Developed with James Campbell, architectural historian at the University of Cambridge
Inspired by taking George Deodatis’ lectures on The Art of Structural Design at Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering
In 1872, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French author and architect celebrated for restoring Notre-Dame of Paris, wrote in his Lectures on Architecture that the form of the Gothic cathedral was the synthesis of the early Christian basilica and the Romanesque three-aisled church. In this analysis, Viollet-le-Duc reasoned that a thesis (Early Christian) plus an antithesis (Romanesque) produced the synthesis (Gothic).
Animation from Stephen Murray
Although the history and origins of Gothic are likely more complex than Viollet-le-Duc’s formula, this formula provides a method to dissect the Renaissance and Enlightenment counterpart to the medieval cathedral: the Greco-Roman basilica, as embodied by St. Paul’s Cathedral, constructed from 1675 to 1711 by Christopher Wren (1632-1723). St Paul’s is a symbol of Enlightenment-era London, built to rival its medieval counterpart of Westminster Abbey.
In this essay, and in my analysis of this neoclassical cathedral, I will parallel Viollet-le-Duc’s analysis of the medieval church. The thesis is that St. Paul’s is a work of techno-scientific engineering. The antithesis is that this building is a work of art that speaks to the larger cultural moment of Enlightenment London. The synthesis is the dome of St. Paul’s that merges these two forces of engineering and art into a unified and impressive creation.
Thesis: ENGINEERING The engineering of this dome is more complex than meets the eye.
In this animated construction sequence, view how the dome was engineered.
St. Paul’s Cathedral features an innovative triple dome structure. On the circular drum, the inner dome rises and is visible from the cathedral interior. Above this inner dome, a brick cone rises to support the 850 ton lantern. This brick cone also supports the wood rafters and frame of the outer dome, which is covered in wood and lead. This three dome system allows the cathedral to support such a heavy lantern, all the while maintaining the great height needed to be a visible London landmark.
Inner dome – visible from inside and purely for show; height 225 ft (69m)
Middle brick cone – a brick cone that is invisible from below but supports the 850 ton lantern above; height 278 ft (85m)
Outer dome – a wood and lead-roofed structure visible from the cathedral exterior; height 278 ft (85m)
Lantern – an 850 ton stone lantern and cross, whose weight is carried to the ground via the middle brick cone 365ft (111m)
The inner and outer domes are decorative, while the brick cone is the true weight-bearing support. The model below is created from measured plans and is accurate to reality.
Virtual Reality Model (click to play)
The cathedral in the city: Rhinebeck Panorama of London dated 1806-07
Antithesis: ART The cathedral’s location and design reflects its cultural-historical moment of the Enlightenment.
The 1666 Fire of London turned the thirteenth-century medieval cathedral of old St. Paul’s into a charred ruin. As masons demolished the ancient ruins, the opportunity arose to erect a new cathedral designed around new cultural reference points: neoclassical instead of medieval, Protestant instead of Catholic, and with steel and brick instead of stone alone. St. Paul’s reveals what was, for the time, novel ways of thinking about space.
There are three main ways this cathedral architecture reflected its time period.
Firstly, this cathedral embodied an emerging understanding of artist and architectural space. The burned medieval cathedral was built over centuries by numerous masons in collaboration, whose names are largely forgotten. New St. Paul’s was built in one uninterrupted sweep by a single architect, whose name and biography are known in detail. It was only during the Renaissance and Enlightenment that society began to think of art and architecture as the product of an individual artist’s personality and ambitions. The engineer, artist, and architect were elevated above nameless masons. Historians can describe the relationship between artist and artwork with a degree of detail impossible to attribute to the architects of older, medieval cathedrals. It is to this period in the history of science and philosophy that historians also attribute the cult of personality surrounding individual artistic genius. Also central to the Enlightenment period was the organization and standardization of all human knowledge into encyclopedias and libraries, much in the way that St. Paul’s was centrally planned, designed, and coordinated with more precision than survived from the sporadic organization of medieval cathedrals and monastic libraries.
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s
Flying buttresses hidden behind facade at left
Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s (link)
The irony is that for a building that appeared modern to eighteenth-century eyes, the construction methods with scaffolding and wooden winches to lift heavy stones were mostly unchanged from centuries before. The wooden rafters inside the cathedral roof are from trees planted hundreds of years before during the High Middle Ages. Most telling of all, the vaults of the nave and choir are supported by medieval-style flying buttresses. But fearing that flying buttress – an engineering technique deeply associated medieval architecture – would be inappropriate to a classical basilica, Wren hid these buttresses behind a screen wall. Modern or medieval? The building methods and religious traditions largely descended from late medieval thought, even if the building exterior evoked very different and seemingly opposed classical traditions.
Secondly, this cathedral reflected Britain’s growing interest in European and world affairs. Merchant ships sailing up the River Thames would first see the domes of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital for the wounded and retired sailors in the British navy; around the next bend in the river, the dome of St. Paul’s came into view. With Britain competing with France for colonial power, Wren visited Les Invalides, the Paris hospital for retired sailors in the French navy. Through carefully studying Les Invalides and reviewing prints of French architecture, Wren copied and improved on classical traditions when redesigning London after the fire. St. Paul’s is also markedly similar to Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century dome at the Vatican. St. Paul’s was supposed to be a cathedral, but its dome became an act of one-upsmanship against similar and existing domes in Paris and Rome.
The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral
(painted by Canaletto c.1747-48)
London from Greenwich Park
(painted by Turner in 1809)
Lastly, this religious architecture ironically symbolized the growing power of secular thought and finance over national governance. As capital of England, London’s architectural focal points are split geographically between Westminster to the west and central London to the east. Power in Westminster is, in turn, divided between three main architectural points of interest: Westminster Abbey (symbolizing God), Buckingham Palace (symbolizing the king), and the Houses of Parliament (whose House of Commons symbolizes the country). This maps onto the neat triad of “God, King, and Country” or the three estates of “clergy, nobility, and commoners.”
However, the location of St. Paul’s, in the center of London’s financial district and near the commercial hub of the Royal Exchange, competed with Westminster Abbey in size and height. It were as if the commercial interests of bourgeois merchants and industrialists working in central London were competing with and questioning the traditional balance of power between the king, clergy, and nobility that had excluded the merchant middle classes from power. It was as if this cathedral’s architecture asserted the growing importance of London’s businesses and financial district for the governance of a country. Fittingly, as if proof of their success, zoning laws and building height restrictions in much of London are still designed for miles around so as to preserve the visibility of St. Paul’s. Wren was no opponent to the monarchy, and the construction of St. Paul’s, in fact, benefited from royal support. Nonetheless, the architecture still speaks to the distinctly eighteenth-century tension between ancient traditions and modern technologies.
Protected vistas radiating out from Westminster and St. Paul’s. The cathedral architecture becomes, in equal parts, the symbolic, physical, and cartographic center of urban life, as if the red lines on these maps were arrows directing our gaze to the center of power.
Construction was funded through a tax on the coal London residents and businesses consumed. In later years, coal became a polarizing symbol of both the dirty, soot-covered injustices of urban poverty and the techno-scientific progress fueling Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Fittingly, the same dark ingredient that powered Britain’s industrial looms and colonial power also funded construction of the cathedral that came to symbolize London and the empire. St. Paul’s is a church, but its neoclassical design and secular location allow it to become much more than just a church.
Synthesis: ENGINEERING AND ART This dome is a synthesis of art and engineering.
In addition to St. Paul’s political and cultural symbolism, this dome also synthesized the most recent advances in building (industrially manufactured brick) with simultaneous techno-scientific discoveries. This cathedral embodied the core beliefs of European Enlightenment thought: the application of science to advance society and the synthesis of Greco-Roman aesthetic traditions with modern technologies.
Parabolic behavior of an unweighted chain
In the years St. Paul’s was under construction, Wren corresponded with his polymath, scientist, and mathematician friend Robert Hooke (1635-1703). From Hooke’s empirical experiments with springs, strings, and weights (see Hooke’s Law), he confirmed that an unweighted chain suspended between two points would form a parabolic curve. Furthermore, the quadratic formula Y = X2 mathematically expressed and modeled the chain’s behavior. Math and reality were, in one formula, linked.
There is effectively no limit to how much weight a chain can hold in tension. A suspension bridge roadway weighs hundreds of thousands of tons, but the steel cables suspending it are usually no thicker than a few centimeters. However, these cables will collapse under the slightest amount of compression.
In contrast to a chain that is strong under tension but weak under compression, stone is the opposite: strong under compression but weak under tension. Imagine the incredible compressive forces of the earth’s crust that compress ancient sand and fossils into solid limestone. When masons quarried this stone into blocks, they were challenged to design cathedrals that minimized any tension on stone. Tension in the horizontal span of the cathedral vault, for instance, caused structural collapse. In response, masons devised flying buttresses and complex structural interventions to prevent stone from cracking under tension.
The genius of Enlightenment architects like Wren stems from their ability to deduce: If a suspended chain formed a parabolic curve in pure tension as modeled by Y = X2, then the converse statement must also be true: A stone arch modeled on a parabolic curve would act in pure compression, as modeled by the reverse equation -Y = X2. Thus, by mathematical logic, the downward and tensile force of chains mirrored the upward and compressive forces of stone. Spanish architect Antoni Guadí (1852-1926) observed similar phenomena when designing his final project, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (begun 1883). Without the benefit of computer models, Guadí suspended weighted strings from the ceiling and then viewed these creations in a mirror, so as to deduce the optimal geometric form for his cathedral vaults.
One of Gaudí’s string structures
The same structure upside down
models the form of the ideal dome
Knowing this, Wren constructed the dome as a brick cone similar in shape to a parabolic arch. Around the base of the dome, where the buckling forces of tension were greatest, Wren inserted bands of steel chain the circumference of the dome. Medieval masons intuited this, too, when they designed pointed arches whose shape was somewhat closer to a parabola than was the traditional and older Roman arch. However, while medieval masons at places like Amiens Cathedral relied on trial and error with few benefits of scientific thought, Wren relied on science and math to deduce the ideal form. Thus, the brick middle dome is only nine inches thick, but it supports a lantern above that weighs 850 tons.
Wren was more than a mathematician. He also had a keen aesthetic eye from close study of French and classical architecture. His white limestone buildings all drew inspiration from the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. However, although the brick cone was cheaper, stronger, and used fewer materials than a traditional stone dome, Wren knew that a brick architectural form was too radically modern to leave exposed, and too aesthetically different from the otherwise neoclassical church. Wren therefore hid the true, weight-bearing brick cone. Outside the brick cone, Wren added a lead and wood roof that supported no weight and was in no way connected to the lantern it only seemed to support. Inside the brick cone, which was effectively too steep and too tall to paint a convincing ceiling mural on, Wren erected a decorative arched roof within that was merely a decorative surface for James Thornhill’s paintings.
Art and engineering, religion and politics, tradition and innovation were, through the design of one dome, linked. Wren might not have intended to inject his cultural-historical moment into the design. As an architect-engineer, he was merely inventing the most stable and economic way to cover the cathedral. However, the implications of this engineering were to influence the city and society at large.
Vanishing City is a visual documentary about architecture and redevelopment in Newark.
I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge slowly sinks in murky waters. A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball. A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. The ruin forces the viewer to imagine and reconstruct what was there in ways the restored building does not.
Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The ruins of the Athenian Acropolis became a symbol for democracy. Could the same fate await our society’s equivalent forums, the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? Will we be good ancestors?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.
Newark Broad Street Station
Murphy Varnish Factory
Polhemus House demolition
Penn Station Newark drawbridge
Port Newark tire yard
Port Newark freight yard
“Revitalization” of Baxter Terrace
City in transit
Polhemus House demolition
Polhemus House demolition
Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station
Waiting for demolition at the “Little Annie Drawbridge”
Baxter Terrace Projects
Baxter Terrace Projects
Neighborhood resident Angel and his dog Tigressa stand before Murphy Varnish
Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary
Master’s thesis at the University of Cambridge: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge University
View of cellblocks and guard tower
Eastern State Penitentiary guard tower
The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault
Prison floor plan in 1836
In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.
I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.
This NYC tour follows the route of Kenneth T. Jackson’s night tour. As a Columbia University undergraduate, I joined Jackson’s 2016 night tour of NYC by bike, from Harlem, down the spine of Manhattan, and over the bridge to Brooklyn.
With a heavy heart, I gathered my courage on 30 March 2020 to revisit my beloved NYC, along this same route in the now sleeping city attacked by an invisible pathogen. The empty streets hit me with emotions in the misty and rainy weather – perhaps fitting for the city’s low morale.
Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reportedly the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between cell blocks. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.
360° panoramic view from guard tower
Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a purely random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were actively working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders. The architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of confinement’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent, understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.
I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.
Abstract: The Berlin Evolution Animation visualizes the development of this city’s street network and infrastructure from 1415 to the present-day, using an overlay of historic maps. The resulting short film presents a series of 17 “cartographic snapshots” of the urban area at intervals of every 30-40 years. This process highlights Berlin’s urban development over 600 years, the rapid explosion of industry and population in the nineteenth-century, followed by the destruction and violence of two world wars and then the Cold War on Berlin’s urban fabric.
Animation der Wandlung Berlins
Zusammenfassung: Auf der Grundlage von historischen Karten visualisiert die „Animation der Wandelung Berlins“ die Entwicklung des Straßennetzwerks und der Infrastruktur Berlins von 1415 bis heute. In diesem kurzen Video wird eine Serie von 17 „kartographischen Momentaufnahmen“ der Stadt in einem Intervall von 30 – 40 Jahren präsentiert. Dadurch wird die Entwicklung der Stadt Berlin über 600 Jahre, das rapide Wachstum der Industrie und Bevölkerung im 19. Jahrhundert, die Zerstörung und Gewalt der zwei Weltkriege und abschließend des Kalten Krieges auf Berlins Stadtbild verdeutlicht.
German translations by Richard Zhou and Carl von Hardenberg
Year, Event and Estimated Population 1415 – Medieval Berlin – 7,000
1648 – Thirty Years War – 6,000
1688 – Berlin Fortress – 19,000
1720 – Rise of Prussian Empire – 65,000
1740 – War with Austria – 90,000
1786 – Age of Enlightenment – 147,000
1806 – Napoleonic Wars – 155,000
1840 – Industrial Revolution – 329,000
1875 – German Empire – 967,000
1920 – Greater Berlin – 3,879,000
1932 – Rise of Fascism – 4,274,000
1945 – Extent of Bomb Damage – 2,807,000
1950 – Germania – World Capital
1953 – Recovery from War – 3,367,000
1961 – Berlin Wall – 3,253,000
1988 – A City Divided – 3,353,000
Contemporary – A City United Census year
Jahr, Ereignis und geschätzte Anzahl von Bewohnern
1415 – Berlin im Mittelalter – 7,000
1648 – Der Dreißigjährige Krieg – 6.000
1688 – Die Festung Berlin – 19.000
1720 – Der Aufstieg des Königreichs Preußen – 65,000
1740 – Der Österreichische Erbfolgekrieg – 90.000
1786 – Das Zeitalter der Aufklärung – 147.000
1806 – Die Koalitionskriege – 155.000
1840 – Die industrielle Revolution – 329.000
1875 – Das Deutsche Kaiserreich – 967.000
1920 – Groß-Berlin – 3.879.000
1932 – Der Aufstieg des Faschismus – 4.274.000
1945 – Die Spuren des 2. Weltkrieges – 2.807.000
1950 – Germania – Welthauptstadt
1953 – Deutsches Wirtschaftswunder – 3.367.000
1961 – Die Berliner Mauer – 3.253.000
1988 – Eine geteilte Stadt – 3.353.000
Heute – Eine wiedervereinte Stadt Jahr der Volkszählung
Methodology and Sources
I chose not to represent urban development before 1415 for three reasons: Firstly, there are too few accurate maps of the city before this time. Secondly, I needed to find accurate maps that had visual style consistent with later years, to enable easier comparison of development over time. Thirdly, the extent of urban development and population is limited (fewer than 10,000 Berliners).
There are numerous maps showing Berlin’s urban growth. Yet, few of them are drawn to the same scale, orientation and color palette. This makes it more difficult to observe changes to the city form over time. Fortunately, three map resources show this development with consistent style.
The Historischer Atlas von Berlin (by Johann Marius Friedrich Schmidt) published 1835 represents Berlin in the selected years of: 1415, 1648, 1688, 1720, 1740, 1786. This atlas is available, free to view and download, at this link.
After the year 1786, I rely on three books from cartographer Gerd Gauglitz:
Berlin – Geschichte des Stadtgebietsin vier Karten Contains four beautiful maps of Berlin from 1806, 1920, 1988 and 2020. Read article. Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im Vergleich Contains four maps from 1742, 1875, 1932 and 2017. Read article. Berlin – Vier Stadtpläne im VergleichErgänzungspläne Contains four maps from 1840,1953, 1988 and 1950. The last map from 1950 is purely speculative and shows Berlin as it would have looked had Germany won WWII and executed Albert Speer’s plans for rebuilding the city, named “Germania.” Read article.
Gerd Gaulitz’s three map books can be purchased from Schropp Land & Karte.
Below is an interactive map I created of the Berlin Wall’s route and the four Allied occupation areas:
Population statistics in the 17 “cartographic snapshots” are estimates. The historical development of Berlin’s population is known for a few years. For other years, the population is estimated with regards to the two censuses between which the year of the “snapshot” falls.
Developed with Gergely Baics, urban historian at Barnard College
New York City has some of the world’s cleanest drinking water. It is one of only a few American cities (and among those cities the largest) to supply completely unfiltered drinking water to nine million people. This system collects water from around 2,000 square miles of forest and farms in Upstate New York, transports this water in up to 125 miles of buried aqueducts, and delivers one billion gallons per day, enough to fill a cube ~300 feet to a side, or the volume of the Empire State Building. This is one of America’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects. It remains, however, largely invisible and taken for granted. When they drink a glass of water or wash their hands, few New Yorkers remind themselves of this marvel in civil engineering they benefit from.
This animated map illustrates the visual history of this important American infrastructure.
New York City is surrounded by saltwater and has few sources of natural freshwater. From the early days, settlers dug wells and used local streams. As the population grew, these sources became polluted. Water shortages allowed disease and fire to threaten the city’s future. In response, city leaders looked north, to the undeveloped forests and rivers of Upstate New York. This began the 200-year-long search for clean water for the growing city.
Gergely Baics – advice on GIS skills and animating water history
Kenneth T. Jackson – infrastructure history
Juan F. Martinez and Wright Kennedy – data
I created this animation with information from New York City Open Data about the construction and location of water supply infrastructure. Aqueduct routes are traced from publicly-available satellite imagery and old maps in NYPL map archives. Thanks is also due to Juan F. Martinez, who created this visualization.
Explore water features in the interactive map below. Click color-coded features to reveal detail.
WatershedsSubsurface AqueductsSurface AqueductsWater Distribution Tunnels City Limits
▼ For map legend, press arrow key below.
For such an important and public infrastructure, the data about this water supply, aqueduct routes, and pumping stations is kept surprisingly secret in a post 9/11 world. However, the data presented here is extracted from publicly-available sources online, and through analysis of visible infrastructure features on satellite imagery when actual vector file data or raster maps are unavailable from NYC government.
Postmodernist thinkers, like Michel Foucault, interpret Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, invented c.1790, as a symbol for surveillance and the modern surveillance state.
This lecture is in two parts. I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. I then identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.
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
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?
Central to Bentham’s proposed building was a hierarchy of: (1) the principal guard and his family; (2) the assisting superintendents; and (3) the hundreds of inmates. The hierarchy between them mapped onto the building’s design. The panopticon thus became a spatial and visual representation of the prison’s power relations. As architectural historian Robin Evans describes: “Thus a hierarchy of three stages was designed for, a secular simile of God, angels and man.”
Spatial diagram of power relations
Obstructed view from ground floor
Author’s images from computer model
To his credit, Bentham recognized that an inspector on the ground floor could not 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 proposed that a covered inspection gallery be erected between every two floors of cells.
By proposing these three inspection galleries, Bentham addressed the problem of inspecting all inmates. However, he created a new problem: From no central point was 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 was not, in fact, all-seeing. Guards would have to walk a continuous circuit round-and-round, as if on a treadmill. They, too, are prisoners to the architecture.
Panopticon panorama from guard’s point of view
Section showing each guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s cone of vision
Guard’s walking circuit
Author’s images from computer model
The intervening stairwells and inspection corridors between the perimeter cells and the central tower might have allowed inspectors to see into the cells. Yet these same architectural features would also have impeded the inmates’ view toward the central rotunda. Bentham claimed 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.
Rotunda with blinds closed
Rotunda with blinds opened
Bentham’s suggestion was 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 claimed that all inmates and activities were 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 wrote.
View from guard tower to cells: VISIBILITY
View from cells to guard tower: INVISIBILITY
Despite Bentham’s claims to have invented a perfect and all-powerful building, the real panopticon would have been deeply flawed were it built as this data visualization helps illustrate. Although the circular form with central tower was chosen to facilitate easier surveillance, the realities and details of this design illustrate that constant surveillance was not possible. That the British public and Parliament rejected Bentham’s twenty year effort to build a real panopticon should be no surprise.
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 project. Instead, these flaws with architecture indicate that Bentham envisioned an institution and society that would only become possible through new technologies invented hundreds of years later.
In fall 2019, LinkNWK, the company that manages free wifi hotspots and advertising screens in downtown Newark, invited me to display my artwork on their kiosk. I selected drawings from my Vanishing Newark project. Images are featured below:
Two watercolors of Port Newark
Pastel of Broad Street Station
Above: Port Newark. Below: Pulaski Skyway in pastel
Pastel of rail bridge in Port Newark
Watercolor of Murphy Varnish Factory
Above: Railroad drawbridge in Port Newark. Below: Empty freight yard