Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary

MPhil dissertation at Cambridge University: Department of Art History & Architecture

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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

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Abstract

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.

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Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Three Related Projects

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Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

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Eastern State Penitentiary Digital Reconstruction: 1836-77

Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture.
As part of my dissertation for the MPhil degree in Architecture and Urban Studies.

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Digital Reconstruction

Created in Sketchup. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison. All measurements are accurate to reality.

With ambient music from freesound.org

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Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was 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. 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 animation.)

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.

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360° Panoramic View from Guard Tower

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Virtual Reality Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

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Research Paper

When visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his 1831 report to the French government on the state of American prisons:

This Penitentiary is the only edifice in this country, which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the middle ages, which contribute so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe. [1]

This penitentiary was, at its 1829 opening, the most expensive and largest structure ever built in the United States. Costing $432,000, this building covered a square area 670 feet to a side with walls 30-feet-high by 12-feet-thick and 23-feet-deep at the foundations. Inside, there was: “an entire seclusion of convicts from society and from one another, as that, during the period of their confinement, no one shall see or hear, or be seen or heard by any human being, except the jailor.”[2] About 400 prisoners were equipped with running water, steam heating, individual exercise yards, and (later) gas lighting.[3] These were “luxuries” that newspapers claimed not even the city’s wealthiest citizens could afford, and in an era when the U.S. White House lacked internal plumbing. The Register of Pennsylvania described in February 1830:

The rooms are larger, viz. containing more cubic feet of air, or space, than a great number of the apartments occupied by industrious mechanics in our city; and if we consider that two or more of the latter frequently work or sleep in the same chamber, they have much less room than will be allotted to the convicts [who live one to a room and] whose cells, moreover will be more perfectly ventilated than many of the largest apartments of our opulent citizens.[4]

Given the modern standards of service, technology, and location of this prison, it seems an odd choice to employ the external appearance of a medieval castle. American society lacked the medieval heritage of “old Europe.” The external castle appearance looked to history, while the internal facilities and technology all spoke of a modern future. Robin Evans explained the frequent use of castle imagery as follows: “It was the idea of the prison, not the fact of the prison, that was to engage the architect’s imagination, and the idea of the prison was built up from historical associations.”[5]

Of the several thousand visitors, tourists, and school children who passed through this attraction and the millions more who merely saw it from a distance, the imposing castle appearance was inescapable. In 1866, 76,000 visited, a large number considering more people visited as tourists than as prisoners.[6] In this same era: “The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium, followed each other in quick succession in these missions; and the printed official reports was subsequently issued, accompanied as they were by illustrative drawings, spread through Europe the fame of what was then generally regarded as a remarkable example of reform.”[7] Architect John Haviland (1792-1852) – known to contemporaries as the “jailor to the world”[8] – was a neo-classical architect by training and designed few other Gothic buildings over his 40-year career.[9] He intended these medieval battlements, narrow-slit windows, and portcullis gates to “strike fear into those who passed,” an instructive lesson to those contemplating a career in crime. Unexpected still is the fact that half the $432,000 construction cost was spent on the semi-decorative perimeter wall and external ornament, features not linked to reforming felons within and, in fact, invisible to the felons.[10] Yet, according to de Tocqueville, “It is of all prisons that which requires least a high enclosing wall, because each prisoner is isolated in his cell, which he never leaves.”[11] Why were Philadelphia’s political leaders and prison reformers so concerned with keeping up appearances?

This essay will present reasons for employing medieval imagery. Through analyzing the secular, cultural, and political reasons for this choice of style, we can understand the moral and educational agenda embedded in Eastern State’s appearance.[12] By analyzing the appearance and practice of solitary confinement taken here from 1829 to 1877, we can, by extension, understand more about the hundreds of radial prisons derived from Eastern State.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

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Click here to continue reading paper.

Opens in new window as PDF file.

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[1] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[2] W. Roscoe, “Prison Discipline: Letter II,” National Gazette and Literary Register, 20 September 1827. From the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Historical Newspapers Collection.
[3] Richard E. Greenwood, “Nomination form for Eastern State Penitentiary,” United States National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000680 (accessed 25 January 2020). This is the application submitted to protect this prison as a listed structure.
[4] Samuel Hazard, “Description of the Eastern Penitentiary of Penn’a,” The Register of Pennsylvania: devoted to the preservation of facts and documents and every other kind of useful information respecting the state of Pennsylvania 5, no. 7, 13 February 1830, 105.
[5] Robin Evans, “The Model Prison,” in The Fabrication of Virtue: English prison architecture, 1750-1840 (Cambridge University Press: 1982): 382-83.
[6] Jeffrey A. Cohen, David G. Cornelius, et al., “Construction and Alterations, 1822-65,” Eastern State Penitentiary: Historic Structures Report (Philadelphia: Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force, 1994): 88.
[7] “County Prisons,” in The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline 10, no. 2 (Philadelphia, 1855): 60.
[8] Norman B. Johnston, “John Haviland, Jailor to the World,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 23, no. 2 (1964): 101-05, doi:10.2307/988164.
[9] John Haviland (author) and Hugh Bridgport (artist), The builder’s assistant containing the five orders of architecture, selected from the best specimens of the Greek and Roman (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1818-1821).
[10] Julie Nicoletta, “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses and the Reform Movement in Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, no. 3 (2003): 374, doi:10.2307/3592519.
[11] Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, “Construction of the Prisons,” in On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, & Blanchard, 1833): 74.
[12] 1829: prison opened. 1877: prison significantly expanded and operations restructured. “Timeline,” Eastern State Penitentiary, https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state/timeline (accessed 25 January 2020).

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Related Projects

Master’s Dissertation on this Prison
Animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Computer model of panopticon in virtual reality
Lecture on problems with the panopticon

What’s wrong with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon?

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. First, I present a computer model of the panopticon, built according to Bentham’s instructions. Then, I identify design problems with the panopticon and with the symbolism people often give it.

Related Projects

– Computer animation of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
Essay on problems with the panopticon design
View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: A Computer Model

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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?

Below is my animation. Click here to view the panopticon in virtual reality. Click here to download and edit this model (requires software). This model is open source and free to download.

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

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The panopticon in theory vs. the panopticon in (virtual) 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

View panopticon model in virtual reality
Explore the related panopticon prison of Eastern State Penitentiary

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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

Exhibition Design

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To hear my interview about this jail and exhibit, please listen to this podcast from Pod & Market.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built beginning in 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In Spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s architecture school documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this historical analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal for museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing 11 alternatives for a site long abandoned, the project symbolically transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of freedom.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Zemin Zhang, Myles Zhang, and Newark Landmarks proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, the curators and a dozen collaborators translated Columbia’s work into exhibition. We enriched this exhibit with primary sources and an oral history project, recording the experiences of former guards and people who witnessed this site’s trauma.

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Our curatorial work required translating a strictly academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of this site. While some of these drawings and all eleven reuse proposals are included in the exhibit, the focus shifted away from examining the jail as a work of architecture. Instead, we shifted focus toward the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of the work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail. As a youth in Newark, I frequently explored and painted this jail – I am therefore hoping for its reuse.
The finished exhibit will be on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. We are making the case for preserving the buildings on this site and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding – and largely blighted – neighborhood. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, we can build support for its preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Essex County Jail

 

 

The former Essex Country Jail sits forlorn and abandoned amidst desolate parking lots and lifeless prefab boxes. In the so-called University Heights “neighborhood,” the jail is testimony to the past. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, this 1837 structure is one of the oldest jails in America. Abandoned for over thirty years, no successful preservation efforts have materialized.

Gradually, the urban jungle of junk trees, vines, and garbage conquers the veritable old fortress. The warden’s garden that zealous prisoners formerly pruned and weeded is now overrun with weeds. Used syringes line the cell-block floors. Not a single window is unbroken. Not a single wall is straight or strong. The rigid geometry defined this urban castle is now blanketed in decay.

Yet, this fortress of old is still a home. A constant trail of homeless squeeze through the rusted barbed wire fencing. They carry with them their few odd “valuables,” cans to be recycled or shopping bags of discarded clothes. Every night, they sleep in the very cells their luckless brethren slept in decades before. Every day, they aimlessly wander city streets. Ironically, the physical prison of brute force and searchlights has evolved into a metaphorical bastion of poverty. Both prisons, new and old, are refuges for the luckless. As its occupants have changed, so has the prison. Both are ghosts. Both are vanishing.

Explore this jail as an interactive exhibit online.

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To see a film featuring the work above: click here