With the insides out : Prisons

“A whole problematic then develops: that of an architecture that is no longer built simply to be seen, or to observe the external space, but to permit an internal, articulated and detailed control – to render visible those who are inside it. ”

–  Michael Foucault, “Discipline and Punish – The Birth of a Prison”, 1975

The following piece is dedicated to a type of building that turns architecture inside out and upside down. A strong political and cultural statement, no other building type speaks of a society as clearly as prisons do.

A society is defined by the rules and norms it establishes for itself, but also by the mechanisms that ensure that rule keeping. The architecture that facilitates penalty, among with the applied practices themselves, set an interesting mark for the way a society treats its rules and mostly of the way it values life and humanity.

Historically, prisons have always been buildings society aims to hide from itself – secluded and distant, avoided and feared by the general public. That fear, deliberately nurtured, serves as both prevention of crime and isolation of it. The buildings which were built to obstruct freedom, enclose a world forbidden to exist.

In his fascinating work “Discipline and Punish – the Birth of a Prison” Michael Faucault ties the historical development of scientific knowledge and technology to the development of prisons. In his theory, the cultural evolution of incarceration buildings reaches its high point with Jeremy Benthams design of the panopticon. With the control over knowledge, the spatial system establishes hierarchies of governing, empowered by the capability to observe and at the same time encourages self-governing set off by the fear of  that possible observation.

Today, just over 40 years later, the reality of incarceration has changed almost just as much as it did between the mid 18th and beginning of 19th century (Foucault describes the contrast between two practices of the respected periods to illustrate the evolution). With norwegian prisons and their humanistic approach leading in statistics on low crimes and low recidivism rates, it seems that society is taking on a new path of rehabilitation instead of punishment. A new prison building typology is emerging, or rather prisons today begin to look more and more like any other residential quarter. However the panopticon is not gone. Some buildings today that can be very well compared to the spatial and logical structure of a panopticon are many offices and most notably, shopping malls. Although technology, such as CCTV, has continuously eliminated the need for a specific layout in order to observe and record, rendering everyone more and more visible seems to be a feature nowadays societies increasingly crave.

In its traditional sence a panopticon uses the power of knowledge to prevent crime  by observation and control, but also by the conciousness of this observation and its effects on the observed – namely precaution, restriction and self-control. This system is cruel, because by empowering a small group by giving it information, it robs a larger group of their power. What about a system in which observation is substantiated without the subjects knowledge or concent? When architecture that suggests security might be insecure and private spaces may turn unintentionally public, the building typology of a prison becomes ubiquitous and therefore increasingly important to recognize.


Find more similar articles in the rubric “Guidelines to Nowhere”.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s