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The Union County Juvenile Detention Center in Linden, New Jersey, is arranged around a one-acre courtyard.
Mikio Kikuyama

“Our goal has been to be the nation’s preeminent justice architects. Not the largest firm, but the preeminent firm,” said Kenneth Ricci, founding principal of RicciGreene Architects. Since the 1990s, RicciGreene has focused exclusively on the justice sector—courthouses, juvenile, and correctional facilities—but their specialization goes back to Ricci’s architectural thesis project for a juvenile detention center on Rikers Island, which he completed in 1969 and then published in a corrections journal in 1970. Ricci’s interest stems from his belief in a social contract, fostered by 1960s idealism.

With a main office in New York for about 20 employees and with Ricci, Frank Greene, Robert Fisch, and April Pottorff as principals, the research-based firm aims for a comprehensive understanding of the field, working to see a project from programmatic planning to final design. Often, architects working on a courthouse will hire a planning consultant to develop the programmatic and spatial recommendations for the project, around which the architects then design the building. RicciGreene employs both architects and planners in the firm, so the planning and design phases are interrelated.

“The memory is within the firm,” said Ricci. Adds senior associate Laura Maiello: “Planning is where you bring the research and the philosophical mission into the equation.” The principals and senior staff lecture and publish widely before corrections conferences and government organizations, and they see behavioral research, social science, and knowledge of the judicial system as the foundation of their work.

A key component of the project is natural lighting, to improve the physical and emotional well-being of juvenile occupants.
Mikio Kikuyama

At the Union County Juvenile Detention Center in Linden, New Jersey, for example, the architects analyzed the entire juvenile justice system in the community. They found that inefficiencies in the system were causing prolonged detentions, leading to overcrowding. Their recommendations helped shorten stays and allowed them to reduce the total number of beds in the project, therefore reducing costs for the municipality. “Detention is the most restrictive and expensive method,” Maiello said. “We recognize that the facility should be as small as possible, not as large.” Ricci elaborated: “Counties are recognizing they cannot build their way out of these problems.”

The design of the project reflects the firm’s humanist philosophy. The mayor of Linden wanted to avoid razor-wire fences, so RicciGreene designed a thin, secure perimeter building with a one-acre courtyard. A classroom and gymnasium stand at the center of the space. The buildings are daylight-filled and offer views outside. “Many of these kids are depressed or angry. They need views of trees and sky,” Ricci said. The project recently won a New Jersey AIA design award, prevailing over several schools in its category. Jurors commented that the design expressed “optimism that belies the typology,” according to Ricci.

The emphasis on justice-planning and design lets the firm collaborate with signature architects—they are currently working with Polshek Partnership, SOM, and Arquitectonica—or serve as lead designers, as they have at Union County.

For the architects and planners at RicciGreene, their goal is worth the striving. “You don’t typically study this stuff in architecture school,” Ricci said. “You have to believe in the mission.”

Alan G. Brake

Alan G. Brake is an associate editor at The Architect’s Newspaper.