Side by Side at Salk Institute: ANFA Sheds New Light on Designing for Restorative Justice

Director of Justice Consulting John MacAllister participated in a panel discussion at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) conference at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The theme of ANFA 2016: CONNECTIONS – BRIDGESYNAPSES was to “provide a forum for architects and neuroscientists to bridge between neuroscience research and a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment.”

Watch the ANFA panel here: Solitary Confinement: Mental Health, Neuroscience, and the Physical Environment, that explored the topic from a number of different angles, with a neuroscientist (brain scientist), architects, psychologists and other criminal justice experts responding to the “problem statement” from their own perspectives and their particular areas of expertise.

In this interview, John shares his thoughts about ANFA, restorative justice and why the Salk Institute has special significance for him.

Q. Tell us about the panel discussion in which you participated.

JM: I had the privilege of participating with a prestigious group of individuals in the panel moderated by my colleague Melissa Farling, FAIA, LEED AP, and Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., FAIA Adler Professor in the Laboratory of Genetics, The Salk Institute. Our session focused on the issues and theories associated with the physical design of solitary confinement and its psychological and behavioural impacts — with the goal of outlining a neurobiological research model for isolation. We examined this research model, which in architecture is the scientific study of how the built environment impacts the brain (how the brain reacts to the built environment) and subsequently, human mood, behaviour and performance. In the case of solitary confinement we know that these types of environments most often have a devastating psychological (and at times, physical) impact on inmates well-being — resulting in short-term and often permanent damage. This damage equates to the inmates’ inability to succeed in society after release, and elevates the probability of recidivism (occurring at an average rate of 60 percent nationwide). What architects, and related professionals lack, is hard scientific evidence of these tremendous impacts.

Q. How has ANFA and its members contributed to this type of scientific research?

JM. Melissa and Jay Farbstein were pioneers in neuroscience-architecture research in 2008, the first of its kind conducted in a jail setting. Both were instrumental in encouraging ANFA to consider correctional environments as important building types. Evidence-based research is critical for us to educate people on every rung of the criminal justice ladder — to help change how these environments are designed, and; in the case of solitary confinement, be drastically reduced, or eliminated altogether.

Q. Do you think of yourself as an advocate for social change? How did this come through at the ANFA conference?

JM. I do. I came from a very politically active family and it’s carried over to me in how I approach my work. All of my speaking engagements involve a combination of facts and hard-hitting images and opinions — colourful and emotional presentations. I think this mix helps to get people engaged and motivated to make change happen

Q. Tell us about your experience at ANFA and the significance of its location?

JM: Even though this was an exceptional experience in itself, there was also another reason it became a cathartic experience for me. My father, John A. (Jack) MacAllister was the project architect for the original Salk Institute, designed by Louis Kahn, and then more recently for the East Wing addition. I watched the Salk being constructed as a youngster. Lou Kahn always stayed at our house when he was visiting the area and Jonas Salk became a lifelong friend of our family. Salk’s insight was invaluable as an advisor on my 5th year thesis project at the Salk.

Speaking at the East Wing, which my father designed with his partner David Rinehart (both recently deceased) was a particularly emotional experience. The day before the panel, I made it a point to walk through the entire complex to simply take it all in and ensure I was prepared to speak the next day. It worked — I was inspired and I like to think I was able to then channel the ones who have “walked before” in this space.

Q. What would he think of your involvement at the conference and in particular your panel presentation?

JM. I think my father would have been thrilled and proud and would’ve applauded the subjects we discussed. Since my father had a strong opinion about most issues, I know he would have advocated for what we presented. Of course I wish he could have been there, but I know he was there in spirit. I always ask his advice and guidance whenever I’m about to speak, and in a “celestial” sort of way, it seems to help.

Q. What influence did you father have on your chosen career and in the path you have taken within your profession?

JM: Architecture was actually my third career choice, after a degree in theatre and then in restaurant management. And, as the saying goes “the third time is a charm.” It definitely was for me! When I finally entered architecture school at the New School of Architecture in San Diego (which started the ANFA organization) my father was a terrific advocate and a great help to me on many of my projects, particularly with my thesis. As for the focus on justice, well; that was another story. I don’t think at first he quite understood my interest. After a number of years, he took the time to hear me out, and realized there was a greater mission to what I was doing. He then accepted my choice to work in justice architecture whole-heartedly.

Q. Was the ANFA Conference at Salk an “Ah-Ha” moment for you?

JM. Yes! It was great to be part of the only panel discussing this particular subject — it seemed to have a real impact. The idea of spreading the word about such an important issue was very gratifying. The first person to come up to me after the presentation was Jonas’s brother Peter. He was extremely complimentary about the panel, as were a number of others, so I felt we had been successful in getting our message across.