Original Scheme of Fleur Agema’s Prison project as she imagined it in 1999
Few days ago, Daniel Fernandez Pascual posted a very interesting project on his fantastic Deconcrete. Entittled Closed Architecture, this book created by Jonas Staal is exploring in a very interesting way the architecture thesis project of a woman called Fleur Agema, who since became a member of the Dutch Parliament on the list of a party that is unfortunately illustrative of what the right wing looks like in Europe currently (neo-liberal economic policies, conservative immigration and mores policies). J. Staal simply studied F. Agema’s thesis text and project and re-interpreted them visually according to what such a project would actually looks like if implemented by governmental policies. The images below are part of a much larger book that Jonas Staal proposes to download on his website.
Before analyzing what that might tell us about practicing architecture, I would like to introduce briefly the project (I highly recommend to read the whole book). As an architecture student, Fleur Agema imagines a prison whose prisoner population is spread into four different buildings corresponding each with a phase of incarceration. Quoting J. Staal’s book directly here:
The model that Agema has developed focuses on the reconditioning of prisoners by means of four phases. In the first version they are called, “The Bunker – The Habituation – The Wait – The Light” (see p. 33), and in the final version, “The Fort – The Encampment – The Artillery Installation – The Neighborhood” (see p. 99). “The Fort” is modeled after the ancient design of the dungeon, and is meant to break the prisoner’s resistance; “The Encampment” is a camp with vegetable gardens to stimulate independence; “The Artillery Installation” is a type of commune in which the prisoners have to learn to operate collectively; and “The Neighborhood” is essentially a reconstruction of a residential neighborhood filled with hidden cameras, where the prisoners live a simulated life in order to verify whether they are yet fully capable of functioning within society.
The images that follow this article are the visualizations that J. Staal did to illustrate F. Agema’s ideas, I chose to include each times three perspectives (outside/inside/room) to make the comparison easier to observe.
As I mentioned in one the most recent articles, I was feeling odd never to have dedicated a full article to the fascinating machine invented by Franz Kafka in his short story In the Penal Colony (1919). This machine is probably the most famous torturing apparatus of the history of literature; even Le Marquis de Sade does not seem to have created such an elaborated piece of equipment (see previous article). The plot introduces a character visiting a penal colony in which he is invited to attend an execution of a disobeying soldier. The entire first half of the story involves the executioner officer who presents the dreadful apparatus to the visitor with great enthusiasm for this machine that was invented by his former master. The device is divided into three parts, the bed below, the inscriber above and, in the middle, the harrow. The latter is composed of multiple needles that draw a pattern on the back of the convict’s body. The pattern is specific to the sentence attributed to the condemned person and, for this reason, it needs to be first set-up in the inscriber. Once the machine is operating the pattern is inscribed in the body of the convict for hours. The latter does not know his sentence and has therefore to learn it in his very flesh. When the visitor disapprove of this execution, the officer frees the prisoner and takes his place on the machine, he then dies in horrific pain when the latter dysfunctions.
We continue today to explore the “cruel designs” that collects each piece of architecture or objects that have been specifically designed to assess a hurtful power upon the body.
Many people know the main characteristics of the Mayan Pyramids as the steepness of their steps. Such a steepness is proper to religious architecture in the symbolical effortful approach to transcendence. However, it also had very “down to earth” killing function in times of peace and war. The sacrificial pyramids’ steps were used as a mean to “finish off” the sacrificed bodies by throwing them from the top of the stair to the bottom of the pyramid. The steepness in that case insured that the body would indeed roll all the way down. In times of war, the stairs could become a veritable defensive apparatus. The Mayans would take refuge on the top of the pyramids and have soldiers, attached to the top by ropes around their bodies, fighting on the stairs pushing the assailants down the steps who were likely to be severely wounded if not killed by the fall.
What I find fascinating in these stories (which would probably deserve to be more detailed by a legitimate expert of the Mayan civilization), is the fact that the killing apparatus invented by the Mayans is nothing else than the stair that we have in almost every building built by humans. The steepness here is merely a way to sharpen the weapon like one sharpen a knife. What does that mean for architecture that an “innocent” stair can become such a violent device? Was the stair even innocent in the first place? Considered abstractly this quasi-inevitable element of the architectural tool set is rather strange. After all, it is nothing else than a series of small pieces of floor that are assembled in such a way that it successively reach a certain height. Many elderlies and disabled persons are very aware of this essential reading of the stairs; they know that it requires a certain degree of energy and fitness to bring a body to go from one of those pieces of floor to another. The stair, in its essence, has already a clear impact on the body.
The panopticon in its totality / assembled photographs by Léopold Lambert
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The building is particular as it was one of the first prisons to implement the panopticon scheme invented by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. This scheme is not fully applied as what is actually visible from the center of the building are the ten alleys and not the cells themselves; however, the centralization and totalization of surveillance is manifested here and were probably operative to a great extent. The prison was operative between 1829 and 1971 and along the years, some additional branches were even incorporated to the original layout, bringing the amount of visible alleys to twelve (two of them can be watched thanks to mirrors). The small montage above corresponds to a 360-degree view from the center of the building.
I often argues that Michel Foucault, who contributed to made the panopticon well known, paradoxically never thought in terms of architecture (see my essay Foucault and Architecture: The Encounter that never was) as, when he was writing or talking about architecture, what he was really doing was to speak only of diagrams (we could say the architect’s plan). What is true nevertheless, is that such a diagrammatically based architecture definitely tends to reinforce the machinic functioning of this building in the way it absolutely controls the bodies (that is the definition of a prison). If we remain at the diagrammatic level, there is no escape from this systematic operation; if we explore the physicality of architecture however, the means of escapibility correspond to the ability of a body to use the fallibility of architecture in its physicality (there no fallibility at the diagrammatic level). Here is one example: In 1945, two inmates of the Eastern State Penitentiary dug a hundred feet long tunnel and escaped from the prison’s periphery.
The prospects for the section cruel designs continues with, once again, a carceral invention from the 19th century: a treadmill for prisoners as a disciplinary apparatus. JF Ptak Science Books’ website gives us an overlook to this device implemented in the prison of Cold Field Baths in London. The principle is as simple as it sounds, a series of wheels that prisoners have to make a physical effort in order to walk on it and thus perpetuate an immobile movement. We can legitimately doubt that the energy thus produced was not used for anything and can be therefore compared to the traditional penitentiary stone breaking punishment, as useless as physically enduring.
With this example, we can interrogate the design status of the treadmill we are more familiar with, the one that populates our gyms whose vision considered coldly has something of industrial farming. What can be said of the voluntarily participation of all those bodies found in the common yet very much individual will of sweating? What is for sure is that such (expensive) systematization of human effort emptied from anything that would possibly characterizes sport, requires a piece of design that has been thought for such use. We might want to use a cinematographic example that many will know to illustrate the smallness of a difference there is between Cold Field Baths’ prisoners and those happy gym addicts who voluntarily run for miles without actually going anywhere: In Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), we can see (if not, see below) the character played by Bill Murray running on a treadmill (something that probably has another name actually) that gradually accelerates to the point that his body is soon being tortured to be able to follow the rhythm imposed by the machine. The cry “help” is then both comical and tragic, expressing the complete powerlessness of the character when subjected to the cruel design.
Apparatus and system for augmented detainee restraint. Patent assigned to Scottsdale Inventions LLC (2012)
The following article is a good opportunity for me to open a new category in the blog’s archive, one that I voluntarily keep very focused to differentiate itself from broader one (like ‘weaponized architecture‘ for example). This new category is entitled ‘cruel design‘ and gathers only pieces of industrial design or architecture whose primarily function is to subjectivize one’s body to an absolute submission. This characteristic is thought in differentiation to the many examples I have been writing about, which applies their controlling power on the bodies in a more subtle and disguised yet operative way.
A new example of this will to subdue a body in an absolute embrace of the violence of design upon the bodies, is given to us through the filing of a patent of a new kind of handcuffs by its inventor company, Scottsdale Inventions LLC as the website Patent Bolt reports. Those handcuffs, called Apparatus and system for augmented detainee restraint for the patent filing, enforce the restraint by electroshock and/or drug injection:
Mule Creek State Prison (Ione, California)
(Note the “No Warning Shot is Required Sign”)
The overcrowded Californian prisons give us an idea of the current architectural carceral paradigm. Far from the elaborated 19th century drawings of Jeremy Bentham, entire parts of those prisons are simple warehouse hosting dozens of detainees with no other internal wall than the rough-and-ready three stories beds aligned on a virtual grid. The pre-18th century jail was a dark dungeon in which prisoners were forgotten by the otherness, the current one, on the opposite, sinks the detainees in a strong and crude white light (even during the night) in a hall where every act and move are being potentially observed. The United States currently counts over 2,3 millions incarcerated people (about 3% of the adult population) and the State of California in particular, hosts 140,000 detainees reaching an overcrowded status that the Supreme Court has recently judged unconstitutional.
As I have been writing many times, the question of the design of a prison is an interesting one as it makes us face the extreme of architecture’s power over the bodies. The perpetual question for an architect consist in wondering if one might accept to design such a program, and in the case of a refusal, if one should even design offices, banks, stores etc. But if we do accept such a commission in the hope of making things better from “the inside”, one has to face a peculiar question when asked to design a prison. Even the most considerate architect has to recognize that the very essence of this program consists in providing life conditions bad enough to constitute an instrument of punishment. There has been some recent discussions about Scandinavian prisons (and for that matter, even about Scandinavian punishment system) which were said to be too comfortable to be considered as such. In that regard – and to stay within this logic – the Californian prison’s gymnasiums can be legitimately considered as good design as it precisely serves the punitive essence of prisons…
However, since the change of paradigm pointed out by Michel Foucault in his book, Discipline and Punishment, the new forms (since the end of the 18th century) of incarceration not only still include the old purposes of punishment and example, they also incorporate the goal of repent and “healing” for each prisoner. For this last purpose, punishment should not be excessive as it might radicalize the detainee against the society that put him at the center of an inclusive exclusion. In that matter, design is considered as an important catalyst and probably needs to be much more elaborated and humane than the Californian warehouses. Once again, I argue here in the position of somebody who would have accepted to design a prison in the first place. On the opposite position, we might want to argue that the very notion of a punitive architecture is obsolete and that we need to come up with new ways (which are likely to have nothing to do with design) of dealing with crime in a given society.
The article Practicing Restraint written by Will Wiles for the last issue of Cabinet about punishment is a very interesting article introducing the cruel piece of design embodied by the straightjacket (camisole de force). I am used to write about architectures or instruments that are not necessarily assimilated to objects of restraints but which are ultimately achieving this effect on the body. The straightjacket, on the contrary, “wears” the violence it inflicts to the body in a demonstrative manner. The similitude to a traditional jacket reinforce this violent appearance; as if the game we played as children to cross our sleeves was transformed into a nightmare when we realized that the sleeves could not go back to normal.
Nevertheless,as W.Wiles points out in the very beginning of this article, this invention, along with the guillotine (another famous piece of French design!), constitutes the product of a technocratic will of reducing cruelty in comparison of previous objects in charge of the same functions. The guillotine’s operation used to be performed by an executioner with an axe with all the painful imprecision that it implies. The guillotine, invented during the terror, right after the French Revolution, constituted a more efficient mean of executing someone to the point that it remained the official instrument of French death penalty until its abolition in 1981. Similarly, the straightjacket’s function used to be insured by chains and was therefore considered as a form of progress when it was introduced as a new object of restraint at the Hopital Bicêtre in 1790 (two years only before the invention of the guillotine!). In his article, W.Wiles quotes Scottish physician William Cullen in 1784:
Prison San Vittore – Milan (built in 1880)
Pedro Hernández (La Periferia Domestica) was kind enough to send me a link towards a site of Manchester school of architecture that traced a concise timeline of the Panopticon prison both as an idea and as an architecture. The following documents are using the same existing examples giving by this site. It is interesting to observe in this regard that the post-revolution prison in UK and France shifted from the dark dungeon like La Bastille to the enlighten panopticon. The panopticon, formalized by Jeremy Bentham has been then conceptualized as the paradigmatic scheme of the disciplinary society by Foucault. However this society does not apply to the one we currently live in the Western world (see a previous article about the society of control). Architects should probably get cautious not to attribute to the panopticon the monopoly of the architecture of power as the latter applies itself in it only via the mean of vision. In fact, the phenomenological application of power will never be as strong as the material one, and the solutions to escape or deceive the former are not as easy than for the latter.
In this regard, see the series about cinematographic escape on BLDGBLOG (1, 2, 3 & 4)
See also a previous article I wrote about BIG’s immanent panopticon (in opposition to the transcendental one described in this article)
To go further read the good book Forms of Constraint by Norman Johnston
Abu Dis, Judith s., December 2003
The Israeli women of MachsomWatch who struggle against the colonial apparatuses of movement control in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, have monitored in photos and videos the physicality of their government/army’s politics and thus assembled an important data base. Their Israeli citizenship allows them indeed to observe more closely the actions of the military as well as the implementation of various obstacles that have been conceived in the unique goal to administrate and disturb the Palestinian daily lives. Their presence is also used as a regulator to monitor and report the disrespectful if not violent behaviors of soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The apparatuses monitored below are all common in their design that filters, controls or simply prevents Palestinians’ movement by imposing a physical violence on their bodies. The wall, in all its forms is paradigmatic of such violence but so are the various turnstiles that must be experienced several times at every pedestrian checkpoints. Those could be easily confused with torture machines and the Israeli soldiers in charge of those same checkpoints often us them as a sort of prison threshold. In fact, they would regularly lock their turning characteristics in such a way that a person remains prisoner for few seconds or few minutes from their metal bars before being able to pass the checkpoint.
I am aware of my own redundancy; however it remains difficult to ignore the force of architecture in those photos (see below) when designed and used in a military and colonial administrative purpose, thus providing what we could in a tragic oxymoron: the ordinary violence.
The following links refers to two different galleries of photos of those apparatuses on the MachsomWatch website:
This project is probably the most problematic that I got to publish so far. In one of the most current articles, about the book Camouflage written by Neil Leach, I evoked the chapter entitled Sacrifice in which he recounts the tale of Master Manole who imprisoned his wife within the wall that he was building.
This architectural narrative (which was presented as a book and made it to the finals of 2010 Riea Book Competition) by Eduardo McIntosh seems to follow a similar path in an even more disturbing representation. He, in fact, describes an obscure massacre that occurred in 2001 in Afghanistan when the Taliban soldiers fought against the Northern Alliance (led by Massoud) to gain the control of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif (fourth biggest city in Afghanistan). Eduardo uses this context in order to create something that, to be honest, I did not know architecture was able to do. He fictitiously describes the construction of a mass grave in which the 3000 dead bodies are directly used as bricks. He then even go further in the horror with the introduction of a chemical reaction between the bodies and the rich soil of Afghanistan that produces the birth of a “poppy Anthropophagus” which produce a high production of opiate. This opiate, producing opium or morphine can then be introduced in the economical loop that is always more or less involved in the contemporary warfare. In this narrative, the horror of war is therefore fully part of the globalized system of production.
I am extremely disturbed by his images which remind me of the Sadian film Salo by Pier Paolo Pasolini. In fact, there is something eminently Sadian in this narrative as the bodies, even dead, remain objects of empathy from the spectator who is both fascinated and repulsed at the same time by the absolute power expressed by a body (the soldier/mason) on another (the corpse).
Once again, even if I pursue the claim that architecture carries inherently a violence on the body, I could not imagine that an architecture per say (even if it is represented as a narrative) could reach this level of horror. The neutral tone used by Eduardo for his text and his images helps even more to reach this degree of violence as it emphasize its banality (as I was already evoking in my article Violence on the Body).
With this narrative, Eduardo thus increase our imaginary of human violence and include us, architects, as potential actors of the dark side of History. In a similar way than Hannah Arendt’s work, he force us to look at pure evil without allowing us to comfortably exclude ourselves from it.
He also remind us the expressive power of representation that is usually considered by architects as a simple mean to please the eyes and therefore to comfort the mind.
The last decade would have seen Europe experiencing a very important wave of xenophobia that are modifying our institutions in their very essence. As two current examples, Hungary is modifying its constitution in order to declare Christians as “normal citizens” and Italy and France are threatening Shenghen space to know who will have to take care of 20 000 Tunisian emigres who just fled their country.
In this context, French alternative press website Mediapart (here is a link toward the English version) just released the Manual created for the French Police to escort clandestine to the border. In this manual, a dozen of pages are describing the procedure of strangulation in order to potentially calm who is being called “the foreigner”. That’s in fact, his only crime, believing that globalization was not just for goods, but also for people and he his categorized as the absolute otherness, the one we are taught to fear and to expel.
Those pages of description of the strangulation are interesting to look at. Their coldness reveals the banality of violence, and yet two things strike me.
The first one is that those photos present this violence as a choreography that appear as even more terrifying as it gives to it the disturbing ambiguity between an embrace and a rape.
The second one is the analytical presentation of it, that reminds me the presentation of an architectural project. Diagrams, elevations (it shows front side and back), perspectives, texts, everything is here to describe an action on the body. This is reading I do, in the spectrum of my thesis, which is that architecture is weaponized, it carries inherently a tremendous power on the bodies and exercises it by its physicality. This argument might appear as exaggerated, especially in that extreme case, but I include at the end of this article, some photographs by Edmund Clark taken in the current extreme architectural paradigm in that matter, Guantanamo camp. In both cases, violence is expressed in its banalization which is the absolute danger of our so called liberal and democratic societies.
This article was published on Critical Legal Thinking
If you live in Harlem, you may be familiar with this series of pieces of design on Lexington Avenue and 124th street in New York. Designed in smooth forms and placed over the exhaust grids of the subway station, those benches could have been a great idea to provide homeless people with a place to sleep on, the exhaust locally providing some heat which can be life saving in cold winters. Instead of that, the designer of those benches venally accepted what was probably a demand from the local authorities or the MTA subway company: a design solution to prevent homeless people to lay on them. Those pieces of design being composed by metallic slices, it was easy for the author to break their smoothness and create excrescences that thus create a sufficiently uncomfortable condition for nobody to be tempted to sleep on them.
Design whether it is “industrial” or “building”, acts on the bodies and can choose to comfort them, challenge them (to go beyond I propose the essay I wrote about Spinozist architectures) or to hurt them in a more or less assumed sadistic expression. Those benches are clearly being part of this third proposition and their author is just as much (if not more) responsible for their effect than the authority which commissioned it.
picture: Illinois State Penitentiary Stateville 1916
Forms of Constraints: A History of Prison Architecture is a book written by Norman Johnston which investigates the physicality of prisons from middle age to the XXth century. It is very interesting, not only as an understanding of the retaliation institutions prison embodies but also because prisons represents the quintessence of authoritarian societies, one can very easily compare their plans with those of “normal” architecture and find a lot of similarities. Architecture is systematically used as an apparatus of control and the plan almost always expresses this dimension very clearly.
Johnston Norman. FORMS OF CONSTRAINT. A history of prison architecture. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003