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Architecture as punishment

By January 20, 20108 Comments

It’s a bit of an old chesnut but here we go again – lock ’em up and throw away the keys.  This week it seems that Act and National are convinced that humanity can’t do what architecture is so good at – incarceration.  Their addition to the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, if enacted, will mean “no prospect of ever being freed for those convicted of murder or manslaughter.” Such thinking makes architecture the ultimate punishment.

Prisons began as an ad hoc collection of holding cells – dungeons, basements, back rooms in pubs … – prior to punishment (such as hanging, drawing and quartering, or transportation to Australia &c.).

The Howard League’s website mentions the C16th and C17th Houses of Correction as early prisons aimed “to instil habits of industry through prison labour,” and the use of prison hulks – boats anchored at Thames, Plymouth and Portsmouth to accommodate prisoners at night after days of hard labour.  These had been initially seen as a temporary alternation to the ceasation of transportation as a punishment – but ended up being a staple of England’s prison system for 80 or so years. Conditions on board were pretty hideous.  Apparently it was “the use of prison hulks did much to persuade public opinion that incarceration, with hard labour, was a viable penalty for crime.”

This was the C18th and the time of Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon (1791), but also John Soane’s entry for the 1780s Battersea Penitentiary Competition, who, influenced by John Howard‘s The State of Prisons in England and Wales (1777), proposed prison architecture as a systematic process of reformation.

The famous images of Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione (1745-1761) also date from the C18th.

The Auburn (or New York) system inflicted a combination of hard labour, solitary confinement and enforced silence, and developed in the 1820s in Auburn Prison, NY.  Prison, in this thinking, was to teach personal discipline and respect.  The rule of silence was aimed at reformation rather than simply punishment.  The prison cell echoed the monastic cell as a place for comtemplation and reflection.  Architecture and prison rules combined to blur the lines between prison as punitive and prison as reformative.  While history since the early C19th has (obviously) continued to introduce new ideas about prison as punitive (including supermax prisons and hi-tech jails), the need for rehabilitation has been constantly raised, and kept alive by those such as the Howard League who consider that human beings and our errings are more complex than that which can simply be solved by incarceration.

At a time when debate reigns about whether cows in the Mackenzie Basin should be imprisoned 24 hours a day for eight months of the year, and in the same week as the new Supremo Court has opened, surely a more complex understanding of the issues of imprisonment and the causes of crime is needed.  Equally we need to realise that not only are there things that architecture can’t do – but also perhaps things that it shouldn’t do.


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  • Guy says:

    of course, the alternative view of Bentham’s panopticon is that the array of cells looking back in towards the centre could be just as off-putting to the guard as it is to the guarded. No matter which way the guard faces, there is still another half the room looking at the back of his head – and in a prison like that, you’d want to watch your back.

  • Guy says:

    Incidentally, I met that Jeremy Bentham once – he’s still in the foyer of UCL. Odd bloke – died hundreds of years ago, and still keeps turning up for meetings once a year. Face is a bit waxy though – he needs a tan.

    And my local pub in London was the JB – the Jeremy Bentham. Serves a nice pint does that Mr Bentham…

  • stephanie says:

    “the array of cells looking back in towards the centre could be just as off-putting to the guard as it is to the guarded.”
    Guy – you need to read the fine print more carefully – my understanding (admittedly via Foucault) is that the prisoners can’t see the guard – whether he/she is watching them, or is even there. It’s one of the perfect examples of architecture as effecting power and conducting the act of surveillance – think of the suburban net-curtain …

  • agnes says:

    But there is an art to the use of a net curtain as a method of concealing surveillance such a simple device yet so many users get it wrong a mere twitch of movement or an ill placed light will reveal you and your obsession to the observed. But your point has legs, bring back the net curtain in the burbs and lets get watching our neighbours again and reduce crime, ohh and those commies that are probably still circulating from the 50’s

  • Guy says:

    agnes ? AGNES ?

    the image of the Panopticon is fantastic. Barring the (only slightly) sinister tower in the centre, the array of rooms around the outside looks great. Each of them seem to have lots of sunshine pouring in (ok, so the ones on the other side may get a little cold). But the inside space is fantastic! Spacious, accomodating, nicely roofed over.

    This is like a dream space for a circus, a theatre, or even a library. Never lose a book again ! Stand in the middle and you can see all your volumes!

  • Santa bear says:

    “Such thinking makes architecture the ultimate punishment…. Prisons began as an ad hoc collection of holding cells – dungeons, basements, back rooms in pubs … – prior to punishment (such as hanging, drawing and quartering, or transportation to Australia &c.).”

    Hanged Drawn and Quartered? Wikipedia says:

    “Until reformed under the Treason Act 1814, the full punishment for the crime of treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in that the condemned prisoner would be:

    1. Dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution. This is one possible meaning of drawn.
    2. Hanged by the neck for a short time or until almost dead (hanged).
    3. Disembowelled and emasculated and the genitalia and entrails burned before the condemned’s eyes (this is another meaning of drawn)
    4. The body beheaded, then divided into four parts (quartered).

    Typically, the resulting five parts (i.e., the four quarters of the body and the head) were gibbeted (put on public display) in different parts of the city, town, or, in famous cases, in the country, to deter would-be traitors who had not seen the execution.”

    On balance, if transportation to Australia isn’t on the cards, I think i’d prefer architecture please…

  • Bruce Jackson says:

    America has the longest prison sentences in the West, yet the only condition long sentences demonstrably cure is heterosexuality.

  • Doing Time says:

    There has been a common perception that NZ has a very high rate of incarceration in prisons. Yes, Bruce Jackson is correct when he says the US is highest – but no, NZ is not in 2nd or 3rd place like I thought. According to figures on Wikipedia, NZ is only 68th on the list, with the figures like this:
    USA = 760 Prisoners per 100,000 population,
    Russia = 626 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (3rd place),
    South Africa = 334 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (26th),
    NZ = 185 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (68th)
    UK = 152 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (88th)
    Finland = 64 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (176th)
    and finally, way at the end with Lichenstein,
    Timor Leste = 15 Prisoners per 100,000 population, (217th)

    Arguably of course, Lichenstein and Timor aren’t locking up enough people – I’m sure there are lots of crooks roaming the streets of each place, although I suspect there are more white collar crimes in Lich than there are in Timor….