Deanna Van Buren Is Making Space for a New Kind of Justice

Deanna Van Buren Is Making Space for a New Kind of Justice

By Sanjena Sathian


Because you don’t have to read Gaston Bachelard to know that buildings matter in all sorts of ways.

By Sanjena Sathian

Looking out from the hills of Bayview, you’ll find quite the view, shimmery water that follows the spine of Highway 101 down toward Silicon Valley. But this is not a desirable neighborhood. The sign should read “Northridge Cooperative Homes,” not “Orth idge Nooperative Home,” and that’s just the start. “These are the worst housing projects I’ve seen in San Francisco,” Deanna Van Buren tells me. We have parked her car by a basketball court; we step over blue shattered glass, past graffitied trash cans. She looks at the group of boys hanging out in a corner of the parking lot and wonders how to engage them. 

Van Buren, 42, is an architect and designer, principal at her own Oakland-based firm, FOURM. A onetime Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation grantee, Van Buren is one of a very small number of architects doing what she does: combining design with the rather controversial notion of restorative justice. For the unfamiliar, restorative justice is the notion that instead of packing criminals off to prison, you should put them in a room with their victims — or victims’ families — and let them talk it out, work out restitution and ultimately heal together. This spot is one possible site for Van Buren’s latest project: a “pop-up village” of classrooms and community centers made from buses and shipping containers. Geared toward people recently released from jail or who want a GED, the “villages” will be located in poor, mostly Black, isolated neighborhoods. 

Tall, with open features and curly hair, Van Buren has had a life full of prestigious fellowships, one mostly devoid of encounters with the law. Her father’s philosophy: “You do not ever want to find yourself in a courtroom, no matter what.” Growing up Black in a dirt-road town in Virginia in the 1970s meant she got the message early that justice was not for her. When Van Buren was 9, her uncle was murdered, and a distrust of traditional justice took hold. The family never asked what happened; even now she doesn’t know what became of the killers. Back then, she asked her mother what they could do. The response: Stay out of it. The police would handle it. 

Since then, Van Buren has graduated into a field where many of her colleagues are trying to answer these questions behind bars. Van Buren refuses to do her design work within prisons, courthouses or any building that fits into what some call the prison industrial complex. To design for prisons is to be complicit with them, she believes. Instead, she has built “peacemaking centers” and turned sterile trailers into quaint rooms where restorative justice can take place. This requires enormous levels of detail orientation, from thinking about “calm” paint colors to, when building a room for people on opposing ends of a crime to meet, putting in two doors to make the place feel safe. Howard Zehr, the mind behind the concept of restorative justice, says incarnations like Van Buren’s go far beyond his idea of restorative justice in the ’70s — he had hardly imagined it unfurling into fields beyond criminal justice itself, he says. To see it having an impact on designers? Now, that’s mimetic infection.


But the idea of space as crucial to punitive conversations is nothing new: In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon, a prison in which inmates are housed around an opaque central watchtower. The inmates, unable to tell whether a guard is in the tower or not, police themselves. Thinkers have suggested that everything from concentration camps to maximum-security prisons manifested exactly that panopticon. In her sales pitch, Van Buren is fond of citing the architect Lisa Findley: Architecture, she says, “is the primary spatial way for people to represent themselves in the world” — in other words, you are made of the places where you spend time. Got a drab office? You might feel drab. Live in the projects? Your mind may be a less pleasant place than it could be. 

There are, however, few statistics available on the “success” of restorative justice, which is usually measured subjectively. A 2005 study in The Prison Journal claimed a roughly 20 percent increase in victim satisfaction (naturally, these are victims who opted in, in the first place). The paper found a 33 percent increase in offenders’ compliance with their incarcerating institution, but the results came from a wildly small sample of only eight studies. And as you’d imagine, victims aren’t always or even often in favor of sitting down across from someone who stole from them, assaulted them or worse. Dan Levey, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, says via email that restorative programs should never result in lighter sentences than what a judge would initially rule. Which adds up to the central question: How much can a philosophy work when people like Van Buren do as her parents suggested and stay outside the system?

With the exception of the murder of Van Buren’s uncle, her family succeeded in avoiding said system. Her music-teacher parents integrated a white neighborhood for “schools and safety.” “They taught us, if you want to compete with white people, you have to speak like them, think like them,” Van Buren says. She’s of both worlds. And if you’re wondering where her name comes from, it is very much of the white world. Her great-grandfather was President Martin Van Buren’s grandson, a freeman who became a doctor in the slave age, in South Carolina. 

What a long swath of history to span. And what a large globe Van Buren spans too. A one-time resident of England, Australia, the liberal Bay, the rural South. An ex-husband from New Zealand. These projects. To get here, we drove seven minutes from San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, full of microbreweries and spare, hip coffee shops. She can’t reside perfectly in both: She is scared, sometimes, when she visits prisons, even as she finds a room full of 10 murderers “sweet.” When we get out at the projects, she tells me she doesn’t know this area, to keep a sharp eye out. Perhaps utopianism is a bridge between spaces. But a bridge? She can design the nuts and bolts of one of those in a quick second.