The island of Asinara

‘An Exercise in Trust’

Restorative Justice in Architectural Pedagogy 

by Sabrina Puddu

In 2019, myself, Paolo Emilio Pisano and Francesco Zuddas launched the first edition of a visiting school on the island of Asinara, Italy, for the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Asinara hosted for a century a carceral settlement and in the late 1990s was transformed into a National Park. Since then, much work has been done for the environmental enhancement and conservation of the island, but the disentanglement of its long carceral history is still underway due to the complexity and overlapping of the many narratives attached to the island — just to mention a few, the island served in the past as an agricultural penal colony, a quarantine station, a political prisoners camp in the WWI, a high-security prison for members of mafia organisations and of political terrorist groups. For those of you who are familiar with the beautiful book Il Libro dell’Incontro (The Book of the Encounter) (Bertagna et al., 2015), Asinara’s prison facilities hold in detention some of the protagonists of the experience narrated in that book.

As we were about to bring a group of architecture students to the island who had probably heard little of prisons — if not in the way in which most do through mainstream media — many questions remained open. The plan was to ask them to ‘walk the island’ for two days with a camera, in search of their relationship with the island’s (prison) landscape and sparse buildings and artefacts. Then we would ask them to imagine the incipit for a possible project starting by reproducing a fragment of what they had encountered and photographed. These fragments would materialise with a sandcasting model. For those not familiar with sandcasting, this is a technique that uses sand as a mould on which plaster is then poured to create an object. In our case, the result was going to be a model that reproduced at a smaller scale an existing artefact but with a looser architectural definition — like a ruin with softer edges — questioning those qualities of precision and clarity that are instead sought by modern prison design.

But how were we going to speak to these students about prisons and incarceration?

This was going to be a very quick process — ten days in total. We were certain that the workflow — based on photography and sandcasting — was going to work. But how were we going to speak to these students about prisons and incarceration? How were we to prevent them getting trapped in the easy-to-consume narratives — aka ‘The story of the most sensational escape from Asinara’ — that (island) penal tourism often deploys to perpetuate and legitimise a traditional understanding of justice grounded on ideals of retribution, punishment, and reform? Options included a survey seminar covering the history of prison architecture, or a Foucaultian account dissecting the panopticon — always so popular in architecture schools.

We understood that none of these options was appropriate to us and that we should seek someone who not only could give a survey of the key facts of traditional modern justice and prisons but also convey to our architecture students an imaginative ‘push.’ We wanted to open the field of imagination beyond architectural discourses on how to design newer, more humane, more beautiful, reformed prisons for the current ever-growing prison population or on how to retrofit a former prison (now heritage) in ways that legitimatise the traditional prison system that we are accustomed to. So it was that, in this didactic attempt to shake up a group of architects-to-be on an uninhabited former prison island, we brought to Asinara a member of the European Forum for Restorative Justice, Brunilda Pali. She would talk about a paradigm of which none of us knew.

A few years earlier I had been with Brunilda to visit a Sardinian artist called Maria Lai in a village not distant from where my family is originally from. I had a great admiration for the work of this artist, so imbued with beauty, poetry, and strength. But Bruna started to look deeper into one of her most famous performances from the 1980s — Legarsi alla Montagna (Binding to the Mountain) — and interpreted it as an attempt of art to pursue some principles close to those of restorative justice. I don’t feel that I quite understood what she meant then. Since Asinara, my interest in restorative justice began.

Responses from students

I am an architect in prison studies and, at the time of Asinara, I had been looking at prisons for several years. While I was — slowly — consolidating my position as a researcher towards the topic of prison architecture and broader carceral spaces, I struggled to translate this into my teaching. I teach design studio, the core course in any Faculty of Architecture, where students spend one or more days a week in class with their peers and their tutors to discuss and draft their architectural projects, with drawings and model making. The aim is to produce a project, for which we tutors write a brief. Over time I became increasingly uncomfortable asking students — our future generation of architects — to work in the context of my research. I was looking for ways to propose briefs that tackled topics of incarceration and addressed justice from outside prison and prison design.

While I had already navigated this controversy in the past when teaching Master’s students at Leeds Beckett University in 2017–18, the first brief for a design studio tying together a reflection on incarceration, restorative justice and (non-prison) design was delivered to a class of fourth-year students at KU Leuven Faculty of Architecture, Belgium, in 2021. For two consecutive years, my colleague Jesse Honsa and I proposed a brief challenging students to explore if and how it is possible to mobilise restorative justice principles in architecture in the realm of housing and community infrastructure.

What might result from such a process of acknowledgement and reparation is a completely new relationship, or environment or artefact that keeps a trace of the conflictual situation that generated it.

The brief and an overview of the students’ projects are in this faculty blog. These projects reflected on what a restorative approach to togetherness can be — in an introductory seminar with Brunilda such approach was summarised as an approach that asks people to take relationships seriously, recognising that they are one part of a web of people, institutions, and the environment; to be aware of the impact of their actions on others and the world around them; and, in case of wrongdoing, to take responsibility for the harm they have caused, acknowledge, and try to repair it. What might result from such a process of acknowledgement and reparation is a completely new relationship, or environment or artefact that keeps a trace of the conflictual situation that generated it.

Shortly, the project was located in the Belgian countryside. Each student was asked to identify a site and a specific conflict that they wanted to address and repair (intergenerational injustice, environmental damages, exploitation of labour, migrants and dispossession etc.) to then design a residential farm that is inhabited by an ‘imperfect intentional community’ — formed of a very heterogeneous group of thirteen ‘extraordinary’ people including also those who are sometimes marginalised if not criminalised and that find it hard to secure permanent homes and subsistence.

Mael Duclovel, Building with Conflicts, 2021

Some of the titles of the students’ projects are already evocative of some reflections about architecture and restorative justice. Astrid de Maziere and Julia Cuppens’ ‘An Exercise in Trust’, Febe Clinckemaillie’s ‘Farm Beyond Harm’, Marta Wisniewska’s ‘Growing Monument’, Maren Schroeder’s ‘Creatur: Re-Wild + Disperse’, Giulia Mazzucco and Mélanie Juliette Lembregts’ ‘All I did was turn 18. A food forest for growth’, Lars Hemmeryckx and Luca De Voz’s ‘Vacant Front Gardens for the Settlement of a Multigenerational Community’, Defne Saysel and Juliette Moncarey’s ‘My Thoughts Run Wild. A Farm for the Unwanted’, Monika Dauksaite’s ‘Gardens for Everyday Rituals’, Tessa Delaey and Victor Stans’ ‘Released in your 50s’, or Mael Duclovel’s ‘Building with Conflicts’.

Mael, for instance, asked: ‘What if restorative justice was not only relegated to specific organised moments in ad-hoc designed spaces (peacemaking rooms and restorative justice centres) but its principles were to invest the whole life of a community, both its overarching philosophy and its daily practices?’ His project for a residential farm eventually materialised as a space for the sometimes-exhausting process of community building — based on continuous negotiation among its members, both humans and non-humans, and between them and the built space.

Figure 1: Mael Duclovel, Building with Conflicts, 2021

Marta Wisniewska, Growing Monument, 2021

He designed a co-housing where the inhabitants live in rooms organised according to a matrix where doors are shared and negotiable, and the collective living space — the kitchen but also the bathroom — is subject to negotiable rules of use. In Mael’s and other students’ projects, the architect is not seen as a demiurge aiming to create a perfect harmony between the inhabitants. Instead, the architect has the role of creating and raising possible spatial situations which will lead to negotiations, oppositions, funny moments, and changes in housing management and how the space can be inhabited.

This was also the case in Marta’s project: she imagined a community of human and non-human beings (pigeons) as the builders of a collective growing monument for an enhanced social life made of conflict and celebrations.

The most recent attempt was a design studio brief ‘Restorative Practices’ that I wrote together with Elena Palacios Carral for second and third year students in architecture at the Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London). The brief asked students to propose projects for a social infrastructure for vulnerable women — who often in their lives have been both victims and perpetrators. It took on board and tried to respond to a project set up by Beauty out of Ashes, an organisation of women largely with experience of imprisonment, women’s sector service provision, and researchers. The organisation works to create a building for women’s services to be collectively conceived, built and run by women in the area around the former Holloway Prison, in north London.

Figure 2: Marta Wisniewska, Growing Monument, 2021

The moment you attach labels to architecture or space you risk empowering them and denying their ambiguity and complexity.

We purposely avoided titling the studio ‘Restorative architecture’ or ‘Restorative space.’ The moment you attach labels to architecture or space you risk empowering them and denying their ambiguity and complexity. We instead put forward a tentative definition of restorative practice — which we drafted in this way:

A ‘practice’ implies actions together with ideas and habitual exercise. A ‘restorative practice’ is one that focuses on repairing harm or wrongdoing caused to or by a community, groups of humans and other-than-humans, the environment, or a building. Carried on collectively as a form of verbal or non-verbal communication, it seeks negotiation that values conflict as social fuel.

The students’ responses, in this case, were all sort of community buildings where principles of restorative justice were interpreted more or less loosely. Students worked with drawings and modelmaking and produced some beautiful architectural models where the possible narratives of their users and inhabitants could unfold. We don’t have a comprehensive link to this experience but some students have uploaded their individual projects — for example, Una Manapat’s ‘Cracked Vessels and Open Stitches’ or Malik Saad’s ‘There is No Place Like Home.’

Shekanah Irish, Sharing Like a Portico, 2023

Shekanah Irish’s project, Sharing Like a Portico, imagined a building that hosts, alongside counselling and mediation rooms, also spaces for mutual sharing of skills that can empower the women in their everyday life. Figure 3 is a fragment of Shekanah’s model: the observer is in an internal garden overlooking a portico and one of the rooms — while the room is being given a fresh (green) paint by the users, who are involved in maintenance of the building and have agency on it.
There was, in these brief and many students’ projects, an awareness that space can support convivial relationships among people that are complex, and sometimes conflictual, rather than idealised harmonies. This goes against an architecture that tries to smooth and prevent conflictual relationships and the risks associated with it — i.e. prevention design, secure by design — that is the underlying principle of prison design.

Figure: Shekanah Irish, Sharing Like a Portico, 2023

Sassari 2022

As a researcher, I have looked at how the discourse on architecture and restorative justice is unfolding in practice through the work of those (few) architects who are committing to restorative justice. This was the content of my presentation at the EFRJ conference in Sassari in 2022 (prepared together with Jesse Honsa). My presentation concluded with a question on the benefits and relevance of including architecture in restorative theory, practices, and training. To unpack this question, it would require another longer conversation and, probably, a deeper involvement from my side in restorative justice practices in the future — which I hope will happen.

I still haven’t responded to my own question on the relevance for restorative justice to include architecture. But I do see the relevance to introduce the students that I meet and teach in architecture schools to the radical possibilities — radical in their being ordinary — that restorative justice entails. Those very students will be out soon practising architecture and will be confronted with dilemmas that are directly or indirectly linked to incarceration and justice. This is the underlying context of the reflection presented here, on the meeting of architecture and restorative justice in the teaching activities that me and my colleagues have attempted in the past years. I like to see these experiences as ‘An exercise in trust’ — to borrow Astrid and Julia’s project title. Not always successful in finding definite resolutions and answers. But success is not the measure of teaching. And neither, from what I have understood so far, of restorative justice.

Sabrina Puddu is an architect, and researcher teaching architectural design at the Architectural Association School of Architecture of the University of Cambridge


Published on 30 December 2023.

Author's Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge here all the students who took part in the design studio courses mentioned in the text for they are those who, embracing, challenging, and critiquing the studio briefs, contributed to this ongoing reflection on the topic of architecture and restorative justice.

  • Asinara Visiting School, Architectural Association School of Architecture, London (UK), 2019 and 2022.
  • Faculty of Architecture, KU LEUVEN, Gent, Belgium, 2021 and 2022.
  • Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London (UK), 2022–23.



Bertagna, G., Ceretti, A. and Mazzucato, C. (eds.) (2015). Il libro dell’incontro: vittime e responsabili della lotta armata a confronto. Milan: Il Saggiatore.

Published on 31 December 2023.