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Typology: Prison

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To confine, secure, rehabilitate or punish: the prison has several, sometimes contradictory aims, but however humane its approach, penal architecture is essentially cruel

The Marquis de Sade wanted to beat his brains out against them, Jean Genet was moved to kiss them. The walls of prisons are invested with a strange kind of energy: whether implacable or erotic, they are never simply structural. Situated within the urban fabric, they admonish the citizenry with what Jacques-François Blondel called an architecture terrible; when sequestered in distant rural sites (or further out in colonies) they act as cloaks of invisibility for the state’s secret human foundations. Within the perimeter of the prison itself, they produce a microscopically subdivided space, consisting of the regular repetition of its most basic element: the cell.

The prison cell is the ultimate realisation of the Existenzminimum sought by Modernist architects. In a space reduced to the extent of the human proportions, there are facilities for bathing, the disposal of excreta, and sleeping; all else is superfluous. (In supermax prisons such as ADX Florence in Colorado, these furnishings are of cast concrete; one thinks of the bathroom and adjacent daybed in Villa Savoye.) The disposition of these cells allows the constant supervision of inmates and their grading and categorisation, whether by gender, social status, dangerousness or crime. 


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Jean Genet’s  1950 short film, Un Chant d’Amour


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ADX Florence Supermax Prison in Fremont County, Colorado. Image courtesy of Lizzie Himmel / Sygma via Getty Images

Such cellularity is a very modern invention, born of Quakerish squeamishness with regards to the physical body of the convict and its suffering. Instead pious reformers turned to mental torture, to isolation and enforced reflection. The innovation was made at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison in 1790; the result was the first penitentiary. 

Dostoyevsky, who had been imprisoned himself, dismissed the efficacy of the practice: ‘Prison and penal servitude do not, of course, reform the criminal … I am firmly convinced that the results achieved even by the much-vaunted cell-system are superficial, deceptive and illusory. It sucks the living sap out of a man, wears down his spirit, weakens and browbeats him, and then presents the shrivelled, half-demented mummy as a pattern of repentance and reform.’ 



The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


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Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish


But was reform ever the intention? In our post-Foucauldian moment, this seems dubious indeed. Rather, incarceration is oriented to the creation and neutralisation of political enemies and to the labour supply of the prison-industrial complex. (Foucault goes further: the prison and related disciplinary institutions produce the well-tempered modern subject itself.)

‘Cellularity is a modern invention. Pious reformers turned to mental torture, isolation and enforced reflection’

Angela Davis emphasises the economic function of prisons in her analysis of the present American context, where ‘punishment no longer constitutes a marginal area of the larger economy’. Presently, 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated – that is, 0.7 per cent of the population. Prisoner numbers have grown by 500 per cent since the ‘war on drugs’ began in the 1980s, and prisoners are disproportionately black – indeed, nearly one third of black American men will spend time in prison at some point in their lives. (This is not, it should be noted, an exclusively American phenomenon: Britain has an even more disproportionately black prison population.) These vast immobilised armies supply labour to corporations, profits to private prison businesses, and captive markets to suppliers. Lest the historical echoes resound too faintly, the largest American prison – Louisiana’s so-called Angola – is an operational cotton plantation.


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Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as ‘Angola’, is an 18,000-acre plantation turned prison and the largest maximum security prison in the US


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Model of the Bastille carved out of stone from the prison by an anonymous sculptor between 1789 and 1794

What form does this massive system take? Where did it come from? Before acquiring its current economic role, incarceration was a transitory state and punishment was ultimately enacted on the body via torture and execution. This was very often spectacular: that is, it took place in public in order to edify and deter the people. (Other forms of punishment neglected by Foucault, such as forced labour in galleys or mines, were less visible; perhaps slavery itself should be incorporated into carceral history.) Imprisonment was a means to briefly store the criminal, and extant spaces were employed to this end. For security reasons, these were usually in castles – the term dungeon comes from the French donjon, which actually refers to the castle keep; opposed spatial registers, in a sense, the subterranean and the tower, which work together to confine and to reveal. The looming tower, epitomised by the Bastille, is a warning to the populace that they too could share the fate of the criminal concealed within. 

‘Isolation was quickly found not to work. It did not reform prisoners, it drove them mad’

Confinement is now an end in itself, but the admonitory city jail has not been abandoned. In the late 18th century this took on sublime forms in order to terrify: George Dance’s Piranesian Newgate employed Mannerist distortions to render Classical conventions intentionally oppressive. Later, in Würzburg, Peter Speeth built a women’s prison that is equally Mannerist, and perhaps even more bizarre, with a huge lion-headed knocker at the centre of its facade. Soon, however, the Middle Ages were seized on as an apposite source for penal architecture, as in George Gilbert Scott’s castle-like Reading Gaol (1844), and HH Richardson’s austerely Romanesque Allegheny County Jail, Pittsburgh (1888). The latter takes prisoners to and from the courthouse via a hefty bridge of sighs – stylistically incongruous, perhaps, but historically apt, as its Venetian progenitor links the Doge’s palace to the prison. 



Former women’s prison in Würzburg, Germany


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Prisoners of Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago do morning yoga classes on building’s roof. Image courtesy of Victor Hilitski /

High-rise city jails flourished in the US following the erection in 1975 of NYC’s rugged Metropolitan Correctional Center. In Chicago, by contrast, we find a smooth, sharply angled tower designed by Harry Weese, architect of the coffered Washington DC metro stations. Its arrow-slit windows peer suspiciously down on the city, while a rooftop yard affords the inmates exercise inescapable except by death. The structure is a suggestive hybrid of office building and castle keep, banal and yet still unnerving for those apprised as to what goes on inside: these towers are intended to be way-stations for prisoners en route to the courthouse, but for some this has meant years of solitary confinement without trial. 

While downtown jails took on the castle look, solitary confinement moved to the suburbs. There it was given more suitable architectural form by John Haviland, whose Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia (1829) was enormously influential. With its radiating arms stuffed full of isolation cells, it necessarily existed on the city’s periphery, where its crenellated walls and lofty turrets enclose a city-beyond-the-city, a city – as Dostoyevsky describes the penal colony – of the living dead. This approach was borrowed by London’s Pentonville Prison, which in turn spawned numerous similar establishments. 



Joshua Jebb’s isometric drawing of Pentonville Prison, published in Report of the Surveyor-General of Prisons in 1844



1844 illustration of Reading Prison

These buildings are frequently referred to as panoptic, in the Bentham-Foucault mould, but although anyone at the central hub can observe activity in the radiating corridors, this does not permit the constant supervision of each prisoner that Bentham had in mind. This can only be achieved with the classic arrangement of a drum of cells observed from a central tower. Very rarely implemented in its pure form, a few panopticons do exist, for instance the Netherlands’ three dome-prisons, or at Lancaster Prison, where the semicircular female block was designed by Joseph Gandy, Soane’s draughtsman and a sometime detainee.  

There was one problem, however, with this unprecedentedly organised space: isolation was quickly found not to work. It did not reform prisoners, it drove them mad. But isolation succeeds in numerous other ways – most importantly, in housing ever-growing populations securely while rendering them docile. This can only be achieved, however, if jails grow too, which in the neoliberal era meant recourse to private funding. 


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Super-maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison, Del Norte County, California. Image courtesy of Jelson25


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Northern Correctional Institution, a supermax prison in Somers, Connecticut. Image courtesy of Steve Miller / Rex / Shutterstock

Along with the rise of private jails, and rocketing prison populations, came the American supermax: prisons designed to pacify those resistant to other forms of subjection. Here inmates are isolated for 23 hours a day, often with no view of the world outside and, thanks to manipulations of light, no idea of time. The results of this architectural torture are inevitably grim, but they are also expensive. Such extreme design solutions are not essential, however, since standard penal spaces can be retooled instead. Cells can be bombarded with chemical weapons, for instance (arms manufacturers now market gas-dispersal systems specifically for jailhouse use). Alternatively, a shower thermostat can be altered in order to boil prisoners to death, as was done to Darren Rainey, a mentally ill man held on a minor drugs charge, in 2012. The guards responsible were not prosecuted.

‘A shower thermostat can be altered in order to boil prisoners to death, as was done to Darren Rainey at Dade CI, Florida’

Not all prison regimes opt for such retrograde forms of cruelty. In Sweden, for instance, the emphasis is on evidence-based rehabilitation rather than on punitive incarceration. Intensive social work takes place in stylishly furnished prisons, which feature common areas and are frequently open to the outside world – the essential rationale being that hermetically sealing people off from society can only create unproductive sociopaths. The incarceration rate is relatively low, as is recidivism (40 per cent, around half the rate of the rest of Europe). Consequently, jails are actually being rendered superfluous, and closed. 

Even if we agree with Foucault that, thanks to the spread of panoptic surveillance, the disciplinary architecture of the prison has seeped beyond its walls to infect the minds of even the supposedly free, prisons themselves still exist. And they do not, to paraphrase what Baudrillard once said of Disneyland, exist solely to obscure the unfreedom of what lies beyond: they imprison, torture and kill. So however insidious the Ikea-furnished mind-control of the Swedish system, for instance, it would still seem preferable to spend a stretch there than banged up in ADX Florence.


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Madelon Vriesendorp’s watercolour of OMA’s proposed renovation of Koepel Prison in Breda, the Netherlands. Design: Rem Koolhaas. Watercolour: Madelon Vriesendorp

Hólmsheiði Prison in Reykjavik, Iceland, by Arkís, 2016

Hólmsheiði Prison clings to the flat, scrubby landscape on the outskirts of Reykjavik, a low cruciform building with a slight circular eminence at its crossing. This is the guard centre, and the 56 cells are arranged around courtyards on each of the building’s arms. The cells themselves are reminiscent of budget hotel rooms, albeit more pleasantly furnished, and each one has a relatively large window extruded from the building envelope. This allows a view out while preventing the possibility of communicating with other inmates. While the interiors are brightly coloured and furnished with light wood, the predominant materials on the exterior are fair-faced concrete and riveted Corten steel, which give the building a robust and appropriately forbidding appearance.


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Photograph courtesy of Hreinn Magnússon


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Photograph courtesy of Hreinn Magnússon


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Photograph courtesy of Hreinn Magnússon


Hólmsheiði prison drawing web

Click to download

Mas d’Enric Penitentiary in Tarragona, Spain, by AiB estudi d’arquitectes and Estudi PSP Arquitectura, 2012

A rectangular perimeter subdivided into modular courtyard blocks in the form of a grid: in these terms, Mas d’Enric Penitentiary superficially resembles a mat building of the sort described by Alison Smithson in 1974. However, the mat building was intended to be open-plan blown up to urban scale and to be, at least in principle, infinitely extensible. A prison can be neither of these things. Security demands rigorously enforced interior divisions and an equally impermeable exterior boundary. This is the circle that the prison’s architects have tried to square: openness and closedness, freedom and its opposite. And perhaps it is appropriate to the humane prison that its architecture should also be openly riven with contradictions. These surface in the several courtyards, which allow constrained recreation, and the undulating green roof, which echoes the canopy of the surrounding woodland, bridging an otherwise insuperable divide between inside and out.  


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary aerial view

Photograph courtesy of José Hevia


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary residential blocks 1

Image courtesy of José Hevia


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary central square 6

Photograph courtesy of José Hevia


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary reception and access 2

Photograph courtesy of José Hevia


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary workshops

Photograph courtesy of José Hevia


Aib psp mas d enric penitentiary cross sections

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New Correctional Facility in Nuuk, Greenland, by Schmidt Hammer Lassen architects, under construction

With renders that suggest a prison-break sci-fi set in space, the jail designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen currently under construction outside Nuuk in Greenland surely has one of the world’s most dramatic locations for such a facility. The low, Corten-clad blocks are disaggregated into various functions and spread out over the terrain, some of them imbricating others in a De Stijl-like composition. Beyond the perimeter wall is an open section, within, the higher-security units, as well as health, fitness, work and educational facilities. The lowest portion of the sloping site is occupied by the residential block, from which extensive windows provide views over the wall to the craggy, snow-covered landscape. This falls away to the sea, surely discouraging any thoughts of escape (wouldn’t you rather be tucked-up in your cell?).


Overview look to ny anstalt and the fjord

Photograph courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects


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Image courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects


New correctional facility greenland drawing web

Click to download

Leading image: F-House No 1, Stateville Correctional Center, Crest Hill, Illinois, 2010. Photograph by David Leventi, courtesy of Rick Wester Fine Art, New York

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.