficiency continues to be ‘baked in’ through the construction of larger, out of town prisons such as HMP Berwyn (which my practice used as a case study in our award-winning research, Wellbeing in Prison Design) whilst overcrowding and ‘doubling up’ continues in the wider prison estate. 

Efficiency may sound like a good thing, but it conceals two significant downsides. Firstly, if things change such as is happening now, then there is no room to adapt. Neither care homes nor prisons can realistically apply rigorous social distancing.  Secondly, efficiency usually refers to quantities rather than qualities. There is an increasing understanding in public health that the quality of people’s lives directly affects their healthy life expectancy and prisons and care homes are both effectively healthcare environments. We’ve known all this for some time, but COVID 19 is finally forcing us to confront these issues.  By their very nature, institutional buildings tend to isolate people from their communities, whilst physically integrating people within them. Furthermore, they integrate these enclosed groups with their service providers – carers, staff, prison officers - who live in nearby communities, creating a nightmare scenario in infection terms. It may seem intuitive in the context of viral infection that more vulnerable and older people should be physically isolated from society, but if isolated together in the case of prisons and care homes, precisely the opposite is true.  

In his book Flesh and Stone, Richard Sennett describes the Jewish Ghetto in Medieval Venice – a walled neighbourhood in the city in which Jews could be accommodated for their financial services, whilst remaining distinct and separated due to the Venetian’s fear of these ‘other’ people. Whilst similar motivations may have influenced institutions in the past, society has thankfully moved on, but the unintended consequences still linger – people who are separated from their communities are too easily forgotten – out of sight, out of mind. The institutional architecture that narrowly prioritises service delivery, inevitably deprioritises the need for social integration which in turn leads to worse health and a greater burden on the under-funded service. 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Whilst there will always be a need for institutional provision – and I would emphasise the crucial role that care homes and prisons play and the enormous social value provided by the people who work in them - the way we design our cities can act as a preventative measure to greatly reduce this need, improving people’s lives and wider society. I am not arguing against institutions, I’m arguing for better institutions through better design. 

My practice, Matter Architecture has been exploring this through our grant-funded research work and we are currently working with Local Authorities to commission specialist housing that prioritises people’s health and wellbeing, whilst incorporating the design of service provision in more adaptable and flexible ways. We’ve also been looking at how people can be supported when leaving prison to settle into society so they don’t end up back inside - as a ridiculously high percentage currently do. This requires thinking differently about the prison architecture so that it can connect better into its local communities. 

The philosophy behind much institutional architecture hasn’t fundamentally changed for more than a century – it is long overdue a rethink and the current crisis may provide the impetus.

Matter was formed in 2016 by Roland Karthaus and Jonathan McDowell combining the experience of their previous practices McDowell+Benedetti and Karthaus Design. See their research at

WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:

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