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Review> Imagining Freedom
Director Angel Sing Bhalla's new film, Herman's House, follows inmate Herman Wallace as he designs his dream home.
Still from Herman's House, 2012.
Courtesy First Run Features

Herman's House
Directed by Angel Singh Bhalla
First Run Features

What would you wish for if you inhabited a small space? We’re not talking about a studio or a micro apartment, or a bedroom at your parents’ house. This is a six-by-nine-foot cell where you’ve spent 23 hours a day for more than 30 years. If you were offered the quintessential America dream—your own home—what would you imagine?

That is the question put to Herman Wallace, an inmate at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, by artist Jackie Summell, an activist on behalf of prisoners in solitary confinement. As we see in Herman’s House, a documentary film directed by Angad Singh Bhalla, Herman’s first reaction was blank, if not dumbfounded—he hadn’t dreamed of any sort of home, and, if he was on the outside, would have been happy being homeless. But after peppering him with photographs of everything she saw during the course of the day, and shots of fanciful dream homes that looked like lighthouses or spaceships or tree houses—all of which he dismissed—Herman set about sketching and writing about his ideal home: a two-story, peaked-roof house with overhanging eaves and a chimney on a plot of land with gardenias, carnations, and tulips. He wanted a yellow kitchen with sprinklers in the ceiling to be safe for cooking (Jackie notes that he’s specified a color that was popular in the 1970s when he was a free man). He wanted a Wall of Revolutionary Fame with portraits of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman, which reflects the Black Power consciousness he developed in prison. The master bedroom sported a king-sized bed, African art, and mirrored ceilings, and the master bathroom featured a six-by-nine-foot hot tub—only slightly larger than his cell. A swimming pool with a painted black panther at the bottom dominated the exterior.

Herman Wallace.

Three architects who specialize in prison or “justice” design comment on Herman’s dream house. Frank Greene of Ricci Greene Associates, remarks how bourgeois Herman’s concept is, and notes that you cannot see the rising or setting sun. Jeff Goodale, HOK’s Director of Justice, muses that if he were in solitary, he would wish for an all-glass house that is completely exposed and without barriers. But Herman’s house mimics the tight areas experienced in prison—narrow corridors that lead from space to space, a central room reminiscent of a prison day room where inmates sit around a table, ringed by benches. Goodale finds it oppressive. Melissa Farling of Jones Studio counts six atypical rooms, and thinks that a non-prisoner given this task would probably request an 8,000 to 10,000-square-foot home with a bowling alley and media room—a term unfamiliar to someone who’s been locked away since the 1970s.

Jackie built Herman’s home as an art installation that was seen at Artists Space in New York in 2007 entitled “The House that Herman Built.” It has so far travelled to 12 galleries in 5 countries, and included detailed plans as well as a model of Herman’s cell. Herman also requested that Jackie actually build the house to be used as a youth center. Jackie moved from New York to New Orleans to make this happen. After finding the perfect plot of city-owned land, which she believed New Orleans did not want to use, the parcel was snatched by real estate developers. So she continues her hunt.

Herman’s dream home is clearly a reflection of the spaces he has occupied for most of his life now. If he were placed in architect Jeff Goodale’s glass house, he would probably feel uncomfortably vulnerable and seek cover. Jackie may have hit on a means to understand people’s relationship to space, both aspirational and real.

Susan Morris

Susan Morris is a frequent contributor to AN.


Two architectural renderings of Herman Wallace's dream house from the film.