Course Syllabus


Laura Kurgan, Professor of Architecture, Director, Center for Spatial Research

“One cannot be politically active without actually understanding one's vulnerability in the world — particularly one's collective material dependency on infrastructures."  - Judith Butler


01162022_nyStatePrisonGrid2_closed.jpgImage: Adeline Chum, Closed Prisons as of March 2022. Center for Spatial Research.


We will approach this phenomenon across a series of sites as a matter of processes that unfold in space and time linking urban and rural areas of the state. We will not treat prisons in isolation, though, but address them as part of a larger series of flows and transfers that connect upstate and downstate, urban and rural. These infrastructures—carceral, water, food, and power, among others—are also urban exo-structures and must be considered systemically.


Kathy Hochul the current Governor of New York City announced in December she would be closing six prisons in Northern New York State on March 11 2022. She was following another 20 prison closures that her predecessor Andrew Cuomo had implemented in from 2011 onwards. Prisons have not always been state funded, and their closure today is not only about criminal justice reform - is also about recovering state deficits. While states accepted prison building because the generated revenue for dwindling economies in the 90’s onwards in New York, now prisons are no longer profitable. We will address these conflicts and contingencies embedded in this phenomenon head on and ask, how can we mobilize the new policies from the New York State Governor in conjunction with recent work by activists - #blacklivesmatter, #defund the police, #lessismoreny, #CLOSERikers, as a radical plan to transform an unjust justice system. Very little imagination or design has taken place to think about what will replace the prisons and their contingent networks – urban and rural. It is well researched and documented that the 90’s era of the Mass Incarceration experiment across the United States was catalyzed by Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 through which billions of federal dollars were allocated to prison construction and improvement, as well for increasing police presence and public safety to states, local governments and other entities.

The Center for Spatial Research (CSR) has been studying the phenomenon of mass incarceration for over ten years, with maps and visualizations that reveal the invisible geography of incarceration and its costs to urban neighborhoods across the country. In many places the concentration of people who have been sentenced to prison is so dense that the state spends in excess of a million dollars a year to incarcerate the residents of single city blocks. When these people are released and reenter their communities, roughly forty percent are reincarcerated with three years. CSR has created maps of these “million dollar blocks” and of the city-prison-city-prison migration pattern in New York City. The maps suggest that the criminal justice system has become the predominant government institution in these communities and that public investment in this system has resulted in significant costs to other elements of our civic infrastructure. We asked whether there is a better way to spend public money and the answer is surely yes.[1]

Prisons and jails form still form the near and distant exostructure of many American cities, including New York City today. After years of activism, some things have changed in New York – City and State: drug laws, bail bonds stop and frisk policies, and most recently a jails to jobs initiative. New York State’s prison population has shrunk fifty six percent since 1999, and the new parole laws make it likely that this trend will continue. However, even with the shrinking populations the spatialized and racialized patterns of incarceration persist.

So much more than saving and spending public and tax dollars money is at stake here. Incarceration has deep roots in history and has been described by Michelle Alexander and others as the New Jim Crow; related discriminatory digital systems have labeled the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin.  Our studio will take all this into account as we look at prison closures through an architectural lens in the context of other urban rural dependencies. We will to provide a new imagination for prison-free dependencies between rural and urban New York. What does it mean to deprogram, reprogram, or even demolish prisons? This is not about saving money but about making the right kinds of redistributions and new forms of investments – not only economic, but cultural and reparative.

Parallel Exostructures: Water, Food, Power

Doing our work will require looking parallel at parallel networks between rural and urban New York. This work will be guided in part, by the research of counter-cartographer, artist, and activist, Lize Mogul, who will engage with our studio and give us a tour of the New York watershed. We will learn about the displacements and extractive economies that have allowed New Yorkers to take for granted the fresh clean water that flows from our faucets. We will then extrapolate from her work to other exo-structures and research food and power networks. For example, what are the dependencies and conflicts that exist between small and large farms and food distribution systems statewide?

Design Research Tools:

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Image: Jia Zhang, Social Vulnerablity Explorer Tool. SVI and the Manhattan Watershed. Center for Spatial Research

To explore the spatial dimensions of four key infra- or exo-structures that are essential to upstate-downstate interaction in New York, we will use social and other data to understand who lives in the places that we focus on to understand these interactions. Our design work will be based on the investigation of patterns in spatial
data revealed by the Social Vulnerablity Index (SVI), a tool created by the U.S. Centerscfor Disease Control (CDC) to help policy makers focus their responses to crises (natural disasters, public health emergencies, etc.) not simply on immediate symptoms (who is sick, who is displaced, etc.) but on a complex set of underlying factors that can make people more or less vulnerable to all sorts of disruptions. We have designed an interactive mapping tool that will allow to you to understand the social, economic, and environmental conditions in the areas that we'll investigate in the studio.

We are repurposing the SVI, which is usually a crisis response device, into a design tool for pro-active measures, for prevention and transformation, in environments that are too often neglected until disaster strikes. For this purpose, we have delaminated the SVI into a series of GIS layers to make its structure transparent (this repurposing also allows us to think about the structure of the index itself and even to interrogate its premises.) You need no expertise to use this no-code, low code tool. We will overlay this index onto the four exo-structural systems – prisons, water, food, and power in NewcYork State – to understand the inequalities and imbalances of our current rural-urban networks.


As a group, we will make a digital counter atlas of New York State Prisons and focus on the 26 prisons that are closing or have been closed in the last decade. We will understand the prisons in context of the SVI, as well as three other urban exostructures – water, food and power. Each student will be responsible for specific parts, but our work will be assembled as group research and be iterative at each review.


For the midterm: you will select a site for your work that is embedded in the prisons system and draft a speculative program for its deprogramming, which is to say its transformation. Work here can be individual or in teams. To do this we will use a scenario planning framework for speculation.


We will travel upstate New York; walk the watershed and also where prisons are not closing. We will meet with activists and other stakeholders involved in decommissioning prisons.

Final Projects:

Each individual or team will develop a design based on your research as well as your site visit. Our individual projects will work together as a network of interventions in Upstate and Downstate New York introducing new economies, new networks, an imagination of alternative architectures for future reparative connections between urban and rural New York.

You will of course, also rely on analytic and drawing tools you already know. We will look at prison, town and urban typologies (domestic and institutional, macro and micro) as they intersect with the SVI. We will start by making maps and counter-maps, indexes and counter- indexes, narratives and counter-narratives that will provide the context and motivation for your design work. Our intent is to design new patterns, spatial imaginations, and networked programs for post-prison futures. Design is not a neutral process; the tools and methods we use as designers are just as much political as they are scientific and aesthetic.

Projects can be developed according to expertise and interests of individual students, which is to say, you can choose the scale and medium appropriate to your speculative intervention. There will be no overall requirements for individual work, only for our collective work. We have every hope that your work will be relevant to activists and state officials alike. We will not be prisoners of architecture and we will provide urgently needed visions for post-prison communities Upstate New York.

Links and Books:

These are the important links and books to quickly introduce you to the topic: Our bibliography will be expanded.

Kathy Hochul and Prison Closings:

Views from the Watershed Podcast:

Introduction to Water and New York State

For Visual Exploration:

Josh Begley’s Prison Map

Make sure to look at the about page:

For the California example of the conflicts caused by prison closures, see this article.


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, The New Press

Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology, Polity Press

Ruth Glimore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.

Tracy Huling, Building a Prison Economy in Rural America. In From Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, Editors. The New Press

Laura Kurgan, Million Dollar Blocks, in Close Up at a Distance, Mapping Technology Politics, Zone Books. e-book on CLIO


Studio Schedule:

January 19: Wed                              Lottery

January 20: Thurs                            Co-Lab project, we will not meet as a studio

January 24: Mon                              1st day of Studio – Introduction

January 27: Thurs                            Desk Crits


January 31: Mon                              Pinup- Initial Research

February 2: Wed                              1.30-3.30, Translator Contingency Session.

February 3: Thurs                           Guest: Max Kenner: Upstate Prisons  

                                                           Meet in Room 412 + Group Crits

February 7: Mon                              Desk Crits

February 10: Thurs                          GIS Tutorial, CSR Research Associate, Jia Zhang

                                                          Meet in Room 412 + Group Crits


February 14: Mon                            Desk Crits

February 16: Wed                            1.30-3.30, Translator Contingency Session.

February 17: Thurs                          412 Avery. Group Crits


February 21: Mon                            Midterm

February 24: Thursday.                   Laura is on Midterm Reviews of others.

February 28: Mon                            Desk Crits

March 3: Thurs                                 Meet in Room 300 Buel South: Group Crits


March 7: Mon                                    Kinne Travel

March 10: Thurs                               Kinne Travel


March 14: Mon                                 Spring Break

March 17: Thurs                               Spring Break


March 21: Mon                                 Desk Crits

March 23: Wed                                 1.30-3.30, Translator Contingency Session.

March 24: Thurs                               Meet in Room 504 Avery: Guest: Sarah Haley: Abolition                                                                           Group Crits


March 28: Mon                                 Desk Crits

March 31: Thurs                               Group Crits


April 4: Mon                                       Desk Crits

April 6: Wed                                      1.30-3.30, Translator Contingency Session.

April 7: Thurs                                    Room 504 Avery: 3/4 Review


April 11: Mon                                    Desk Crits

April 14: Thurs                                  Meet in Room 504 Avery: Group Crits


April 18: Mon                                    Desk Crits

April 21: Thurs                                  Optional: Meet in Room 300 Buel South. No Class


April 25: Mon                                    No Class

April 28: Thurs                                  Final Review



Course Summary:

Date Details Due