Light Disappearance Act

Ángel Borrego 


Prisons are a special kind of architectural typology. It is one of a few building types that define a super-interior, an inside further than usual removed from an outside. It is a typology that separates interior and exterior spaces more intensely, by a greater amount of layers and control mechanisms.

If architecture is distinguished from other construction disciplines by its ability to define and produce an inhabitable interior, prisons should have then become an extreme (and perhaps preferred) source of architectural exploration. They aren’t.

The argument could be made that an incarceration program is so specific, and contrary to a humanistic definition of architecture as the space of free people, that it is rendered useless for anything else. This argument only survives in as much as we are willing to assume absolute, stable and ungraded definitions of freedom and obligation.

A more realistic argument would be that it is our ethic, or aesthetic, distaste for the function of prisons which prevents us from using them more often as theoretical testing grounds for the discipline of architecture…

A more cynic idea is that we simply dislike what prisons have to say about the discipline as a whole and its relationship to societal organization.

The dominant discussions about prisons since over thirty years ago deal with the system in place in the USA, the inflation in the number of inmates, and their establishment as a privatised services industry. As such, it is an industry whose main product is disappearance. Its business is turning invisible the largest possible number of bodies and also the infrastructure that makes it possible. We want people to gracefully disappear inside prisons, at least for a while. We would also like this process to appear inexpensive, absent of detail, without amenities, almost abstract in its formulation.

Vanishing Act 1: Forty years ago, at a brand-new federal prison in Florida, USA, its swimming pool was buried under a last minute tarmac extension. The flattening of the ground, the push for the disappearance of details describes the new social climate that would become dominant. The prison had been designed in the sixties and seventies, a time when institutions were under suspicion and softness was regarded as the desired strategy for social design. But when it came to be built in the early eighties desires had changed and the new wave of conservatism that would sweep the world had ‘zero tolerance’ as its most marketable, and sadly successful, social design.

Vanishing Act 2: Up until the seventies, prisons were a relevant space for thought. As society defines its limits, and what is acceptable or not, discussions around incarceration appear a healthy exercise. Foucault formulated philosophical thought, filmmakers treated incarceration as a respected, ‘thoughtful’ genre, architects even held competitions for ‘ideal’ prison design. Prisons, as a radical space typology, was still a relevant place for architecture then. Rem studied his voluntary prisoners in Exodus and Superstudio dealt with the immutable issues of incarceration in their architecture tales in the seventies. But prisons have been absent from architecture thought ever since. They have disappeared without trace, apparently dissolved into thin air. They only remain as practical problem resolution and service provision.

Vanishing Act 3: Recent prison design in Spain has followed a generic trend, pushed away from cities and suburban areas to deserted sites in between them. Their design of these newer prisons, many of them built in the last twenty-five years, follows a very precise, standard, almost abstract, orthogonal layout. No context needs to be taken into account, as if it actually didn’t exist. To keep the surrounding area deserted at all times the lighting specs mandate for flood lighting to be rotated ninety degrees from the usual exterior lighting. Whereas exterior artificial lighting is usually placed where one expects people to be, and is designed to point downwards, shooting light immediately underneath the light source, outside prisons light is placed on the prison outer limits and it points straight out, perpendicular to the usual direction of artificial lighting. This lighting is designed to expel people from it, not to attract them. While artificial lighting is usually meant to attract people, or is meant to be used where people naturally meet already, at prisons lighting is supposed to empty space of people, to make the disappear. The ninety degree rotation in the field of prison lights leaves no trace, no projection, in the universe of civil lighting, they belong, so to speak, to a different universe.


Ángel Borrego holds a Ph.D. in architecture from ETSA-Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in Madrid and MArch from Princeton University where he was a Fulbright scholar. He has been a professor at Princeton University, the Pratt Institute in New York, the University of Alicante and now ETSAM. He founded Office for Strategic Spaces (OSS) in 1999 for the study of contemporary urban space and its economic, social and cultural implications. His range of works is very diverse: architecture and public space, collective research proposals such as IIAVE, American Constitution 2.0, Enlargement! AMMPLIO or the project wordww.net, exhibitions and publications.