Let Us Build Ourselves ... a Tower
It was a sparsely glamorous loft apartment, where the garage door was mounted inside, artfully separating the guest nook from the rest of the open living space. I peered out of the window to view the taller towers and balconies around me, and imagined what it would be like to live in a place this sophisticated. Shadows of the occupants were far enough away so that my fantasies of urban chic drifted up to the penthouses, where I imagined sleek furniture and martini glasses in every hand.
Right in front of me was an architectural provocation, a tower not rectangular but sliced instead like a thin triangle, topped by an iron balcony, where people walked slowly about. But the absence of cocktails in their hands, and the orange jumpsuits they all wore, suggested that this was no rooftop soiree. My host stood next to me at her apartment's window and followed my gaze. "It's a prison," she said. "Nobody realizes that there's a prison right here, downtown." But some people know the location quite well. On the streets down below, I saw now, scattered women and children were waving up to inmates.
In this landscape of towers, I recalled the ambitious urban planners of Genesis 11, who said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." They were wrong to think they could build their way to heaven, but in another sense, they were right. We do make a name for ourselves with our buildings, for better or for worse.
The penitentiary penthouse balcony overlooking Van Buren Street sits atop the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center, designed by architect Harry Weese. That rooftop must provide most of the sunlight, because the artistically spaced window slits are all of five inches wide, the maximum allowed in a prison at the time of its construction in 1975. On an architectural website where fans of Chicago's buildings get to vote to "raze it" or "praise it," 60 percent admire the structure, while 80 percent are fans of the architect's later work, the $125 million Swissotel. When it opened in 1988, the hotel sported the same striking triangular design, but the five-inch windows had been replaced with enough glass to make a silvered tower. There are no bad views from the Swissotel. Not shy to trace the roots of the luxury hotel, the architectural website gushes, "Just like the jail, a triangle was perfect for this project in order to minimize hallway lengths. Long tunnel-like hallways are a security risk in jails. In hotels they are merely an aesthetic liability."1 Did the people of Genesis know this too? Were they drawn to the tall tower with shorter hallways to put off that time in the future, when in chaos and confusion, they too would be scattered abroad?
Out in the suburbs, the jails are less architecturally majestic, and certainly lower to the ground. One county jail sits benignly amidst a large complex of county brick boxes, looking no different from the building across the way where you might dispute a traffic ticket. But housed within are 800 inmates, 100 of whom are women. Once inside this structure, you can tell you are not in the average county building. Two sets of doors send you into the secure area. As you pass from freedom into the jail, you hear the haunting slam of a door behind you, before the door in front of you opens: a grim preview of confinement in a small space, which for visitors lasts only a few seconds.
Within the secure area, there are no bars to be seen, but the walls are whitewashed cement blocks. The doors are thick, and the transparent panels must be stronger than they look, for they house guards in glass cages at all intersections. In a space with so little furniture, where hallways must be clear of everything except people, the sound echoes. The bounce of a basketball from the gym seems to hammer, the yell of a guard seems to bark, and the slamming of doors is a constant reminder that one is not free to roam.
A holding cell for those just brought in, divided simply between those who are suspected of a felony and those who are not, reveals young men in street clothes, pacing nervously. They do not have the look of prisoners, but of somebody's sons. Given that this is a holding cell, I realize that some of them have done nothing wrong, and others could be, in this maximum security facility, murderers. It is likely that most of these young men struggle with substance abuse, since that is the case with at least 80 percent of the sentenced inmates, mentally scattered and confused by drugs and alcohol.
When asked his opinion of the imprisonment of non-violent drug users, an experienced chaplain said, "I have trouble with the term. Most drug users we see at some point are driven to do something violent." What about re-entry programs? "What do you think chaplains and volunteers have been doing all these years?"
Inside the county jail, seating is built into cells or visiting rooms. Where there is freestanding furniture, it appears to be nearly disposable: light-weight, colorful polymer chairs without angles; nursery school furniture on steroids.
Apparently, before building the tower of Babel, the people all spoke the same language, but afterwards their speech was confused. In sterile glassed-in rooms, inmates speak through old-fashioned telephones to people on the other side. Family and friends lean forward toward the glass to be closer to inmates, to make up for, in their expressive visage, what is lost in the telephone, all while being watched by strangers. Out in freedom, we human beings do a poor enough job of communicating with our loved ones, so I can only imagine the confusion of language in prison visiting rooms.
Across from a row of orange-clothed backs, heads cocked into telephones, the visitors can wear tee shirts or a ball cap signaling allegiance to a band or a brand or a team, small personal gestures that the inmates' jumpsuits erase. The chaplain says that Sunday is the busiest visiting day. A line of inmates walks by, and he urges us away toward the far wall, until they have passed. "It's like a madhouse here on Sundays," he says, as we wander the halls shrouded in weekday emptiness.
Some inmates live in pods, panopticons where two stories of cells curve around a central guard space, so that at any one moment all inmates can be seen from the vantage point of a single guard. This style of prison architecture is hailed as a great boon to county budgets, where reduced prison staff means lower taxes. It is the first section we are shown.
In the older section of the building, the hallways are inefficiently long, requiring more personnel. Here, the trustees, the inmates who work, live in dormitory-style rooms with multiple metal bunk beds, the kind with the old springs and thin mattresses that kids know from church camp. Sixteen people may share a single television. It is a privilege to break the monotony with a menial job. Another break is attending one of the twelve-step programs, or GED classes, or Bible studies, all of which operate on a budget that is generally early to be cut. But most prized is a trip to the gym, which also offers—on good days—a rare glimpse of sunshine through the skylight. In this flat, squat, county jail, no one is aspiring to reach heaven through architecture; there is no artistic or aesthetic distraction from the messy mix of sin and grace.
Leaving the jail, I am struck by the ordinariness outside. I return to the parking lot, full of cars, minivans, and trucks. Most of those drivers, I'm sure, have no idea the prison is here, as I had no idea myself, before now. Getting into my car, hearing the engine turn over, simply driving out of the parking lot and turning left onto the street, feels like flying.
On the way home, I notice how large everything is. A new housing development boasts a sea of homes that exceed five thousand square feet. They are currently in construction, their opulent materials displayed around them, sheet rock, wall facades, and enormous wall-sized windows still bearing their brand-name stickers. In the counterfeit heaven of suburban sprawl, these houses are towers that stretch not upwards but outwards, as the wideness of God's mercy seems squeezed out by the wideness of our excess.
God seems to tolerate us while we are busy building our towers of Babel. But if we recall the story, we human beings just can't build these things to last. Not the tall chic loft apartments of a minimalist's urban playground; not the fat exurban mansions with their pumped-up couches and palladium windows. Not the jails that sit nearby, sadly aping their neighborhood's aesthetic, for better or worse. Not one of these buildings is going to get us to heaven.
Lillian Daniel is senior minister at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She is the author most recently of Telling It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony (Alban Institute).
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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