Study for the renovation of a Panopticon Prison
In 1979 we were asked to "study" the possible renovation of a Panopticon prison - one of the three ever built on the principle in its pure form: a circle of cells with the all-seeing eye of the observatory as its centre. The 100 years old building had to be equipped "for at least another 50 years" and "to embody present day insights into the treatment of prisoners…."

In the 50s, when the current ideology discovered the pavilion model of prisons whereby, supposedly for psychological reasons, the inmates were subdivided in small groups, the building had been condemned and its demolition planned. Now, for a variety of reasons - its uniqueness as a purely theoretical building, its undeniable architectural quality, the convenience that it existed, reinforced by the fact that the prison was surprisingly popular with its inmates, who like the spaciousness of its vast interior - it was decided that perhaps it should continue to exist.
The prison is a cylinder, 56m in diameter, composed of four layers of 50 cells, topped by a dome that is 46m at its highest point. Built in 1880 for solitary confinement with an observation tower in the centre, "present day insights" had already spontaneously changed - in fact, drastically reversed - the performance of the building. Outside, on the walled prison grounds, a series of sheds had proliferated, randomly fulfilling spatial needs for additional activities and making the grounds cluttered and difficult to guard. Inside, in the dome, the former centre of power - the "eye" of the panopticon - had been converted into a canteen for the guards: the former observers are now themselves observed by the prisoners, who are no longer kept locked in their cells at all times, but could circulate freely on the rings and have access to the ground floor. Originall envisioned as empty, the entire interior is now often as busy as the Milan Galleria. Now that they had abandoned the centre of power, control was exercised through the simple presence of guards circulating with the prisoners through the transparent space where no action or inaction remained unnoticed. This spontaneous adaptation had to be completed through an intentional project of revision that would offer a series of new facilities for work, visits, entertainment, sport, schooling and shopping that together would add a communal, almost public dimension to the life of the prison.

A second demand was to provide "living rooms" where the total mass of the prisoners - 200 at the most - could be together in smaller groups to form ersatz families that, "present day insights" claimed, would restore their impaired social abilities.

In this project, the first obligation of the new architecture was to avoid entrapment by the existing structure / prison, while at the same time, having no choice but to accept the containment of the existing prison yard. To perform this "dissociation", two streets run from the centre of the dome to the extremes of the terrain. They form an exit from the dome; their intersection obliterates for ever the Panopticon "eye". All new facilities are "built" along these streets as autonomous elements - some inside, but most outside.

The same relative freedom that now exists in the dome is extended across the two streets. In this way, essential contrasts that define life outside - such as indoors / outdoors, home / work, house / street - are re-established inside the prison.

The facilities for the formation of smaller living groups - in themselves a desirable complement to the original dome that has no intermediary scale between the individual cell and the dome itself, ie. the mass of prisoners and guards, - are placed in two wedge-shaped elements that break, from the exterior through the outer wall, leaving the dome's interior untouched: the living rooms that are oriented towards the landscape beyond the walls (the prison lies along the Rhine).

Through connections inside the dome - four spiral staircases connect all the rings - different groups recruited from the total prison population can be formed easily at different times of the day, on the basis of randomness, shared interests, nationality, freedom of association.

Finally, four cells were already removed from each ring before our arrival; since it was inconceivable to restore cells, this gap was projected outward from the centre, creating a second larger circle around the existing one, which is used for the prison offices.

For us the prison embodies, in a way, 100 years of wisdom, or at least experience; the scheme projects a layer of modernity on this experience without making claims of being definitive. The new is neither more nor less safe than the old. The iconographic deterrence of the old is left intact, saving the new the embarrassment of having to either ignore or express the idea of incarceration, which is incompatible with its aspirations.

After the intervention, the dome represents the dismantled past, its former centre crossed out, resting on a podium of modernity, which is concerned only with improving the prisoners' conditions.

What was most rewarding about the project was the extent to which programmatic, metaphoric and formal intentions could be made to coincide. Within strict programmatic demands - the metaphor of a new beginning - culture as a system of paradigms continuously revised, the crossing out of the centre, all worked both on the most utilitarian and the most conceptual level, and established a bonding between them.

What was surprising, finally, was the almost eager way in which an "architectural" solution was embraced by the authorities as resolving the dilemma of other disciplines. The discredited claim for architecture as being able to directly intervene in the formation of culture - and to achieve through its crystallisation, the resolution of hopelessly contradictory demands - freedom and discipline - was for once vindicated on the edge of dystopia.

As such, the scheme was produced as part of an enterprise to recoup the programmatic initiative that, for us, has seemed the true ambition of modern architecture - an architecture that can support and provoke modern conditions.

Study for the renovation of a Panopticon Prison

The Government Buildings Agency (Rijksgebouwendienst)




Arnhem, Netherlands

Panopticon Prison on the Rhine built in 1880 for solitary confinement: 56m diameter, 46m high dome, four floors of 50 cells; grounds scattered with sheds to house additional activities

Renovation of prison; addition of new facilities for work, education, sports, leisure; administrative offices

Project I (1979-1981): Rem Koolhaas, Stefano de Martino

Project II (1982-1985): Rem Koolhaas, Mike Guyer, Thijs de Haan, Vahe Kalousdian, Brigitte Kochta, Victor Mani, Luc Reuse, Georg Ritschl, Karin Rühle