Danish firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) just won the urban competition for the Master Plan of the Stockholmsporten, a new district in the Swedish capital city. Beyond the recurrent romanticism for the countryside in the city and the mythology of a tamed and benevolent nature that can be observe in almost every competitions now, what is striking in the project is the presence of a gigantic reflective sphere in the middle of this circle based district.
The fact that this sphere stands above the entire district and is reflective allow anybody to visualize the activity of everybody else in the neighborhood in some form of what I call, immanent Panopticon.
In order to go further, I need to recall what architects usually forget when they evoke in a simplistic way, the paradigm that Michel Foucault establishes for the disciplinary society, which is the Panopticon created by Jeremy Bentham. In fact, this circular prison in which the centralized form of power can easily supervise every actions of the prisoners situated in the perimeter, was a paradigm for the society between the end of the 18th century and our era. Foucault’s thesis was that the society’s scheme that we progressively enter into is much more interested about control than discipline. The mode of surveillance is shifting from a transcendental mode -the centralized proctor, symbolizing an entity like a government or an institution- to a complete immanent mode in which each member of the society is supervising the ensemble of the other members while being supervised himself.
BIG’s project is therefore amazing for its absolute literalism of forms and schemes. Both Bentham/Foucault’s transcendental Panopticon and Bjarke Ingels’ immanent Panopticon are spheres. When the transcendental one is exclusively an interiority -there is nothing outside the sphere- the immanent one is exclusively an exteriority – there is nothing inside the sphere. This is a topological transformation as the interior surface “unfolds” itself to become the exterior surface and one has to visualize this transformation to understand this morphological shift . This shift is also a political one, the same that I was evoking above. Power is not anymore effectuated by an imprisonment of the bodies, but rather by their delegated control.
One thing that is regularly observed about the transcendental Panopticon is that discipline is actually being more applied by the knowledge of the prisoner that (s)he is being monitored -and therefore self-censored his(her) behavior- than the actual centralized supervision whose embodiment is not visible to him(her). That is why many people compare it to what we know in our societies as the videosurveillance and why one has to notice that, in this case, the actual embodiment of this centalized authority does even need to exist.
In the Stockholmsporten example, the transcendental power is known not to exist as it is replaced by an omnipresent immanent control, but the sphere manages to conserve the quintessential iconic vocabulary of the transcendence whether it is the Sun, God, the Sphere in the 60’s UK TV series The Prisoner or a fortune teller’s crystal ball !
As I wrote in the beginning of this article, the Green Obsession of our era triggers in us, an imaginary in which nature is envisioned in its most absurd domesticity. The Stockholmsporten project’s main program being a park, it complete this fantasy of a tamed nature by the absolute suppression of any feralness in the imaginary of human activities in the park/forest.
Having won this competition, there is a decent amount of chances that this project actually gets built, in which case, one can bet that this Sphere/Panopticon will remain as the paradigm (because of its literalism) of the architecture’s contribution to the society of control.