The Fiction of Total Vision in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Computer models visualize design limitations in prison architecture.
A case study of two famous prisons, the first imaginary and the second real.

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Section of Author’s Computer Model

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Question: How would the panopticon have appeared if built to Bentham’s exact specifications?

Abstract: By translating Bentham’s descriptions and measurements into a computer model, we visualize how the panopticon would have appeared if built. Typically, historians relied on drawings, which hide key aspects of Bentham’s design

I introduce and visually analyze two structures. First is the panopticon, a type of prison, designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, popular in the 19th century. Second is Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to follow the panopticon plan, completed 1829 by architect John Haviland. By analyzing descriptions and measured plans of both buildings, I created computer models that can be explored in virtual reality. From this digital perspective, I contrast Bentham and Haviland’s claims of what their architecture accomplishes versus what this architecture actually accomplishes – intention vs. reality. Bentham claims his ideal prison is all-seeing; Michel Foucault accepted this dubious claim without question when writing Discipline and Punish in 1975. The computer model, more than drawings or measured plans, allows interrogation of the panopticon design. This process allows us to (1) examine Foucault’s assumptions about the panoption and (2) arrive at a more accurate analogy of how the panopticon symbolizes the surveillance state.

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The Panopticon

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Jeremy Bentham (b.1748 d.1832), an English Utilitarian philosopher, designed the panopticon c.1787. Panopticon comes from a Greek word: pan (all) + opticon (seeing) = all-seeing. He describes how this architecture monitors and reforms souls over 21 chapters contained in the Panopticon Letters (link to read e-book).

Bentham’s proposal is simple: a 100-foot diameter circular room with cells ringed around the perimeter and stacked in up to six floors. In the circle’s center, a tower rises from which guards (standing in corridors marked D below) survey all the surrounding cells (marked H). The tower’s one-way blinds allow the jailer to look out, but prohibit prisoners from looking in. Bentham claims a guard can survey all the incarcerated individuals with a single sweep of the eye. The panopticon articulates how a prison that facilitates total surveillance in the pre-CCTV era.

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To accompany his descriptions, Bentham commissioned architect Willey Reveley c.1791 to draw the panopticon’s plan and section. As the panopticon spread in popularity and inspired the design of around 300 other prisons, Reveley’s drawings recirculated in trade journals and academic writing. Although architects stopped building panopticons and radial prisons in the 1930s, the panopticon’s image still circulates. Today, this image is often evoked as the symbolic representation of the surveillance state. Spread across the internet and on thousands of web-pages the same few tired images of Bentham’s creation appear again and again. It is, perhaps, the most influential prison ever imagined but never built to Bentham’s exact specifications. Nor has anyone followed Bentham’s instructions to visualize the panopticon’s appearance if built. It remains a perverse dream building.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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To digitize Bentham, I built the first, accurate-to-the-inch, and open-source panopticon computer model. The model is featured online and displayed above. It is free for anyone with CAD software to download and edit from 3D Warehouse. To navigate through this space:

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– Click the numbered annotations to fly through and learn about individual features
Click and hold to rotate the model
Shift click and drag to pan across surfaces
Zoom in and out with two fingers on trackpad

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To understand how Bentham’s building operated, I base this model on the exact dimensions Bentham gives in his letters and from Reveley’s drawings. For instance, Bentham writes:

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Taking the diameter 100 feet, this admits of 48 cells, 6 feet wide each at the outside, walls included; with a passage through the building, of 8 or 9 feet. I begin with supposing two stories of cells. In the under story, thickness of the walls 2 feet. From thence, clear depth of each cell from the window to the grating, 13 feet. From thence to the ends of the partition walls, 3 feet more…

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Bentham’s text is incomplete. He only provides dimensions for the panopticon’s major features. He does need to specify minor details like window size, staircase location, or railing height. By following Bentham’s measurements for the overall structure, I estimate measurements of features Bentham overlooks.

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The images above show the exterior and interior. The exterior is a 48-sided circle with one window per cell. The interior has rows of metal gangways that link the cells to spiral stairs that go from floor to floor. It is a self-contained circular world.

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Above are two views. The first is what the guard sees looking into cells. Windows back-light the prisoners, like shadow puppets. The second is what the prisoner sees looking to the guard tower: a blank wall of Venetian blinds. This one-way visibility ensures the guards watch the prisoners without the prisoners’ knowledge. Thus, the prisoner must guard his actions at all times because he does not know when he is watched. Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish how:

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Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see: he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the division of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is the guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at escape. (page 200)

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The above claim becomes questionable when assessed in light of what the computer model tells us. Reveley’s drawing show cell bars flush with the partition end. Standing in the cell’s middle and staring forward to the guard tower, it is true prisoners cannot see into other cells. But, by merely standing near the cell’s front and shifting his angle of view sharply left or right, the prisoner can see his neighbors, due to the space’s  internal curvature. The photo below approximates his view; the Venetian the guard tower is at left and cells are at right.

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Prisoner’s View of Other Cells

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To prevent visual communication between cells, bars cannot be flush with partitions. The bars must be recessed behind the side walls as shown below at right. Bentham writes in 1787: “To cut off from each prisoner the view of every other, the partitions are carried on a few feet beyond the grating into the intermediate area: such projecting parts I call the protracted partitions” (Letter II). It is surprising that four years later, when Bentham commissioned Reveley, protracted partitions were neglected and bars were flush with partitions to produce as large a cell as possible.

However, adding protracted partitions makes each cell ~30% smaller, with much of the prisoners’ living space wasted. The figure below left shows where Reveley positions the bars. The figure at right shows where they need to be positioned to prevent visual communication. Regardless of how effective these side walls are, they fail to prevent sound from traveling. Circular interiors are known for echoing qualities that permit sound to travel farther. Unless prisoners are prohibited from speaking, sound will travel; they will communicate.

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Section revealing diminished living spaces in cells

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The section above shows several cells. People are included for scale. We see how each cell is, in fact, quite small. Bentham proposes to employ prisoners with machinery in each cell, such as looms or potter’s wheel. Bentham does not account for how it is possible to fit a workshop, running water, and a bed into space measuring only 4’4″ by 9′ (1.33 by 2.74 meters) or ~40 square feet. The present-day standards of the “European Committee for the Prevention of Torture suggest a minimum (not a norm) of 65 square feet for a prison cell occupied by one person,” well above Bentham’s proposal. If the bars were pushed forward to produce larger cells, the area would be 60 square feet, still small. Ironically, Bentham’s prison, planned as a utopian experiment, could not be built today for legal reasons.

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Guard’s View of Cells

Recessing the cells with protracted partitions prevents prisoners from seeing each other. But, this also prevents guards from seeing prisoners. Because the panopticon is six floors high, a guard standing at the ground floor cannot see six stories up. The photo at left shows the guard’s point of view standing at the ground floor. He sees into the ground floor cells. But above the second floor, the passages, stairways, and angle of view obscures all visibility.

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Panorama from Guard’s Viewpoint

Section showing guard’s cone of vision

 

Recognizing this problem, Bentham placed surveillance corridors at every other floor. For every two floors of cells, there was one viewing platform for guards. Instead of one central point, there were now three viewing points, each with its cone of vision over two floors of cells.

This solution still does not solve the visibility problem. The photo above is a 180° panorama from the guard’s viewpoint. From any angle, the guard can see into no more than eight cells. The rest are made invisible by odd angles and poor optics. To continually survey, the guard must walk circles round and round as shown in the plan below. Bentham describes three guards surveying 288 prisoners total. If each of the three guards only sees eight cells at a time and is continuously walking, then only 24 inmates (3×8) out of 288 are visible at a time, about 8% of inmates.

It might be unnecessary for guards to see everything at once. Bentham, Foucault, and Deleuze describe members of surveillance society as “self-disciplining.” That is, the knowledge they could be watched at any moment but do not know when they are watched causes them to act as if they were always watched. Bentham suggests the guard does not need to be staffed; architecture alone becomes the means of “obtaining power of mind over mind” (from Preface). However, I remain skeptical this architecture would succeed at self-disciplining people, in light of the small cell sizes, the inability to prevent auditory communication, and the reliance on guards to continually walk a “treadmill.” By analogy, everyone knows their internet search history could be watched and that it is unsafe to use a non-password protected public wifi network. And yet, upwards of 70% of people continue checking their emails and exposing their passwords on public networks. The knowledge you could be watched seems partial but not full deterrent.

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The plan below shows the guard’s cone of vision from a stationary position. The areas visible to him are in white, and his blind-spot is in red.

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Calculations that only 8% would be visible at a time are at odds with when Bentham writes the panopticon:

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[…] affords a perfect view, and the same view, of an indefinite number of apartments of the same dimensions: that affords a spot from which, without any change of situation, a man may survey, in the same perfection, the whole number. (Letter V)

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Or when Foucault writes:

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The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. […] Full lighting and the eye of the supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap. (page 200)

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As Ivan Manokha writes in Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age: “Bentham’s Panopticon had an important flaw, namely, the possibility that the watched might one day try to find out whether they are indeed being watched. An inmate could hazard, entirely at random, a minor pardonable transgression; if this transgression goes unnoticed, then he could commit another, this time more serious, transgression” (pages 231-32).

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Above and below are two views of the chapel situated in the prison’s center. All cells, walkways, and tunnels radiate from this sacred point. A glass oculus lights the space (evocative of heaven). A hole in the ground permits light to penetrate the kitchens and service areas beneath (evocative of hell). Bentham designed heating shafts through the structural, iron support columns and through the walls (like a Roman hypocaust) so that smoke and heat produced in the basement rose through and heated each cell.

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Visual analysis of this chapel reveals further design challenges. Reveley’s drawing indicates no dividing wall separating central chapel from perimeter cells. This is a problem. Prisoners could see other prisoners through from across the chapel, as indicated in the photo below left. Bentham goes so far to suggest the prisoners attend chapel without leaving their cells, as if they were theatergoers with a private box. During mass, the panopticon is inverted; the many watch the few. Bentham writes how:

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[…] the prisoners remaining in their cells, and the windows of the lodge, which is almost all window, being thrown open. The advantages derivable from it [the chapel] in point of light and ventilation depending upon its being kept vacant, it can never be wanted for any profane use. It may therefore, with the great propriety, be allotted to divine service, and receive a regular consecration.

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To solve this problem, a screen wall must be erected, as shown below right. This addresses visibility but makes the guard’s surveying job yet more difficult. This also allows prisoners to carry out transgressions without being seen by other prisoners.

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This model illustrates technical aspects of panopticon design. How would it be built? What would be the guard’s angle of view into a cell, or the prisoner’s view outside? How would the blinds be oriented to prohibit prisoners from seeing guards? How much would natural light penetrate the interior? (It is possible natural light alone would be insufficient to illuminate the interior by day.) How long would the protracted partitions be? (Bentham might have underestimated prisoner communication.) How would the architecture prevent escape? (Our model shows several blind-spots.)  If built, how would this architecture feel?

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Before commissioning Reveley, Bentham created the two sketches above. These are among the earliest known images of the panopticon. Over his career, Bentham refined his design through prison visits and interactions with prison reformers like John Howard. Although my model is based on Reveley’s later drawings, these earlier drawings show evolution in Bentham’s thinking. Compared to Reveley, the initial drawings shows still more blind-spots, but that is for another essay.

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Radial Prisons

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While no panopticon was built to Bentham’s exact measurements, numerous architects drew on Bentham’s design. Philadelphia’s Eastern State (1829) and London’s Pentonville (1842) Prisons were the first. Architects modified Bentham’s circle to form a radial prison with guardhouse in center and long, rectangular cell-blocks radiating out. See the plan below of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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ACCESS HALLWAYS     CELLS     INDIVIDUAL RECREATION YARDS

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If the panopticon is the most influential unbuilt prison, Eastern State was the most influential built one in the 19th century. Architects and authors like Alexis De Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited Eastern State. Most major 19th century prisons follow this radial model. From Transforming the Treatment: Architecture and Moral Management by Carla Yanni:

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Each inmate had his or her own exercise yard, available for one hour a day. A central tower made it possible for a guard to observe some of the exercise yards, but not all, and the guard could not actually see the prisoners in their cells: Bentham’s notion of surveillance and Foucault’s concept of internalized control were not quite activated here. Rather, it was the isolation of the person, the total distance from others, that would serve to control. The radial plan was copied more by European than by other American prison builders, and Eastern State became known as a tourist attraction; in 1839, four thousand visitors, including school-children, toured the prison. (page 49)

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I continued my study by building an accurate-to-the-foot model of Eastern State (embedded in the window below). I followed the same methodology as I did for Bentham. Measurements are deduced from original plans, the report for the National Parks Service, and measurements of satellite images. From this process, the differences emerge between the panopticon as proposed and as ultimately realized at Eastern State.

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Click ► to launch 3D experience.

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With some modifications, the panopticon’s generalized form survives. Eastern State addressed some of Bentham’s challenges. Prisoners were now separated; visual and auditory communication between cells was now impossible. Cell size increased from 40 square feet with Bentham’s plan to between 90 and 120 square feet with Haviland. Each of Haviland’s prisoners had an individual exercise yard for use one hour per day; it measured between 104 and 144 square feet. Room was also given for building expansion as needed including up to seven more cellblocks, a chapel, and hospital, etc. The panopticon, by contrast, was designed had fixed capacity and could not be expanded without either building a new structure nearby or by putting more people per cell (thereby defeating Bentham’s goal of solitary confinement).

This model shows Eastern State as it appeared from 1829-71 during this prison’s most culturally influential period. The current Eastern State is much modified from the original. Later population growth required abandoning solitary confinement and demolishing the triangular garden wedges between cellblocks. Almost all individual recreation yards were later demolished. Originally, the red cells were entered from the exterior and not via the green access hallways. Later, doors were cut into the walls to give direct access between cells and access corridors. Construction post-1871 obscured the visual and aesthetic clarity of Haviland’s initial plan. Today, given these additions and decay, it is harder to see the geometric order early visitors admired. My model thus “restores” Eastern State and visuals the prison as architects saw it before.

This model also illustrates how radial prisons are not truly all-seeing. The plans below show how from the central guard tower, fewer than half the yards and ground areas were visible. Invisible areas are shaded black. Only the tops of the cells and roofs but no prisoners in their cells and exercise yards – were visible. The guard tower was symbolically but not actually all-seeing.

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Years later, on account of blind-spots, this guard tower was rebuilt ~30 feet higher. The panorama below recreates the 360° view from the original 1829 tower. From this angle, no prison cells are visible. The top of some exercise yards are visible, but not the prisoners in them Only when prisoners attempted escape would they enter the tower’s cone of vision.

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“Panoramic” view from guard tower. Click image for full size.

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Section Showing Blind-spots

The section above shows a single cellblock. Areas visible to guards are colored. Areas invisible are grayed out. Down the center runs a double-height corridor. To either side, are two rows of stacked cells. The cell doors were made of solid wood with peepholes to permit guards to view. The peephole produced a limited cone of vision into each cell. The exterior areas in color fall within the central guard tower’s cone of vision.

Prisoner surveillance here, contrary to impressions the radial form may give, was not any more continuous than in Bentham’s panopticon. Originally, the guard had walk through the corridor, with padded shoes to muffle footsteps, and open the peephole into each cell, one by one. Yet, interrupted surveillance was less a problem here (than it would be with Bentham) considering prisoners could not see or speak to neighbors and could not get up to trouble because rooms were sparsely furnished with items difficult to use in escape. Total vision seem unnecessary for total control.

Similar to our first model, this restoration process encourages interrogating the architecture. Questions emerge: How much of the prison did guards actually see? How much space was obscured from the “all-seeing” center point. How did this architecture feel? Here too, the suggestion of total vision was partial fiction. There was no central point. But the architectural form with radiating wings radiating suggests illusions of total vision and control. Perhaps, the guard tower is as much practical surveillance tool as it is symbol of oppression. In later years, prison wardens mounted a clock on the tower, as if to remind prisoners of who gives or takes time from their lives.

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The Digital Panopticon

Why do these conclusions matter?

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The panopticon is a dream structure, a building that must be abstracted from architectural reality. The moment it is built, the panoptic ideal is victim to imperfections brought by faulty construction, decay brought by time, or prisoner revolt brought by negligent guards.

Contrary to Bentham and Haviland’s initial thinking, architecture alone cannot possibly reform souls. When Haviland and Philadelphia Quakers constructed Eastern State, they predicted architecture could inspire penitence. The prison’s somber, castle-like exterior with gargoyles and lancet windows silently evoked the punishments behind doors; the crime-deterrent exterior was a warning to potential criminals of punishments awaiting them. Yet, reformers soon realized inmates’ mental and physical health was little better at Eastern State than in earlier, non-reform prisons. The problem was the guards. They are the social dimension of prisons individuals who, through their success or failure to do their job, make the architecture powerful or powerless. As Bentham asks: “Who guards the guards?”

Bentham’s panopticon succeeds as metaphor for institutional power and surveillance because it remains unbuilt. Foucault can claim the panopticon “makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power” (page 206) so long as there is no evidence to the contrary from any Bentham’s pantopticon no complaints from prison wardens, records from frustrated Parliament, or evidence of prisoner escape. Of the radial prisons inspired from Bentham, most were later demolished, abandoned, or upgraded. The scheme is not so simple as Bentham describes, as its success depends on correctly executing small details. If the protracted partitions were too short, blinds incorrectly angled, or windows too small to illuminate interiors, then prisoners could have exploited these flaws, eroding the illusion of an infallible and perfect architecture. If built to Bentham, perhaps the panopticon would descend in history not as an ideal structure but as an extravagant folly from the mind of an eccentric philosopher turned dilettante architect.

Is the goal of total control and total power impossible to realize? The architectural panopticon when applied to the design of prisons, institutions, and cities relies on optics. It depends on physical upkeep and uninterrupted sight lines. Today’s digital panopticon that relies on internet, social media, and phone surveillance seems more powerful. This digital system no longer relies on optics; its hardware is dispersed over innumerable servers in silent warehouses that collect and analyze limitless data. This system can, in theory, be remotely controlled and monitored from anywhere.

However, the digital panopticon might not be so centralized. Information collection is accomplished by different agencies working at cross-purposes, such as Facebook, Google, government, marketers, etc. Although information is collected, information is not centrally analyzed, at least not yet. Foucault identifies the panopticon as all-seeing and all-powerful. Foucault claims the panopticon metaphorically follows us through all stages of life, through various disciplinary institutions from the school, through university, military, workplace, and old age home. Bentham writes 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.” Foucault similarly speaks of panopticons as monolithic institutions. The irony of Foucault’s analogy is that the architectural form on which he bases his analogy is not, in fact, monolithic or all-powerful. Nor is digital surveillance monolithic, at least not yet. From Jan Kietzmann and Ian Angell’s Panopticon Revisited:

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The data that are available are stored in departmental silos, and are not always directly coupled or connected. By and large, activities within the justice system are recorded and treated independently of each other. Individual database systems manage various categories of offence, and in most cases allow for little data flow between systems. Even when feedback loops do connect systems to each other (such as one database to another, or human agents to technological systems), updating the respective entries rarely happens in real-time. (page 137)

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Based on self-reported data, Google thinks I am a 97 year old female with March birthday. When I search the internet, Google shows me ads for mobility scooters, hair products, and depression drugs. Despite all Google collects, there is little to tell Google my real age and birthday, although my medical records, telephone bill, and bank statement all indicate otherwise. Similarly, Bentham’s panopticon is a single structure that claims to be all-seeing but is, in fact, divided into as many “departmental silos” as there are surveillance corridors. The guards in these corridors act autonomously, cannot see each other, and cannot survey each other’s prisoners.

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Centro de Operações: Rio de Janeiro

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Here is Rio de Janeiro’s central operations center. Completed 2010 by city government in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, this center integrates data from ~50 city agencies into a single workspace. About 900 cameras in public transport and streets are linked to the screens. From this location, bureaucrats monitor traffic, weather, flooding, fires and then issue public warnings and dispatch emergency teams from the crisis room. When opened, this was compared to a NASA space launch or to a James Bond style science fiction film.

Does this digital system accomplish total control and surveillance? Nine years later, evidence is inconclusive. This command center does speed up some city operations and does symbolize government commitment to improving quality of urban life. But, in other aspects, it does not succeed. Data is retained for no more than 90 days, thereby hindering long-term planning and studies of urban change over time. Nor is data publicly available to view, download, and understand, which raises questions of accountability and transparency. The public knows they are watched, but not when and not how. Bentham’s questions re-emerges in digital form: “Who guards the guards?”

Only in the future, as more cities construct or attempt to construct – surveillance systems for total control will we answer this question: Is the digital panopticon subject to the same human flaws and blind-spots as the architectural panopticon? Our analysis of Bentham’s panopticon and Eastern State question an all-powerful and all-seeing architecture. Instead, we might speak of an imperfect architecture with multiple surveillance areas and agents who cannot communicate with each other.

Foucault assumes the panopticon is all-seeing. Based on this assumption, he presents the surveillance state as all-seeing. He cites disciplinary institutions that follow us through life, controlling everything. Foucault’s surveillance argument is totalizing and all-encompassing. However, re-assessing Bentham’s surveillance structure as multi-nodal and dispersed produces a stronger analogy of the digital surveillance state we actually live in. By analogy, the surveillance state is not centralized but dispersed. In the future, these disciplinary institutions may converge and share data. For instance, Facebook and Google might link data collection to the NSA, or all a country’s surveillance cameras might link to a central database. We do not yet live in that kind of society. But it is conceivable we one day will. Until we do, our digital panoticon remains as fragmented as Bentham’s architectural panopticon.

This question leaves us at the frontier. At the moment, unlike the prisoners in Eastern State who were confined there against their will, we modern netizens can still opt out of the digital panopticon simply by turning off our phones, or not using a phone. And on that note, it is time I end this essay and power off my own phone.

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Related Links:

Read Bentham’s Panopticon Letters
See the original architectural drawings in UCL

View panopticon in virtual reality
Download panopticon from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

View Eastern State in virtual reality
Download Eastern State from 3D Warehouse (requires software to edit)

New York City in a Box

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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 when opened. 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 hidden mechanism of chains and gears hidden beneath. These gears move the magnetized trains and airplanes through the city. The video below shows this mechanism exposed.

Click here to read an article featuring this project.

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Hand-crank and music box recording courtesy of Freesound.

Northeast Corridor Drone Flight

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The Northeast Corridor is the busiest railroad in North America by passenger traffic. This drone flight follows a high-speed Acela train making this 456 mile journey from Washington D.C. to Boston via Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York City, Stamford, New Haven, and Providence.

This animation was created using the Google Earth Pro desktop application. We began by tracing the full route of the Northeast Corridor onto three-dimensional satellite imagery of the world. We then programmed our computer to follow this route while running a screen-recording to capture the progress. Finishing edits were then made in Final Cut Pro, including the addition of the inset map at bottom, the speedometer and clock at upper left, and edits to the pacing and sound effects. The time and distance markers are calculated using Google Maps.

The above animation is annotated, click here to view the uncut 28 minute drone flight.

Audio effects are courtesy of Freesound.org.
Piano accompaniment is Metamorphosis by Philip Glass
performed by YouTube user: “Coversart”

Oxford University in a Box

 

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This is a paper architectural model of the University of Oxford. The model folds out of a re-purposed, antique leather box measuring 7 by 14 inches with a depth of only 1.5 inches.

One half of the model features the historic university buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Church of Saint Virgin the Mary, and the Clarendon Building. The other half features the campus of Saint Catherine’s College.

This model is made from paper cutouts, measured and folded to form the shape of various buildings. Below is the image of one of these cutouts before assembly, and the groundplan of the campus before the paper buildings were mounted on cardboard.

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This model in a suitcase will be a souvenir of my study abroad experience. Below is a view of this model with my hand for scale. Attaining this amount of precision in so small a model is difficult, but it is possible. This model represents about two weeks (or 100 hours) labor.

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Computer Models of World Heritage

last updated 10 December 2018

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Beginning in 2016, I became involved in building interactive computer models of world architecture and heritage. Through computer modelling, there is the possibility to broaden the audience of a work of architecture beyond the small number that may actually visit the building in person. World heritage sites or buildings of cultural importance are of particular aesthetic and research value as computer models can reveal qualities of their construction and design that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye. A few of these models I created are featured below:

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Amiens Cathedral in France and the Kaaba in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) are two of the most cogent examples of the technical possibilities of computer models. By building a model that is accurate to the measured foot, one can then view the building from beneath, above, or from unique angles that are otherwise impossible for the public to view in person. The view of the Kaaba from directly above is one such view that is possible to simulate through computer models, but is impossible to view from in person. This is due to religious and legal sanctions against flying above the Kaaba. The view of Amiens Cathedral from directly below is another example. The computer model strips away the layers of earth beneath the foundation, thereby suspending the cathedral in mid-air and permitting an imaginary view which, while theoretically existing, is humanly impossible to view.

These same models also allow us to strip away unnecessary or obstructive additions to better appreciate specific aesthetic qualities of the building. Such details include people, street furniture, and neighboring buildings that block certain angles of view. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque of Jerusalem (which are surrounded by trees and ancient Roman-era walls on all sides) or Amiens Cathedral (surrounded by the medieval and mostly modern urban fabric of the city) are two examples of this phenomenon. Similarly, models permit us to restore structure to their original appearance as originally intended to be viewed by patron and mason, such as this model of the restored Parthenon.

Overall, the possibilities and applications for modelling are growing, and the state of the field today is by no means static. Future developments in computing, internet speeds, virtual reality, and photogrammetry will certainly permit further advancements in this field of technical and academic research.

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A Few Theoretical Views of Architecture

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The Kaaba from Above

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Al-Aqsa Mosque from Beneath

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Amiens Cathedral from Below

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

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Columbia University

A Map of Campus

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This drawing depicts every building, window, tree, and architectural detail on campus as visible from an imaginary perspective 500 feet above the intersection of 110th and Amsterdam and looking northwest toward campus. The number of windows on each facade and details are faithful to reality. There are about 2,000 windows in this image and at least 50,000 individual lines. The image measures 26 by 40 inches and is framed in my room on campus. The personal objective of this project was to create a souvenir through which to remember my formative experiences and time at Columbia. I draw the closed world I find at Columbia so that, years from my graduation date, I can look at this image and reflect on the formative four years I spent here.

The perspective in this image was formed by using Google Earth satellite photos combined with information extracted from Google Maps street view. To read an interview and article about this project: click here.

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Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia Campus

Ink Drawing of Columbia University. Measures 26 by 40 inches. Click image to launch full resolution.

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Columbia in a Box

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Before my first day as a Columbia College first-year, I assembled a miniature model of Columbia’s campus out of pleated paper and cardboard. This creation, featuring most of Columbia’s Morningside Campus, folds out of a vintage cigar-box that measures a mere 5 by 9 inches, and 3 inches deep. The model was made by taking flat sheets of paper, etching the silhouettes of the campus structures onto each sheet, decorating these sheets with windows and architectural details, and then cutting out the silhouettes and folding each into the shape of the structure. Each building is made with no more than one sheet of folded paper.

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Timelapses of Morningside

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This project features six time-lapse sequences of Columbia University’s Morningside Campus. I placed a camera horizontally above my desk as I drew and painted each watercolor. Painting is meditative for me. Each painting is an opportunity to reflect on my formative years at Columbia University.

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Ink Sketches of Campus

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The Columbia College Alumni Association commissioned the four ink drawings below. These images will be featured in the University’s June 2020 invitation to the alumni reunion and advertising materials. Not yet released.

 

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Eiffel Tower – Animated Construction Sequence

I created the following animation to illustrate the Eiffel Tower’s construction from August 1887 to May 1889. The music of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns accompanies the animation for dramatic effect.

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The Eiffel Tower was built during 18 months – between August 1887 and March 1889. This film shows the construction sequence, starting with the foundations et ending with the completion of the cupola. I downloaded Sketchup to create the computer simulation, and the post-production was made with iMovie. This model and video represent about two days work, or twenty hours.

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The source file for the model was downloaded here from the Sketchup 3D Warehouse, a database of free architectural models. Or, to view this model in virtual reality, please click here. The historic construction photos featured in this video were downloaded here from the Eiffel Tower’s Wikipedia page. And the blueprints consulted to create this animation are from a 2002 reprint of the Eiffel Tower structural plans.

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Burford Church – Two Minute History

This project is also featured on Buford Church’s official website.

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Beautiful Burford Church in Summer

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Construction Sequence

At the conclusion of my year as an art history student at Oxford University, I chose to base my final research project on Burford Church in Oxfordshire County, England. This is a Grade I listed structure by English Heritage, roughly constructed between 1175 and 1475, with continued modifications in the Victorian era. With the generous supervision of my art history tutor, Cathy Oakes, I visited this humble parish church and constructed a computer model that documents the structure’s gradual construction and expansion over nearly 300 years work. I converted the finished model into a short, two-minute film, featured below. The original source files for this project can also be freely downloaded here from the “3D Warehouse“, a database of architectural models for the use of designers, historians, and researchers. The subtitles of this sequence are transcribed here:

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Around 1175, work begins on the Norman church – a simple structure with choir, nave, and tower between. Here we see the structure being erected from east to west. Notice the round Norman windows.

By 1200, a small side chapel is added to the south of the tower. An aisle and entrance foyer on the south are also added. These changes require demolishing part of the existing structure.

By 1250, the side chapel is demolished and replaced by a north transept, south transept and expanded chancel.

By 1400, a crypt is added and the tower extended up. At this point, the architectural style changes from Norman to Gothic – from round arches to pointed.

The local cloth merchants also construct a guild chapel – detached from the main church and built at a slight angle.

By 1475, the guild chapel is partially demolished. On its foundations the Lady Chapel is built.

Meanwhile, most of the remaining nave is demolished to construct two aisles on either side of the nave, a larger west window, and new clerestory-level windows.

Two chapels are added on either side of the choir as well as a 3-story entrance tower. Neither of these additions are visible from this angle.

This completes the construction sequence of Burford Church.

We are now circling around the church – working our way clockwise.

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Visual Analysis

The film below is a brief visual analysis of the church’s architectural fabric. Through my analysis, I seek to understand the following: What is the visual language of Burford Church? What aspects of medieval social and cultural history can be deduced from the church’s decoration? And, in the absence of a written historical record, how can we detect the sequence in which the church was erected on the basis of architectural fragments alone?

 

 

 

 

Image Gallery

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The Digital Cathedral of Amiens

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Cross Section of Choir

Cross Section from the Southeast Side of Cathedral

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Research Abstract

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amiensAs the apotheosis of Gothic architecture built during the 13th century, Amiens Cathedral is a dynamic and living structure. As the ninth largest Gothic cathedral in the world and one built in relatively short span of time, Amiens Cathedral exhibits remarkable stylistic unity throughout. Alongside the Parthenon, Amiens is taught each semester to several hundred students in Art Humanities. This has been a course required since 1947 of all undergraduate students in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum. This cathedral and the animations I created are currently used in classroom instruction of 1,300 students per year.

My objective is to recreate Amiens Cathedral as it appeared in the 15th century. My method is to build an accurate computer model of the entire cathedral, accurate to the inch, photo-realistic, and fully interactive. My hope is to find new and creative ways to engage students and visitors with this work of architecture.

The final video sequence is in two parts. One, a three minute construction sequence of the cathedral’s erection between 1220 and 15th century, which has been viewed over 30,000 times on YouTube. Two, an eight minute fly-through of the finished work of art. Viewers approach the cathedral through the narrow medieval city streets and circumnavigate the exterior from bird’s eye and ground level. Viewers then enter the cathedral and are guided through the complex interior spaces. This trilogy is complemented by historically appropriate music from 13th century French composer, Pérotin and 15th century composer Josquin des Prés, who is incidentally also featured on the Music Humanities component of Columbia’s Core Curriculum.

Amiens has undergone significant revisions and the destruction of almost all its original stained glass windows and large parts of its nave. Through digital modeling, it is possible to restore the structure to its idealized appearance as its initial architect intended. Through video, we can recreate and expand the intended audience of this building, recreating digitally the experience of pilgrimage. Through virtual reality, we can encourage new ways of engaging with art and architecture.

A building is dynamically experienced as a sequence of sights and rooms. A research text about such a building, however, can only capture a limited amount of a structure. Photography, computer simulations, and film are, by comparison, dynamic and sometimes stronger mediums to communicate the visual and engineering complexity of a building. This project seeks to capture that dynamism through a visual, auditory, and user interactive product.

Students can download this model and freely edit, revise, and explore from their personal computer. Over 2,000 students and scholars have downloaded and 3d printed this model, which is currently being used by students at Reading University (UK) to study acoustic archaeology. This model of Amiens Cathedral is built with free computer modeling software called Sketchup. Sketchup has a wide range of drawing applications, architecture, interior design, and civil engineering. And, for computer modeling software, it is easy to use. With just a few commands, such as draw, pull, animate, and toggle, students and teachers unfamiliar with the program can build their own models in minutes.

Watch the two films below, followed by links to explore this model in virtual reality. I am further expanding upon this work for my senior thesis and by building computer models for Columbia’s Media Center for Art History. I have also created computer simulations for the Eiffel Tower’s construction sequence and of a small parish church in Burford, England.

This project would be impossible without the invaluable and expert guidance of my faculty mentor and medievalist Stephen Murray, who taught me in the Fall 2016 Bridge Seminar Life of a Cathedral. This project is also featured here on Columbia University’s website. My video lecture about how I created these animation is published here.

 

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Part One

Amiens Cathedral: A Guided tour

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A guided tour of Amiens with music composed by Perotin: Viderunt Omnes, most likely composed in 1198, twenty-two years before construction started on Amiens. Viewers approach the cathedral from the west, as pilgrims would have in the Middle Ages. Viewers then circle above and through the complex system of flying buttresses that support the cathedral. The animation finishes by visualizing the cathedral from below the foundations in an abstract fashion. Starting from the concrete ground-level view of the pilgrim, the animation becomes increasingly abstract.

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Part Two

Amiens Cathedral: Construction Sequence

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The construction sequence of Amiens Cathedral with music by Pérotin: Beata Viscera written circa 1200. A text from Stephen Murray is transcribed below:

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1220-c1225
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-c1250
Master Thomas de Cormont constructed the upper nave
and belfries of western towers

c1250
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-c1310
Main roof installed from east to west

1360s-c1400
Construction of west towers

1528
Old steeple destroyed by lightning; construction of the grand clocher doré
completed c1533

 

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Part Three

Amiens Cathedral: In Cross Section

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The third video is the most abstract in the trilogy. Here, I juxtaposed interior and exterior views of the cathedral, exploring the relationship between interior and exterior spaces. The sequence opens and closes with an abstract cross section of the cathedral from below. Music is by Josquin des Prés: Mille Regretz.

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Section from South Façade of Cathedral

Section from Above

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The Cathedral from your Computer

An Interactive Animated Glossary of Amiens Cathedral

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In addition to viewing digital cathedral in film, visitors can explore the cathedral for themselves in virtual reality.

Here is a model of a single bay of the nave of Amiens Cathedral, with labyrinth below. I imported actual images and textures into the model to create a photo-realistic effect. Click on individual numbers to see the names of the corresponding components of a medieval cathedral. Or orbit around this model to view from different angles. To learn more about this animated glossary of Amiens Cathedral, click here.

Please be patient while this model loads. Click and drag mouse to navigate around structure. Shift click to pan. Click the cube icon on the lower left hand corner of window to view in full screen. If you are on your tablet or smart phone, click the optical icon to view this model in virtual reality.

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Interactive Model of the Exterior of Amiens Cathedral

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I have uploaded just the exterior of Amiens for online viewers. Unfortunately, due to file size, it is not possible to view the entire model online. But, it is possible, to download this model to one’s computer and then edit in greater detail. Please be patient while this model loads.

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Section of the Nave Roof

Section of West Façade

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The Exterior Sequence

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Below are a few film stills taken from the animation sequence of Amiens Cathedral’s exterior. Hover over image to display caption. Click thumbnail to view high resolution image in gallery.

South Side of Choir

The Buttresses and Rear of West Façade

Amiens Cathedral from Above

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The Interior Sequence

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Film stills of Amien’s interior. Hover over image to display caption. Click thumbnail to view full size in gallery. Gallery is organized linearly to evoke the sequence of walking through the interior spaces.

The Nave at Amiens, looking toward the choir.

Nave Aisles

Clerestory Level of Apse

Bracing and Joists Supporting the Roof

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Dynamic Angles

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Computer modeling allows one to explore angles of view not possible in reality. Of particular beauty are the view of Amiens from below. With the layers of earth and foundation removed, one looks up the grid of vaults and the forest of columns. The view is simultaneously a plan of the cathedral and a worm’s eye view, simultaneously of a real cathedral and an imagined world.

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Cross Sections

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Development of the Gothic Cathedral: An Evolution

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Amiens is at an apex in the development of Gothic cathedrals. The earliest cathedrals were modeled after Roman basilicas with two narrow aisles on either side of a long, rectangular open space spanned with wood trusses. This is best exemplified in the plan of Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Later Gothic cathedrals in following centuries modified this simple model. The dimensions and height of the cathedral grew, alongside the complexity of its vaults, columns, and ornaments. In short, the form and floor plan of the medieval cathedral evolved in response to changes in the use of the church and the rituals of the Mass.

Below are two animated videos illustrating the evolution of the Gothic cathedral: In cross section at left and in plan at right.

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Development of a cathedral nave from Early Christian to High Gothic. A process of evolution and synthesis.

Development of the cathedral floor-plan over 1,000 years. Animation courtesy of Columbia University.

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Many Thanks

This project would not have been possible without the generous help and expertise of Professor Stephen Murray at Columbia University’s Department of Art History & Archaeology. I am also indebted to Center for Career Education for funding this project through its Work Exemption Program. This project was inspired by a similar video trilogy from the 1990s about Amiens Cathedral: Revelations.

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Jane’s Carousel

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 deep. When open, 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 (for motion), tape measure (for spring), tin foil (for water), and thick paper.

Jane’s Carousel with my hand and a pen for scale. Dimensions: 7 by 7 by 3 inches.