Downside or Upside : Ventura...


Do Chuck Boxwell a favor if you are ever in one of his buildings: Don't get too comfortable, and don't revel in its beauty. Jail architects hate that.

A jail, Boxwell said recently, "needs to imply to an inmate an orderliness, rules, that there's a system he has to conform with. . . . The inmate needs to know who's running this jail, and it's not the inmate."

Boxwell, senior vice president at Henningson, Durham & Richardson in Irvine, is the chief architect of Ventura County's next jail, proposed to soon rise in an orchard near Santa Paula. In a profession best known for its high-visibility visionaries, he is a low-profile pragmatist.

"He's the type of person that's willing to listen and work with us," said Arnold Leshovsky, jail project manager for the county. "We get together as a group and we start throwing things around. Pretty soon a consensus starts to develop. Where the idea came from at first it's hard to say."

Instead of putting points on skyscrapers and dwarfs on pedestals, as more noted architects have done, Boxwell puts the jailers' traditional five-inch limit on the width of all windows (any wider and someone will squeeze through). He disdains carpeting and soft furniture--neither will be found in Ventura County's prisoner areas--and he keeps the cells close to the state-mandated minimum of 70 square feet for two prisoners. As the state requires, he will see that some natural light reaches every cell.

He has never spent a night in jail, although "it's something I've wanted to do." But he has passed many working hours behind bars.

Boxwell is resigned to seeing his buildings get only minimal maintenance, accustomed to watching them quickly fill beyond their intended capacity. "If you want an analogy for what it's like in jail," Boxwell said, "go out on the street and invite a stranger into your bathroom. Put two bunks where the tub is. Then close and lock the door."

Seated in his Irvine office, Boxwell leaned across a clear desktop, pin-striped jacket at hand, two gold pens in his breast pocket. Over the course of the two-hour conversation, a few bits of paper fell from the spiral binding of a reporter's notebook. Boxwell silently covered each one with a finger and flicked it aside. Order.

"Anything that you build can be defeated," he said. "We're talking about people with nothing but time." These are the same people, he added, who lately have been fashioning "shiv" knives by melting down Fritos bags.

The architect, now 42, traces his vocation to a summer job he held at age 13, working for an uncle who was a contractor in Wisconsin.

"They demolished a house once in three days and put it in three piles," Boxwell recalled. "And the guy who owned it paid me to take it apart board by board so he could salvage from it."

Having taken a building apart, Boxwell soon was helping put them together. On summer breaks, he worked construction. At the University of Colorado, he majored in architecture and did an undergraduate project on the renovation of the Boulder County Jail. For his thesis in 1972, he designed a hypothetical jail.

"They were highly technical, operationally oriented kinds of projects," Boxwell said. "My talents were more in problem-solving and making it work than in a form-oriented aesthetic."

Out of school, he spent six years on a variety of civic and industrial buildings, including an award-winning library for the Air Force Academy. But for more than a decade, he has been specializing in "justice" projects.

The Ventura County job began for the architect about a year ago. Boxwell, who has designed jails in Colorado, California and Wyoming, sees this one as "a harder jail" than many.

Many corrections leaders, he said, are promoting "direct supervision" jails that put deputies and inmates side by side in an effort to defuse tension and promote sensitivity among jailers.

Ventura County wasn't interested in that and chose a less costly scheme that uses walls and thick windows to separate most deputies from inmates. The design includes two-dozen video cameras, several wire-mesh screens and, in the 220,000 square feet of jail, no bars.

"Through a bar grate, if I'm a prisoner, I can reach somebody," Boxwell said. "They'll urinate in a cup and throw it on somebody. There are people like that everywhere."

In his off hours, Boxwell's tastes reach further beyond the pragmatic. His favorite building, for instance, is the east wing of the National Art Gallery, an airy construction of concrete, marble and glass designed by I. M. Pei in Washington.

"It's something on the other end of the spectrum from what I've been working on," Boxwell said. "But I like the variety of spaces and the way they work together."

And Boxwell does gets a chance to tap his own aesthetic impulses on courthouse design, which allows more latitude than jails. In 1988, he completed the Gwinnett County Courthouse in Georgia, "a people building" with a large center atrium.

"But even there, those are very technical, functional, driven buildings," Boxwell said.

If there is a major innovation in the Ventura jail's design, Boxwell said, it might be the visiting area. There, the building forms a circle with the public on the outside, the prisoners on the inside and the supervisor in the middle--allowing one deputy to oversee up to 24 prisoners, an unusually large number.

"One full-time post in the jail, 24 hours a day, takes five positions," Boxwell said. "With benefits, that's a quarter-million dollars a year."

Ventura County's jail is expected to employ a staff of about 250. The first phase of the project, with groundbreaking expected late this year or early next year, is budgeted at $51 million.

There will be 752 beds in 400 cells on two levels, doors of steel, walls of reinforced concrete. Outside, aesthetics will matter more. The skin of the precast concrete will carry a rough texture set off by horizontal bands of color.

Boxwell said he was leaning heavily toward earth tones to blend in with neighboring agricultural and industrial sites.

"This is not going to be a jail with frills and extras."

THE PROJECT: A new county jail. To ease overcrowding at the existing jail and work farms, the Board of Supervisors last July voted to construct a new lock-up. In its first phase, the jail will include 400 cells on two levels, with a prisoner capacity of 752. The 220,000-square-foot complex would stand between Ventura and Santa Paula, covering about 15 acres of a 157-acre lemon orchard at Todd Road and the Santa Paula Freeway. Some neighboring farmers have opposed the jail, to no avail so far.

THE PRICE: $51.3 million, of which $2.3 million is architect fees. Eventually, officials said, the project could be expanded to accommodate more than 2,300 prisoners, at an additional cost of up to $210 million.

THE PROCESS: In 1989, county officials sent out about 20 requests for qualifications to architectural firms nationwide and chose half a dozen finalists. A county committee selected Henningson, Durham & Richardson Inc. of Orange County.

The firm's principal architect on the project, Chuck Boxwell, is working in close consultation with a team of county officials. The team is finishing design development, refining the floor plan, choosing materials and settling other details.

Construction documents--the finest details of the project--lie ahead. Officials say groundbreaking could come as soon as September, but they may wait until early 1992. Completion is scheduled in early 1994.

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