Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Created at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies
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To say all in one word, it [the panopticon] will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection.
– Jeremy Bentham
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Since the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon remains an influential building and representation of power relations. Yet no structure was ever built to the exact dimensions Bentham indicates in his panopticon letters. Seeking to translate Bentham into the digital age, I followed his directions and descriptions to construct an exact model in virtual reality. What would this building have looked like if it were built? Would it have been as all-seeing and all-powerful as Bentham claims?
Explore Bentham’s panopticon in the animation above or in virtual reality below:

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c.1791 plans of panopticon, drawn by architect Willey Reveley for Jeremy Bentham

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Panopticon: Theory vs. Reality

Central to Bentham’s proposed building is a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them literally maps onto the building’s design. The panopticon, quite literally, becomes a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations.

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To his credit, Bentham recognizes that an inspector on the ground floor cannot possibly see all inmates on the upper floors. The angle of view was too steep and obstructed by stairs and walkways. To this end, Bentham proposes that a covered inspection gallery be erected for every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addresses the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he creates a new problem: From no central point would it now be possible to see all activity, as the floor plans below show. The panoramic view below shows the superintendent’s actual field of view, from which he could see into no more than four complete cells at a time. The view from the center is not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill.

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The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might allow inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claims this rotunda could become a chapel, and that inmates could hear the sermon and view the religious ceremonies without ever needing to leave their cells. The blinds, normally closed, could be opened up for viewing the chapel.

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Bentham’s suggestion is problematic. The two cross sections above show that, although some of the inmates could see the chapel from their cells, most would be unable to do so.
In spite of all these obvious faults in panopticon design, Bentham still claims that all inmates and activities are immediately visible and controlled from a single central point. When the superintendent or visitor arrives, no sooner is he announced that “the whole scene opens instantaneously to his view,” Bentham writes.

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Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been deeply flawed were it built. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate how constant surveillance was not possible. It is, therefore, no surprise that the English Parliament and public rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon.
However flawed the architecture, Bentham remained ahead of his time. He envisioned an idealistic and rational, even utopian, surveillance society. Without the necessary (digital) technology to create this society, Bentham fell back on architecture to make this society possible. The failure of this architecture and its obvious shortcomings do not invalidate Bentham’s utopian project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate how Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.

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Related Projects

My computer model is open source and free to download here.
Read my research on Eastern State Penitentiary, a radial prison descended from Bentham’s panopticon

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Credits

Supervised by Max Sternberg
Audio narration by Tamsin Morton
Audio credits from Freesound
panopticon interior ambiance
panopticon exterior ambiance
prison door closing
low-pitched bell sound
high-pitched bell sound
The archives and publications of UCL special collections

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