Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon: a Computer Model

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

Computer Model of the Kaaba in Mecca

Developed with input from James White,
historian of Islamic literature at Oxford University
The Kaaba (Arabic: ٱلْـكَـعْـبَـة “The Cube”) is a building at the center of Islam’s most important mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This is the most sacred site in Islam. Muslims consider it the “House of God.” Wherever they are in the world, Muslims are expected to face the Kaaba when performing prayer. One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj and visit the Kaaba.
In 2018, I was unhappy with the available quality of 3D digital models of this important building for Muslim culture. I could find no models that were detailed or accurate enough. I created this accurate-to-the-inch model based on architects’ drawings and photos.

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Audio: the call to prayer, recorded in Istanbul

 

New York City in a Box

As featured in this article from Live Auctioneers

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This pop up model in a recycled metal box (measuring 8 inches wide by 15.5 long and 2.5 deep) reveals a miniature world of New York City architecture and landmarks within. About 30 buildings made from hand cut paper and tin are spread across a flat ground of painted streets. Each building is made from a single sheet of paper that is cut and folded like origami to create different shapes and sizes. A hand cranked lever operates a mechanism of chains and gears hidden beneath. These gears move the magnetized trains and airplanes through the city. The video below shows this mechanism revealed.

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Hand-crank and music box recording from Freesound

Oxford University in a Box

 

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Music: Minuet in G Minor by Bach

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This paper model of Oxford folds out of a leather suitcase. This is a souvenir of my Oxford experience.
Half the model features university’s main buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, University Church, and the Clarendon Building. The other half is the campus of Saint Catherine’s College in Oxford.
Attaining precision in a small model is difficult and took about two weeks to build. It is made from paper cutouts, which were folded into various shapes. Below are two of the cutouts before assembly. Dimensions: 7 by 14 inches and 1.5 inches deep.

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Computer models of world heritage sites

Since 2016, I have built digital models of world heritage sites. Through digital models, architecture’s audience can expand beyond in-person visitors. A few of my creations are below:

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Models can reveal aspects of construction and design that are normally invisible. Amiens Cathedral and the Kaaba in Mecca illustrate this. The view of the Kaaba from directly above is only possible through computer models, due to religious restrictions on flying above the Kaaba. The view of Amiens Cathedral from underground is another example. My model suspends the cathedral in mid-air.
I can also strip away later changes or decay. Details include people, street furniture, and neighboring buildings. Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque (which are surrounded by trees and Roman-era walls) or Amiens Cathedral (surrounded by the modern city) are two examples. Models also permit me to restore structures to their original appearance, such as this model of the Parthenon.

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The Kaaba

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Plan of Al-Aqsa Mosque

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Plan of Amiens Cathedral

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Section of Amiens Cathedral, based on a drawing by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

Columbia University Artwork

Featured in:
The Columbia Daily Spectator in September 2016
The Columbia student newspaper in October 2016
The 2018-19 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal
– And the Columbia College alumni magazine in spring 2020

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A map of campus

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This ink and watercolor drawing shows every building, window, and architectural detail on campus. The number of windows on each façade are faithful to reality. There are at least 2,000 windows. The perspective was formed from Google Earth satellite and street view images. The image measures 26 by 40 inches and is framed in my dorm room. I wanted to create a souvenir of my four years at Columbia. Years from now, I will look at this image and remember.
The scan below is suitable for viewing but not for large-format printing. Please request access to the full-size scan at ~600dpi
View more artwork like this about my experiences walking in New York City.

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Columbia Campus

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Ink sketches of campus

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Columbia in a Box

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Before my first year at Columbia University, I assembled this tiny model of the campus out of painted and folded paper. Each building was measured out on a flat sheet of paper, decorated, painted, cut out, and then folded. Each building is made with no more than one sheet of paper. This creation folds out of a vintage cigar-box. Dimensions: 5 inches wide, 9 inches long, and 3 inches deep.

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Music: Columbia University Fight Song

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Timelapses of Morningside

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This project features six time-lapse sequences of Columbia University’s campus. I mounted a camera above my desk as I drew and painted each watercolor.

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Music: Columbia University Fight Song performed by Justin Zhao

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Eiffel Tower: Construction Sequence

Music: Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, 1886

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The Eiffel Tower was built over 18 months – from August 1887 to March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations and ending with the cupola.

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Sources

I created this model on Sketchup.
I am sharing it here for anyone to download and edit for free.
Or view the Eiffel Tower in virtual reality from Sketchfab

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Further Reading

Gustave Eiffel’s original plans and drawings for the tower were first published in 1900 and re-published in 2008 by Taschen.

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Burford Church: Construction Sequence

This project is also featured on Burford Church’s official website.
Created with Cathy Oakes, medieval art historian at Oxford University

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Construction Sequence: 1175-1475

While studying history at Oxford University, I based my final research project on Burford Church near Oxford, England. With the generous help from Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and recreated its 300 year construction and evolution through a computer model. View the resulting animation above or download the digital source files for free at this link. Narration below:

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  • c.1175 – Work begins on the Norman church working from east to west.
    It is a simple structure with round Norman windows and a choir, nave, and tower.
  • c.1200 – Demolition to construct a chapel, aisle, and entrance foyer.
  • c.1250 – Addition of north and south transept. Chancel is expanded.
  • c.1400 – The crypt is added, and the tower is heightened. The architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic, from round arches to pointed. Local cloth merchants construct a separate guild chapel at a slight angle to the main church.
  • c.1475 – Guild chapel is demolished to build the Lady Chapel. Most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two new aisles, a larger west window, and new clerestory windows. Two chapels are added to either side of the choir, as well as a three floor entrance tower (not visible from this angle).
  • This completes the construction of Burford Church.

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Visual Analysis

What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social history can be deduced from the church decoration? Without written historical records, how can we tell the story of this church based on building fragments alone?
Here is my tour of the architectural fabric.

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The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

Created with Stephen Murray, architectural historian at Columbia University

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1. Construction Sequence: 1220-1528

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Music: Beata Viscera by Pérotin, c.1200.

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1220-c.1225
Master Robert de Luzarches began work on the foundations and lower wall.
He may have been assisted by Thomas de Cormont
1225-30
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont constructed the south nave aisle
rapidly to provide space for liturgical celebrations
1230-1235
Master Robert de Luzarches and Thomas de Cormont built the north nave aisle
soon afterwards
1240s-c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave and belfries of western towers
c.1250
Master Thomas de Cormont died having completed the upper nave,
begun the upper transept and laid out the lower choir
1250s-1260s
Master Renaud de Cormont completed the upper transept and upper choir
The axial window of the choir clerestory was installed in 1269
1280s-c.1310
Main roof installed from east to west
1360s-c.1400
Construction of west towers
1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré completed c.1533

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Text by Stephen Murray

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2. Amiens Cathedral in Cross Section

This film shows the cathedral in cross section,
exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces.

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Music: Mille Regretz by Josquin des Prés

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Section of choir

Section of western half of cathedral

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3. Cathedral Flythrough

Viewers approach Amiens from the west, like medieval pilgrims did. Viewers then move through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral vaults. The animation then reconstructs the dynamic geometry that engineers encoded in the cathedral floor plan. The film closes with the view from below the foundations, as if the cathedral were floating on air.

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Music: Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin, 1198

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Section of the nave roof

Section of west façade

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amiensAlong with the Parthenon, Amiens Cathedral is introduced each semester to students in Art Humanities. This seminar has been taught since 1947 and is required of all undergraduates as part of the Core Curriculum. Through broad introductory courses in art, literature, history, music, and science, the Core aims to produce well-rounded citizens of Columbia University students. Amiens was chosen as representative of all Gothic architecture, and as a lens through which to teach skills of visual analysis. This computer model I created instructs over 1,300 students per year.
Based on the computer model, I produced the three short films above: (1) a construction sequence, (2) a digital flythrough of the finished cathedral, and (3) a speculative animation of the cathedral in cross section. This trilogy is complemented with music from Pérotin (the thirteenth-century French composer) and Josquin des Prés (the fifteenth-century composer). Both musicians also happen to be featured in the Music Humanities component of the Core Curriculum.
My objective is to digitize and re-imagine Amiens. To borrow a quote from Viollet-le-Duc, the legendary nineteenth-century preservationist-architect of Notre-Dame de Paris, my aim was “to restore the building to a state of completeness that may have never existed.” For instance, Amiens lost almost all of its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. My project responds by presenting the cathedral in an idealized light. Awkward walls, ugly later additions, and anachronistic features can all be airbrushed away from my model, so as to reveal how the master masons originally envisioned their cathedral in the thirteenth century.
A building is dynamically experienced as a sequence of sights and sounds. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture limited information. Photography, film, and computer simulations are, in contrast, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of architecture. This project seeks to capture dynamic Amiens through a visual, auditory, and user interactive experience. Through film, one can recreate and expand the intended audience of this architecture, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage.
In Viollet-le-Duc’s 1863 book, Entretiens sur l’architecture, he presented Gothic architecture as the synthesis of a Roman basilica and a Romanesque church. After several centuries of evolution, these two forms merged into the singular form of the Gothic cathedral. For him, the Gothic cathedral (particularly Amiens) was the pinnacle of human architectural and aesthetic achievement. In other words, the cathedral’s form and plan evolved in response to theology and changes in the rituals of the Mass.
The two animations below illustrate Viollet-le-Duc’s thesis about Gothic. Although later scholars dispute this simple (or simplistic) analysis, this remains a powerful image.

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Evolution of the cathedral from early Christian to late Gothic

 

Development of the cathedral plan over 1,000 years.
Inspired from Viollet-le-Duc’s writing

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Cathedrals and History

In the absence of surviving written records, many scholars read cathedral construction as a proxy for economic growth, or as a symbol for the structure of medieval society. The decision of where and when to start building a cathedral was closely tied to the right economic and political conditions. The large majority of cathedrals were built in the region of Northeastern France during the High Middle Ages – during a period of remarkable economic growth and productivity. Construction fell off after climate change caused failed crops, followed by the Great Famine (1315) and the Black Death (1350). The economic conditions and cathedral construction never rebounded for a long time afterwards, and when construction did rebound, Europe had entered the Renaissance with a new aesthetic sensibility different from Gothic Amiens
The cathedral can equally be read as a political symbol. Funding came from a combination of donations, indulgences, and taxes on church-owned farmlands. The logic between competing regions and feudal kingdoms in medieval France reads something like: the larger and prettier the cathedral, the larger and more powerful the city and sponsors behind it. For many of these towns, the size of the cathedral was well out of proportion to the actual size of the town. Amiens, for instance, was one of the largest cathedrals in Europe for a town of only ~26,000. The other cathedral town of Chartres was, similarly, competing with Paris for power and independence; the cathedral was an architectural symbol for these political desires. In this light, the cathedral became as much a religious space as a political statement of civic identity.

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Credits

I am indebted to the expert guidance of medieval historian Stephen Murray, who mentored me in the fall 2016 seminar Life of a Cathedral: Notre-Dame of Amiens. I also thank Columbia’s Center for Career Education for funding this project through its Work Exemption Program.

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Method

Anyone can download this model from Sketchup for free and edit it from their computer. Over 3,000 people have downloaded this model, and numerous others have 3D printed it as part of their architecture studios. This model is built with free computer modeling software called Sketchup. Among software, Sketchup is easiest to learn. Within minutes, students and teachers unfamiliar with Sketchup can build their own models with ease. In response to several rounds of edits and suggestions from Stephen Murray, I finished this model and exported the animation for final edits and special effects.
In this recorded lecture, I describe the workflow and editing process behind this project.

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Sources

– Based on Stephen Murray’s measurements and drawings of Amiens from 1990 (link)
– And these hand drawings by George Durand from 1901-03 (link).

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Related Projects

This project is published to Columbia’s website. I expanded on Amiens Cathedral for my senior thesis about the medieval church of S-Denis. And I continued building computer models as a research assistant at the Columbia University: Media Center for Art History.
I also researched the construction of:
The Eiffel Tower
Burford Church near Oxford, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral dome in London
Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon
– Notre-Dame in Paris (forthcoming)

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The cathedral from your computer

Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

This model shows a section of Amiens’ nave with the labyrinth below. Photo-realistic textures from actual photos and drawings of Amiens enhance the illusion of reality. Click numbered annotations to view details. Click and drag mouse to fly around. Please be patient while the model loads…

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Computer Model

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Amiens Cathedral Exterior Photos

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Amiens Cathedral Interior

Gallery is organized linearly to mirror the experience of walking through the cathedral.

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Cross Sections

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Dynamic Angles

Computer models allow us to explore architecture in ways not possible in reality. With Amiens floating in the sky, one looks up to the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The cathedral is real, but the views of it are imaginary.

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Model of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn

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A wind-up music box featuring Jane’s Carousel along the Brooklyn Waterfront. When closed, the antique cigar box measures a mere 7 by 7 by 3 inches. When opened, the Brooklyn Bridge and historic Jane’s Carousel fold out. The carousel spins to the tune of the music while the moon gently slides across the night sky.
Materials: $4 cigar box, $5 wind-up music box, electrical wire (for trees), plastic lids for wheels, string, tape measure, tin foil, and thick paper

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Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale.