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The Big House: Incarceration and Exhibition

Drawing a comparison between the architecture of prisons and museums, a study by Joe Day explores the duality of concealment and display in exhibition and incarceration

A few years ago, C-Glass House was built on an exposed site in Northern California. Making strategic use of translucent channel glass, C-Glass House appeared less exposed to the outside world, less obviously voyeuristic than such precedents as Mies’s Farnsworth House or Philip Johnson’s Glass House. It suggested a pragmatic evolution in the design of glass pavilions while retaining some of Modernist architecture’s crystalline DNA. The architect was Deegan Day Design of Los Angeles.

Joe Day, design principal in Deegan Day Design, has now published Corrections and Collections, a clever and provocative analysis of the architecture of prisons and museums. If that sentence suggests one mode of architecture for two seemingly disparate programmes, that is in part Day’s message. Prisons and museums deal of course with storage and with highly prescribed modes of behaviour. Both are frequently expressions of power.

Day delves into the rapid growth of prison and museum construction, particularly in the United States, and surprises us − perhaps even embarrasses those of us enamoured of architectural aesthetics − by revealing remarkable similarities, in layout, form and tectonic expression, between these factories of incarceration and cool temples of fine art. As Mike Davis points out in his foreword, ‘prisons and museums share profound and troubling characteristics that transcend more superficial affinities with other monolithic design schemes’.

The book is divided into four sections: Minimal, Post-Minimal, Millennial and Post-Millennial. Each consists of two chapters (a neat division of material). Each section is in turn identified by a single verb or command: ‘Reduce’, ‘Rotate’, ‘Neutralize’, ‘Disperse’. A quick flick through this modest publication reveals a generous quota of black-and-white illustrations including, in provocative adjacency, photographs of Tadao Ando’s Forest of Tombs and the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (grey monolith, serrated plan, slot-like apertures).

Day tells us that ‘the California Department of Corrections has redesignated all 33 of its state prisons, or CSPs, with two to five letter acronyms’. Thus San Quentin became SQ and Folsom (as in Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album) FOL, just as museums were abbreviated to MoMA, MoCA, ICA. The author tours us around several of these brand-conscious institutions, institutions that in some cases are also private business concerns. So, for example, ‘sixty facilities under management’ by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), an ‘industry’ leader with investors including former Vice President ‘Dick Cheney, via the Vanguard Group’.


A prison planned by Thomas Jefferson. This was intended to be more humane than existing facilities: each cell has its own lavatory and stove.

Staying within the Republican Party orbit, the Rockefeller family’s early and crucial support of the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is well known. It is, however, characteristic of Day to locate an ‘obvious point of origin’ for the astonishing ‘tenfold increase in US prisoners between 1970 and 2000’ in the ‘draconian’ drug laws initiated by Nelson Rockefeller as Governor of New York in the early 1970s. According to Day, the number of correctional facilities and museums in the US tripled between 1975 and 2000 from roughly 600 to 1,800 and from 6,000 to 18,000 respectively.

Day starts his account at Kahn’s extension to the Yale University Art Gallery (1953) and, directly across the street, the Yale Center for British Art (1976). ‘Kahn’s galleries,’ he writes, ‘make it easy, and even seductive, to see the penitential in the museological’; they share with prisons ‘indirect access and fortified circulation; clerestory lighting rather than view windows; an oddly luxurious attention to, and exposure of, poured concrete construction.’ Kahn’s sense of module and multiplication is, he argues, a harbinger of Minimalism in tune with the practice of artists such as Judd and LeWitt.

In the chapter titled ‘Rotate’, Day draws parallels between Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary proposals (akin to ‘Secure Housing Units’ in California today) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum of non-objective art a century and a half later. Both ‘engender intense self-consciousness in all of their participants: artists, curators, visitors; inmates, guards, warden’.

He then introduces two ‘larger-than-life figures’ who ‘recast the basic mathematics of incarceration and exhibition’: Don Novey, former president of the California prison guards’ union, and former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. During Novey’s period in office, California opened 20 new prisons, totalling 15,872 acres. On one page of this compact book, we see one tiny image each − an icon, perhaps, in the graphic sense − of 15 Guggenheims in operation or envisaged under Krens’ leadership.

Fascinating as Day’s text is, the many illustrations are key to his argument. Thus, for instance, a graph of Prison Population versus Museum Attendance numbers; a double-page spread with ceiling views from 30 recent museums; another spread with bird’s-eye views of 30 California prisons; mid-level plans of the Panopticon and Wright’s Guggenheim ‘at common scale’; and a dense axial chart of architects and museums with Takamatsu, Eisenman, Herzog & de Meuron and Stern in opposing corners.

Day has the bottle to include images of his own student work at both Yale and SCI-Arc and of more recent work by students he has taught at the latter school; many, unsurprisingly, seem concerned with issues of viewing and the institutional. Ultimately, Corrections and Collections is an exploration of themes of concealment and display, an intellectual pursuit soon surely to inform new buildings by this enviably erudite architect.

Corrections and Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime

Author: Joe Day

Publisher: Routledge

Price: £24.99

Image: The introductory image shows 798 Art Zone in Beijing, major sites of forced industry and incarceration have been converted into vast arts campuses

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