Deanna Van Buren delivers a 2017 TED Talk: “What a world without prisons could look like” Courtesy Deanna Van Buren

People call Deanna Van Buren (Arch ’94) the justice architect, but she doesn’t design prisons or jails; she designs their alternatives, bringing Native American peacemaking traditions to the world of criminal justice.

Oddly, it was her work creating buildings in the video game world that gave her the financial cushion to launch into restorative justice. Hundreds of thousands of gamers know her work as head architect of the beautiful 2016 indie game The Witness, taking players through an imagined world with realistic buildings and landscapes. She writes often about the process of integrating the backstory of a game to layer its built world, much like history underlies the tangible world.  “Our built environments have history, a story across time. They are layered,” she wrote on Gamasutra, a website devoted to the art and business of making games.

In her work on the game, she paid attention to which materials reflect sound and which absorb it, which surfaces would echo a player’s footsteps and which would muffle them. In the process, she advocated for incorporating more architects to enhance the playing experience.

“I don’t know if I managed to convince the industry,” she says. “I was thinking about whether I should really get into video games, but I ultimately decided: not the best use of my time.”

Instead she invested her skills into how this country handles people who commit crimes, which disproportionately harms people of color. Traditional buildings designed for justice are symbols of power dynamics, she says: the walls cold stone, the judge seated higher than the defendant, the adversarial parties kept separate. Such buildings are meant to intimidate, to make it clear that someone is being punished. But Van Buren, 46, designs instead for restorative justice, the philosophy that when harm has been done it is a breach of a relationship, and meeting the needs of the people who have been harmed should come first. So she trained to facilitate the “circle process,” in which offenders can face their victims, be held accountable, make amends, and thus repair the relationship and the community.

“Imagine a world without prisons,” she says in a 2017 TED talk. “What does justice look like? What do we need to build to get there?”

Van Buren designed high-end homes and shopping centers all over the world before quitting her job at the global architecture firm Perkins + Will in 2010 to create the digital world in The Witness and launch the Oakland-based Fourm Design Studio. In 2015, she and partner Kyle Rawlins opened Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to create buildings that promote empathy and healing.

The Refuge Trailer, a converted bus, offers a safe haven for women recently released from incarceration. Courtesy Deanna Van Buren

Van Buren has had marked success. She recently won the $100,000 Berkeley-Rupp Architecture prize and professorship, given every two years at the University of California, Berkeley. She also has won a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard and a Rauschenberg Artist as Activist fellowship.

Her firm turned an old crack house in Syracuse, New York, into the Near West Side Peacemaking Center. In the Bay Area, it has converted a bus that can pull up outside a jail in the middle of the night, the time when women are released with only the clothes they were wearing when arrested. Their pimps are there. So are their drug dealers. But so is the bus, with computers and internet access, a place to talk with a caseworker, get clean clothes, have a chance to put on makeup—everything they need to begin their self-restoration.

“It’s a really hyper-urgent space for them to be safe until they can figure out where to go and what to do,” Van Buren says. Victims of sex trafficking come in, too, to rest and to gain information on how to get out.

“Her work is committed to thinking about every point of intervention in the system of mass incarceration and to turn it toward restoration and justice,” says Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. She points out that only 3 percent of people trained as architects are African American, and thus most buildings are designed for the white male experience. Van Buren “is using design to unmask the atrocities of mass incarceration and the racial disparities there, and thinking about how we can use design to change that,” Brown says.

To help inform her work, Van Buren ran design workshops in prisons and jails, asking incarcerated people what a true place of healing would include. Neutral territory, she heard. Outdoor space to connect back to nature. Privacy. A kitchen. Translucent walls so that no one feels trapped. A chill-out room where people can take breaks from negotiations.

“She’s not designing better places to keep doing injustice,” says Barb Toews, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who has worked with Van Buren. “So often when we think about correctional spaces, it’s about redesigning them from the premise that we need to incarcerate, but to make it a better experience. People like me can all talk about these things, but she’s out there with the architectural knowledge to actually make it happen.”

Van Buren’s recent project in Oakland includes a restorative justice center and offices for activists, but also a high-end restaurant that will provide jobs to people who may have criminal records. In the Bay Area, there are more jobs in fine dining than in tech, she says, but those jobs don’t go to black and brown people; they go to white men. The new restaurant will give low-wage restaurant workers a chance to gain experience and move up in the industry.

Next, she wants to buy some land and design a justice center from the soil up. It may be in Detroit, or maybe Louisville, where land prices aren’t Oakland-high.

“We are not designing prettier buildings for people to be incarcerated,” she says. “If you design for the root causes of incarceration, I’m not sure you’re going to need jails very much. You’ll need another range of building types that will heal people, be of service to people. It’s sad to me that the focus is always on this better jail, when there are so many other things we need to be building.”