Can design change the world?

Away from cool products, a handful of creative thinkers are attempting to solve the big problems that face modern society. From prisons to airline cabins, hotels to stadiums, it's the future perfect.
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The problem If we accept that architecture affects behaviour and influences character then we should look very closely at the design of our prisons. Security must be ensured, and there's limited money and space. But can we improve on the isolated, sprawling compounds of dehumanising concrete to give prisoners the sense of self-worth and communal responsibility we want them to have when they're released?

The proposal Alsop Architects

When controversial architect Will Alsop was approached by the British non-profit organisation Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) to design a concept prison from the inside out, his first stop was HM Gartree, built on a disused aerodrome just north of Market Harborough in the early 1960s. He handed large sheets of paper to a group of inmates and asked them to draw a new cell. Each man, in for a minimum of 15 years, drew the cell in which he was already incarcerated. He asked if they would like more space. They thought that would be too expensive (Alsop wondered if it might not cost society more to withhold that space). Next, he asked them to draw what they'd like to see from their windows. They all drew gardens. In prison, there is time to watch things grow.

Alsop's conceptual solution uses an old space-saving technique: build upwards. In a series of brightly coloured towers, The Creative Prison provides inmates with more individual and collective legroom, surrounding each structure with deep moats of greenery: working gardens, training areas and sports facilities. Next, he tackled the community issues. Rather than caging inmates in massive cell blocks, he proposes units designed to house groups of up to 14 prisoners. For socialising within a wider community he added in a restaurant, barber shop and radio station.

Ever since Jeremy Bentham gave us the nightmarish "panopticon" prison in the late-18th century, designed to ensure prisoners felt watched at all times, critics have claimed that even prisoners need privacy. The focus group at Gartree called for doors on their toilets and the ability to lock their own cells (not from guards but from other prisoners). Alsop gave his prison these advantages, with the intention that prisoners would learn to respect the boundaries of others.

Alsop's prison is still only a concept. And you might argue that splashing about some cheap, primary colours, adding a garden and clustering those with antisocial tendencies into smaller groups will change nothing. Just look at what goes on in the Big Brother house. And I'm not sure who would want to live in view of this lurid landscape, especially as the blocks of exterior colour favoured by Alsop weather dubiously. On the other hand, he has created a model worth debate in any society determined to break out of what Foucault called the "carceral continuum".

An exhibition on the Creative Prison runs at the NCCL Galleries of Justice, High Pavement, The Lace Market, Nottingham NG1 until 26 November;,

The Hotel

The problem Over the last 20 years the shadow of Philippe Starck has fallen over hip hotels around the world, converting them into either hi-tech cave systems or soulless minimalist monasteries. But, where affluent hipsters once wanted to stay in 24-hour nightclubs, the party is now over. Everyone is now waiting for the post post-modern trend in hotel design.

The proposal Julian Schnabel and Ian Schrager

Have the forces of "witty" darkness had their day? A new era of light and tactile, organic comfort is being celebrated at the 80-year-old Gramercy Park, which has just reopened in New York. It's an Ian Schrager hotel, perhaps surprising as it was Schrager's collaboration with Starck (on hotels like Delano in Miami and St Martin's Lane in London) that gave us that old aesthetic. But Schrager didn't get where he is today without knowing when his guests are getting restless and so he brought in the artist Julian Schnabel for the Gramercy's $200m revamp. And what he wanted from Schnabel was a truly bohemian aesthetic.

"Previously we created a kind of hotel that did not exist before," says the 59-year-old Schrager, with trademark swagger. "I wanted to do it again, to change the game and raise the bar."

In polar opposition to the slickly Starckian style, the Gramercy is full of stuff, an opulent jumble of finished and "unfinished" objects. A grand Venetian chandelier twinkles loftily down from a reclaimed Douglas fir ceiling. Plush red velvet, gold and brass are much in evidence, mixed with flea-market bargains. There's a baroque colour scheme and art from Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, of course, Schnabel.

Reel off those names and it sounds intimidating. But what I like about the Gramercy's high-swank clutter is that it allows the guest to get a little lost in it. Minimalism works well in the home, but hotels are the places where we seek comfort when we're in strange towns. A wittily stripped-down lobby can leave even the most confident of guests feeling exposed and excluded.

The Gramercy, meanwhile, just wants to entertain you with its magic box of absurd luxuries. Schrager's back on form and a new era may just be starting. (omega)

Rooms from $525,

The Aircraft Cabin

The problem Are you scared of flying or just cramped and uncomfortable in aeroplanes? Either way, the elongated tin can shape of the traditional aircraft cabin probably hasn't been doing enough for you. And now - with security more deranged than ever - the pressure is on manufacturers and airlines to make cabins double as mobile offices - with access to email, phones and streamed television.

The proposal Airbus

Since the 1970s, Boeing's 747 (with a seating capacity of 524) has dominated the aircraft market. But in the 1990s Airbus began development of the revolutionary double-decker A380, designed to give 50 per cent more floor space than the next largest airliner, and increase capacity to up to 800 passengers.

The first prototype superjumbo took to the skies in April 2005. "There are some important basic differences," says Arndt Hellmann, PR man for Airbus. "Whereas the fuselage on a traditional plane is an 'O' shape, the double-decker A380 is more of an oval, or egg shape. This is really important for those sitting in window seats. It means you won't be craning your neck inside a cylinder shape - the wall beside you will be more vertical."

Hellmann says "the plane is designed with more of a hotel feel - there will be space for airlines to put in a reception area, and there will be room for socialising in bar or lounge areas". Virgin Atlantic, which has a bar in Business Class on its aircraft, has announced plans to include casinos, double beds, a gymnasium and showers on A380s.

Yet, in the wake of recent terror alerts and restrictions on carry-on luggage, it is technological developments that are most pressing. With even humble Ryanair promising to offer the use of mobile phones and BlackBerrys on flights - through an agreement with Onair, part-owned by Airbus maker EADS - by mid-2007, the pressure is on to make long-haul business-class flights an extension of your working day. Technology experts predict that each seat may soon offer dedicated computers (with word processing, spread sheet and email) and virtual "magic eye" keyboards. Travellers will be assigned a mobile number to their seat and receive calls on the installed satellite phone. You may have to accept - possibly with some regret - that the tentacles of work can now reach you anywhere in the world.

The Stadium

The problem It is one of the great architectural challenges: national pride demands that stadiums be iconic and original, but the function allows for little customisation of the formula of seating thousands of fans around a smallish sporting arena. They must cocoon the event without despoiling the skyline. And they must achieve all this on time and on budget.

The proposal Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Stadiums are the cathedrals of our age, so it's perhaps no surprise that the greatest modern architects are finally starting to show an interest. Following Santiago Calatrava's captivating design for the Athens Olympics in 2004, the torch has passed to the Basel-based firm Herzog + de Meuron, best known for their renovation of the Tate Modern and for the Allianz Arena in Munich, one of the star attractions of the 2006 World Cup.

The Beijing Olympic Stadium, designed to host the main track-and-field events of the 2008 games, is like no stadium you have ever seen and is one of the most important new structures of the 21st century. The Swiss practice conceived the stadium as a large collective vessel. Walking through the "bird's nest" exterior, visitors will find themselves in a cloister-esque ambulatory that runs in a circle behind the three tiers of stands. There's nothing to prevent natural ventilation cooling the 91,000 crowd, and the basket-woven steel structure (each of the main structural elements weighs around 1,000 tonnes) allows light to slip out as though from a zoetrope.

The Beijing design shows that sports stadiums can combine function with, perhaps for the first time, sublime beauty, but all has not been straightforward. As with Norman Foster's bedevilled Wembley Stadium, the architects' ambition ran aground at the construction stage and in 2004 plans for an ingenious sliding roof had to be dropped for safety and budgetary reasons. Along with many of the athletes who will be competing within this innovative arena, Herzog and de Meuron have had to accept that you can't win them all.