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.
Architecture is certainly what implements the diagram on the bodies who cannot develop enough energy to “vanquish” the matter and therefore have to be contained by it. Nevertheless, architecture is also what makes the diagram fallible as it inscribes the latter within the “eroding” characteristic of reality which makes the matter vulnerable to a repetitive long term force that ultimately allows its disaggregation and therefore the obsolescence of its power on the bodies. In that case, the force of the diagram is vanquished by what I like to call the “folds of the matter” i.e. the characteristics of the material world that the diagram did not integrate within its scheme of control. As architects, we might want to study what would be voluntarily integrated folds in our diagrams/plans in order for the bodies that are subjected to them to find their own escapibility from the power of our schemes.