How to escape from the video-surveillance box?

Five possible escape routes
(for imprisoned architects)

“I do not think that there is anything that is functionally -by its very nature- absolutely liberating. Liberty is a practice. So there may, in fact, always be a certain number of projects whose aim is to modify some constraints, to loosen, or even to break them, but none of these projects can, simply by its nature, assure that people will have liberty automatically, that it will be established by the project itself. The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because "liberty" is what must be exercised.

The guarantee of freedom is freedom. (…) If one were to find a place where liberty is effectively exercised, one would find that this is not owing to the order of objects, but, once again, owing to the practice of liberty”.

Michel Foucault, ‘Space, Knowledge and Power’. [1]

Every contemporary prison seems to tend towards an accumulation of video-surveillance boxes, just as every new architecture seems to tend towards an image. Is it possible to escape this?

We could even say more, following the reasoning of Foucault in the same interview that opens this text, when talking about the Familistèrede Guise designed by Jean-Baptiste Godin in 1859 and whose architecture 'was clearly intended for the freedom of people'[2]: 'the panoptic qualities of Guise could well have allowed it to be used as a prison. Nothing could be simpler'[3]. In that way, we could say that any average housing building built today, applying the correct security and surveillance technology, could work as a prison.

The prison has undress (and the same could be said of an increasingly flat architecture). The advances of the technique have reduced it to its most essential and sinister state. A space of reclusion, someone / something that watches, and a guarded body. And, when this body works as a ware, generating profits, even better!

01 Peter Halley. “Prison and Apartment”. Taken from

What do we have left, for us, dreamers architects? It seems that Foucault, and the history of the technique, has disarmed us.

For now, we can learn from these ‘other spaces’[4]. Prisons, as heterotopic spaces - a term used by the philosopher to refer to these and other places where the 'tradition of the oppressed' can be recognized, reunited, organized, confronted[5] - it appears, at the same time ''as a great 'reserve of imagination', that it belongs to us to use freely[6].

It is this attitude, which we could classify as optimistic, in front of the buildings historically more linked to the human drama, that seeks to make visible what is always hidden, which will allow us toplay against the device, to be able to question it. Thus, we will be able, then, to play against the program of the devices within the program itself, or what is the same, make art: (a term that encompasses science, politics and philosophy) produce new unlikely elements, more difficult to be captured by the likely devices. Thus, to oppose the blind game of information and disinformation an antagonistic game, a game capable of bringing new information[7].

It is in this sense, that we present a brief and intentional selection of works and architectural projects linked to the prisoned where five possible ways to escape to the video-surveillance box are glimpsed, five escape routes for imprisoned architects (in architecture).

1. Cut the Eye

In 1979, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) was invited to carry out a project for the renovation of the Koepel prison in Arhem, the Netherlands, one of the few panopticons that remains standing. Its modernization planned to extend its operation for another 50 years, in addition to the 100 it already had, incorporating at the same time, contemporary notions of prison treatment.

However, it would seem that more than a simple opportunity for an assignment, there was a possibility to seek new records within the field of architecture and their systems of thought through working with one of the most influential programmatic diagrams of the XVIII and XIX centuries’ disciplinary culture: the panopticon.

In this way, Rem Koolhaas declares: "few parts of society render the self-portrait the prison system does"[8].

At the beginning of the presentation of the project in the publication S, M, L, XL of the author, two photograms of the surrealistic short film "Un Chien Andalou" by Luis Buñuel are shown. Clear sample of the conceptual framework within which the proposed architectural operation will move: cut the eye.

02 Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou, 1929. Taken from Youtube
What Buñuel is cutting, for Koolhaas's interest, is Bentham's own omnipresent eye, his theoretical model of panoptism, and the infinite literature it would produce. All without even mentioning Foucault.

The change of paradigm is evidenced by the new use of space under the dome proposed by the project, the central control post - the eye of the panopticon - becomes the guardians’ canteen: the former observers are now the observed by the prisoners who are not longer exclusively in their cells, but circulates freely in the rings and can access the ground floor. Originally conceived as empty, the entire interior is often as busy as the Milan Gallery. [9]

03 OMA. Koepel Panopticon Prison. Taken from website

Koolhaas adheres to an urban model jail, that as our society reflection, manifests the public character of the building, projecting it as a space of the political, of the civic and of the socializing. Thus, he affirms that "a ‘modern’ prison architecture would consist of a prospective archeology, constantly projecting new layers of ‘civilization’ over old surveillance systems. The sum of these modifications would reflect the endless evolution of disciplinary systems." [10]

Finally, the cut in the eye has a correlation with the Euclidean space: two streets-tunnels half-buried in the shape of a cross definitively erase the "eye", and generate, at the same time, spaces for certain programs that are placed at their sides. Then, the barbershop, the meeting rooms, the shops, the bookstore, the free expression room, the kitchen, the health clinic, the gymnasium, the workshops and the swimming pool, are located inside and outside the circle, building a programmed floor inside the prison’s perimeter.

"As the only manifestation of novelty inside the Koepel, this intersection offers the residents a way out" [11] says Koolhaas.

04 OMA. Koepel Panopticon Prison. Taken from website

Thus, in its description of the project, OMA concludes: "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 is being able to directly intervene in the formation of culture - and to achieve through its crystallization, the resolution of hopelessly contradictory demands - freedom and discipline - was for eleven vindicated on the edge of dystopia".[12]

2. Boats, islands and floating prisons

The image of a transatlantic ship on the coast of Hunt Point in New York would look like another ship, one that its citizens are used to seeing in the East River. White and blue boxes stacked as large containersmake up this mass of seven levels high above the sea level. However, stopping the look, we notice that these containersdo not go anywhere, they are motionless and the goods inside, turn out not to be objects, but people imprisoned.

This is the Vernon C. Bain Center (VCBC) correctional center known as "the boat". A prison-ship with 800 spaces used to retain the inmates of the Correctional Department of the city of New York, which was built in 1992 to alleviate the overcrowding of Rikers Island, a neighboring island with a prison complex of 167 hectares, located in front of the VCBC, where more than 11,000 inmates live.

05 Burger, Mario. The Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center. Taken from

06 Riker's Island. Taken from Google Images.

While the VCBC does not sail anywhere, as far as the United States Coast Guard is concerned, it is definitely a ship, not a building.”[13]

It is quite clear that this model of jail and its historical background (the French and English have used it in the XVI to XVIII centuries) tells us about the frustrated and contradictory relationship that architecture has maintained with spaces of imprisonment, rejecting prison as building issue, maintaining its condition of denial, isolation and exceptionality, outside the normal area of inhabited space.

07 HMS Discovery at Deptford. Taken from

The prison ship, therefore, perfectly exposes the tenuous relationship between prisons and what is most valued in architecture: space. If 200 years ago buildings assumed a role that was once left on ships, the VCBC's resumption of this role exposes the sad failure to improvise the purpose and architectural reality of imprisonment. Like the stacked-container ships that the VCBC looks like, the modern prison is still a storage and retirement space.[14]

However, there are not only floating prisons that enclose and repress its inhabitants. Crossing the ocean, in Norway, is the island of Bastøy Prison, which we could understand as the Scandinavian anti-Alcatraz. It is a minimum security prison located on an island of 2.6 square kilometers where 115 inmates and 69 officials live, of which only 5 remain at night.

08 Bastøy Prison Taken from Youtube.

In Bastøy the inmates are housed in wooden cottages from which they can freely move around the prison-island. They work on the farm and during their free time they have access to horse riding, fishing, tennis and skiing. Thus, the everyday scenes that occur in it may be found elsewhere. Life goes on quietly, as in any small town in the Nordic landscapes. It seems that the island simply intended to imitate other islands.

3. Seeing, and Not Seeing, Through

“While architecture’s role in reforming the prison system may be arguable, incarceration is undoubtedly a spatial issue”.[15]
This is how the memory of the project Does the punishment fit the crime? begins, from the Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) office, an installation designed for the Fondazione Sandretto De Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy. Between art, videogame and architecture, the work invites us to reflect on one of the most significant spatial aspects of imprisonment: the cells.

09 DS+R Does the punishment fit the crime?. Taken from

In this sense, they propose to the visitor to manipulate a touch screen where a table of crimes are classified by their severity and ambiguity. The selected punishment will be reflected through a spatial-temporal matrix: the more severe the crime, the more punitive the space will be. Thus, as the spectator adjusts the reclusion space, the screen shows the design of the resulting cell projected on the walls of the room.

10 DS+R Does the punishment fit the crime?. Taken from

This modification of the possibility of ‘seeing, and not seeing, through’ on base of an criminological scientific qualification of the subjects that inhabit the space, for example, between drug use, sexual deviance, insider trading, conspiracy, disturbing the peace, unlawful conduct, illegal immigration, etc., becomes a fresh ironic mockery over decades of theories, and architectural practices in relation to criminal matters. Currents of thought about which we can not laugh, but from which to learn, to look through, is an obligation.

4. Architectural Evidences

Since 2010, works in London an interdisciplinary group of architects, artists, scientists and journalists included under the Forensic Architecture research agency[16]. From there, they intend to undertake advanced architectural and media research on behalf of international prosecutors, human rights organizations and political and environmental justice groups[17]. In that way, they work with the production and presentation of ‘architectural evidence’ – buildings and urban environments and their media representations.

Through its multiple projects, this group of, what could be called, "detectives", or even "vigilantes", of architecture, uses all the tools that the discipline offers us to take position on urgent issues of the agenda of violence in the world.

An example of this, is their research cases such as "The Grenfell Tower Fire, a half archive and spatial database of the June 14, 2017 fire", the mexican "The Ayotzinapa Case, a Cartography of Violence", the case of the "Drone Strikes, investigating covert operations through spatial media in Pakistan", " Torture and Detention in Cameroon, the dark side of the US-backed war against Boko Haram" or the project investigating" Saydnaya, Inside a Syrian Torture Prison."

11 Forensic Architecture, Bomb Cloud Atlas, 2016, SITUATION#82, SITUATIONS/Fact. Image by Philipp Ottendörfer. Taken from

12 Analysis by Analysis , 2015 Rafah, Palestina. Taken from

In the last case, the group of researchers addresses the case of one of the secret prisons of torture that function after the outbreak of the war in Syria. In April 2016, Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture travelled to Istanbul to meet five survivors from Saydnaya Prison, near Damascus. With their help and using architectural and acoustic modeling, the researchers helped witnesses reconstruct the architecture of the prison and their experiences of detention.  The former detainees described the cells and other areas of the prison, including stairwells, corridors, moving doors and windows, to an architect working with 3D modeling software. In this way, by collectively reconstructing and succeeding in illuminating the hidden, it is possible to visualize what nobody has been able to see, generating untold architectural evidence in defense of the persecuted.

13 Saydnaya: Inside a Siryan torture prison. Taken from
In their works, architecture and space are understood as an assembly of landscapes of all kinds of data in constant change to stage an observed problem. Thus, Forensic Architecture demonstrates the possibility that the architectural project operates as a revealer of processes that a priori would be outsiders to it, and at the same time, promotes the expansion of the disciplinary limits in which the practice usually navigates.

This practice of forensic architecture is offered as an eminently pragmatic device. It acts as an antidote to post-truth: rewriting a place for evidence and understanding that any political operation must be activated both from ideological speculation and through the precise capacity that gives the clarification of the facts. [18]

5. Prisioners in the sky

Prisons are buildings that nobody wants to see and even less to have as neighbors. As a general rule, contemporary prisons are located on the outskirts of the city, as a placebo of a 'rehabilitation' in the solitude of the countryside, seeking to protect the perception of public safety Visualizing our mirror may not be the most convenient at times. 

But what happens when prisons mix with cities? What are the potentialities of a usually marginal program in an urban setting?

In the 1970s, Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCCs) were the emblematic architectures of a new penitentiary and judicial system plan in the United States. In this framework, Chicago, New York and San Diego would build prisons in the deteriorated areas of their urban centers, close to the federal courts for prisoners of short sentences, thus reducing costs and times of transfers.

Adopting a cloak of invisibility to disguise the function of the building, the MCC of Chicago is located within the Loop of the pioneer city in the typology of the skyscraper. The monumentality of this tower as the embodiment of crime seems to make an effort to give civic weight to the always marginalized.
  14 Rog, Enga. Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago. Taken from Flickr
In the city of Mies - creator of the glass tower - the building projected by the architect Weese rises defiantly like an essay in which the opacity is embraced where others celebrate the transparent. [19]

The construction vertically piles up diverse uses, resulting in what we might call a corrective mix use. A first section of activities in relation to the external environment, is interrupted by a technical floor for mechanical installations, to then start a second section, where the cells are located.

Finally, the tower is finished off in the sky with the courtyard for the inmates. A liberating and contradictory gesture, since prisons, by definition, can not think of themselves in terms of freedom. In this way, the prisoners are elevated to heaven, placed where, probably, they could never be, at the height of any skyscraper in the center.

15 Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago. Taken from Google Images

16 Hecker, David. Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago. Taken from Flickr
Thus, this courtyard of the prisoners in the Chicago sky, which claims equality and the right to the city, seems to be related to the pool of the building of the 'SESC 24 de Maio' by Paulo Mendes da Rocha and MMBB in São Paulo, Brazil. In this other case, the genius of the authors has managed to place an unexpected space for recreation and enjoyment, accessible to all the visiting public, in the heights of São Paulo center. Thus, those below can ascend, they can look at the city from above to belong, participate and, finally, be part of it.

17 Penner, Andre. Visitors swim in a rooftop pool at Sesc 24 de Maio. Taken from
A particular fact, and certainly incredible, is that Harry Weese, the same architect who designed the MCC in Chicago, built, a few blocks from the prison and a decade later, the Swissotel Chicago tower. This, with its typology of tower with triangular floor and prismatic base, is extremely similar to the one designed to house prisoners. Thus, finally, with this ironic similarity between two models of prison and hotel that history offers us, it is perhaps demonstrated what at the beginning of this text Foucault told us.

18 Swissotel Chicago. Taken from Google Images.

Undoubtedly, our prisons at Punta de Rieles could appear on this list, or at least one of them (the one that the reader considers he can learn more from).

Prisons as heterotopic self-portraits of the societies that construct them challenge, not only the society itself, but also the established discourse of the architecture that constitutes it, they put into crisis the ways of understanding and producing it, and they make a warning call to the objectives that it pursues.

But let's not forget, architecture can be the celebration of life and should be, also, in the less expected places. ;)

[1] Michel Foucault, Space, Knowledge, and Power. This interview with Michel Foucault was conducted by Paul Rabinow and translated by Christian Hubert, published in The Foucault Reader, Compilation by Paul Rabinow, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Reference to “Des espaces autres”, published by Foucault on 1967.

[5] Georges Didi-Huberman, Volver sensible / hacer sensible, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2014.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Flusser, Vilém, El universo de las imágenes técnicas. Argentina: Caja Negra, 2015.

[8] euwissen, Joost ‘1980. Self-Portrait of a Society. Panopticon Prison Arnhem’. Journal for Architecture, #94. OMA. The First Decade (nai010 publishers) 2015. 14-19.

[9] Rem Koolhaas, ‘Revision - Study for the renovation of a Panopticon Prison’, in: OMA; Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL, 2nd ed. New York: Monacelli Press, 1998, 235-253.

[10] Op. cit.

[11] Op. cit.

[12] See project memory at

[13] Kyle May, Julia van den Hout, Jacob Reidel , Archie Lee Coates, Jeff Franklin. Prisons. CLOG (2014) Pag, 14

[14] Op. cit.

[15] See project memory at

[16] Forensic Architecture trabaja en Goldsmiths, Universidad de Londres, bajo la dirección de Eyal Weizman.

[17] Ver descripción del proyecto

[18] Barenblit, Ferran. Medina, Cuauhtémoc. Una estética libre de estética. Pag. 19

[19] Kyle May, Julia van den Hout, Jacob Reidel , Archie Lee Coates, Jeff Franklin. Prisons. CLOG (2014) Pag, 30