Project for the Renovation of a Panopticon Prison
by Rem Koolhaas
In 1979, as an informal consolation prize for not winning the Dutch Parliament competition, OMA was asked to study the possible renovation of the Koepel (dome) Prison in Arnhem to investigate whether the 100-year-old building could be made to function »for at least another 50 years« and to »embody present-day insights into the treatment of prisoners.« This text was written for the Ministry of Justice, where our positive answer created controversy; its defense of a clearly outdated architectural object seemed to ridicule 100 years of »progress.«
The Arnhem Koepel Prison was build according to the so-called Panopticon Principle, invented in 1787 by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It is a universal principle of organization for situations in which a small group of supervisors monitors a much larger group of supervised: factory workers, hospital patients, lunatics, prisoners. The Arnhem Koepel represents the principle in its purest form: a single, all-seeing »eye« is placed dead center in a circle of the observed. The aim of the Panopticon Principle was efficient production - of goods in the factory, health in the hospital, or reformed human beings in the prison.
In 1882, when the Koepel was built, many considered its architecture too luxurious and feared that the compassion expressed in its accommodations might stimulate rather than deter crime. As one parliamentarian, a certain Wintgens, warned »If they are constructing that prison in this grandiose manner, some – maybe even many – people may be tempted, after their daily work, to try to secure a place in that glorious resort at the expense of the State.«
One hundred years later, the Panopticon Principle, with its mechanistic ideal – the naked power exercised by the authority in the center over the subjects in the ring – has become intolerable. In fact without a single change in the architecture of the Koepel, its principle has been abolished. Guards have abandoned the center an now circulate randomly on the ground and the rings, among prisoners who are often released form their cells. In this transparent space, no action or inaction remains unnoticed. The central control post – the former "eye« of the panopticon – has become a canteen for the guards; they now sip coffee there, observed by the prisoners on the rings. Originally envisioned as empty, the entire interior is now often as busy as the Milan Galleria.
When the Koepel was built, solitary confinement was considered humane: it preserved the prisoner's anonymity. Those who had deviated from the right path could meditate, repent, betterthemselves, and – once reformed – start a new life. One hundred years later, solitary confinement has also become unaccetable; it is thought to make the prisoner unfit to return to society. This principle too has been abandoned. Communal facilities – for work, sports, visits – have been added to the institution. But while the Koepel itself survived the suspension of the Panopticon Principle (its architecture paradoxically provoking the reversal), the abolition of solitary confinement is architecturally problematic: the prison grounds outside the dome have become a chaotic conglomerate of sheds and extensions, none of which provide ideal conditions for their intended functions. These afterthoughts – parasites of the dome – impose a humiliating circulation pattern: prisoners must always return to the dome to exit again to its other extensions.
In less than a century the two principles on which the Koepel was based – centralized monitoring an solitary confinement – have been undone or even reversed by cultural change. At the same time, the building itself – simply by continuing to exist – has responded to these ideological changes by dismantling the Panopticon Principle and adding complementary facilities. Changes in regime and ideology are more powerful than the most radical architecture – a conclusion both alarming and reassuring for the architect.
In spite of these adjustments, the building was condemned in 1958 by the Jacobs Committee, which compared the prison to what was then an emerging ideal: the so-called pavilion prison. In this model, the total prison population is divided into smaller groups of ± 24 people whose autonomy is expressed in fragmented architectural form. It seemed obvious that the Koepel, which accommodated all prisoners in a single whole, would resist such a subdivision.
Due to typical bureaucratic delays, the Jacobs Committee's death sentence did not lead to the demolition of the Koepel.
But in the meantime, the committee's ideal has been realized elsewhere in Holland: two pavilion prisons were built in Amsterdam and Maastricht. For the first time, two realities can be compared: the Koepel as it works now – with its spontaneous modifications – and the performance of the two new prisons.
Perhaps the most important and least recognized difference between traditional  and contemporary architecture is revealed in the way a hypermonumental, space-wasting building like the Arnhem panopticon proves flexible, while modern architecture is based on a deterministic coincidence between form and program, its prupose no longer an abstraction like »moral improvement« but a literal inventory of all the details of daily life. Flexibility is not the exhaustive anticipation of all possible changes. Most changes are unpredictable. Bentham could never have imagined the present use of the Koepel. Flexibility is the creation of margin – excess capacity that enables different and even opposite interpretations an uses. Because Benthams ideological purity could only be realized at the cost of a spacial surplus, the Koepel is such a margin. New architecture, lacking this kind of excess, is doomed to a permanent state of alteration if it is to adjust to even minor ideological or practical changes.
The »ideal« new prisons in Amsterdam and Maastricht, whose organization embodies the most enlightened ideas of the 1960s, were received ten years later [when they were built] with skepticism and indignation. By removing any sense of a collective, subdivision has reinforced feelings of isolation; the relationship with the guards has become mediated through electronic devices; the threapeutic pretension of the »family« unit has eroded the previous honesty of the guard-prisoner polarity. Like the Koepel, but for different reasons, the new prison have become synonymous with excessive control.
The history of prison building has become a sequence of short-lived ideals that were challenged, faltered, and then failed. Near the end of the 20th century, this sequence becomes almost comic – like an accelerated movie. It has become impossible to build a prison that is not, at the moment of its completion, out-of-date.
There is no reason to believe that the continous transformation of current views on the ideal prison will soon come to an end. On the contrary, the ever-changing attitudes toward detention may be one of the most acute indicators of changing value in society. The Arnhem Koepel was built at a moment of complete confidence, based on a collective ideal that could be translated directly and unabmiguously into architecture. But the consensus among the state, theorists, ideologues, and architects that existed when the Koepel was build has evaporated. Now, the consolidation of divergent opinions, needs, and ambitions in the freeze-frame that a new architecture inevitably represents can only be realized at the expense of internal contradiction. Prisons have been built where the building offers a degree of enlightenment beyond that of the regime, or where the regime attempts to invalidate the modernity of the building.
If prison architecture today can no longer pretend to embody an »ideal«, it could regain credibility by introducing the theme of revision as raison d' être. A »modern« prison architecture would consist of a prospective archaeology, constantly projecting new layers of »civilization« on old systems of supervision. The sum of modifications would reflect the never-ending evolution of systems of discipline.
An architecture of revision would maintain evidence of past ideologies for the assessment of new building and prevent a single new ideology from becoming paradigmatic and thus above verification. New construction obliterates what exists: it is loss of memory. But an architecture of revision can maintain the viable, modify the untenable.
Revision is only possible where there was vision. Arnhem could be an experiment with a form of renovation that articulates programmatic and ideological change without destroying the building itself.
The strongest argument to preserve the Koepel is the quality of its interior [remnant of the »luxury« criticized in 1882]: »At first it breaks, then embraces, and then comforts.« Extravagant, useless, theoretical, exaggerated, monumental: a »waste«, but also a space that gives pleasure and that, through its essential excess, enables the decentralized surveillance culture that is now its intangible asset. The renovation should then:
1. dismantle the panopticon's former center;
Previous renovation proposals, which projected buildings inside the Koepel, themselves became "prisoners" of the panopticon. In the proposal, old an new are uncoupled; two sunken streets extend across the prison grounds. Along the streets are the facilities now missing from the Koepel: for work, sports, culture, religion etc. The streets and the new collective facilities form a socle on which the dismantled panopticon stands as a historical relic. The centrifugal model of the streets literally undermines the centripetal model of the Koepel. The centers of Koepel and socle coincide at the street intersection, canceling the original »eye« of the panopticon. As the only visible manifestation of newness inside the Koepel, this intersection offers its residents a way out.
2. accept, and possibly extend, the surveillance culture that has spontaneously developed;
3. add facilities in a way that escapes the deterministic configuration of the existing architecture;
4. create spaces for collective use that end the limitations of solitary confinement;
5. create additional margins for future programs; and
6. identify and exploit the prison's (unforeseen) potentials.
The Koepel now strictly becomes »home«; the facilities in the socle, »outside". The Koepel's present decentralized surveillance culture is extended by the two streets, which constitute – in combination with the three cell rings and the Koepel floor – a limited public realm. Prisoners no longer need to have specific destinations; they can choose among the different facilities or even loiter.
The prison grounds are surrounded by a five-meter-high wall; the idea of a ground floor is relative – the walls exclude reference to levels outside. New construction on the ground level offers only views of the walls. From the new street level the walls are invisible. The socle establishes a new datum: the former ground floor becomes the roof of the socle. Anticipating a drastic reduction of working hours and the need for other activities to fill the rest of the day, this organization on allows for simultaneous use of the grounds in two shifts: one on the socle for sports, games, gardening; one in the socle. Halfway through the day the shifts trade places. Wherever possible and desirable, facades and activities are exposed to eliminate any sense of a basement.
The activities on the streets are grouped to give specific programmatic definition. »Central« facilities are projected at the interection itself – shops, hairdresser, library, doctors, and meeting rooms for creative activities and discussion groups.
South Street leads to the visitors center; its facade is exposed by a sloping garden. From a waiting room, prisoners see visitors arriving from the main gate. The windows are tilted to avoid the suggestion of bars. North Street leads to a patio with kitchen, medical departments, and a separate pavilion for difficult prisoners. West Street leads to the most urban conditions: four workshops, a sports center, and a hall for film, drama, religion. Each workshop has a roof garden and a patio with a »park.« The final section of the street is sunken further; filled with water, it becomes a swimming pool. A running track surrounds the socle.
The facades of the public domain are »luxurious« – glazed brick and marble; behind the facade, materials are spartan.
In past decades, most emergency changes inside the Koepel have been made by using certain cells for other purposes, sometimes removing load-bearing walls to connect them. In thisstudy, all of the facilities required for the Koepel to function as »home« – living quarters, dining rooms, bathrooms – are concentrated in two external satellites attached to the ring. The Koepel's interior is left interact while the extensions communicate the changes to the outside world.
With the satellites, each ring of 50 cells can be divided into two groups of ± 24 prisoners, without expressing these groupings in concrete. These 24 prisoners can be subdivided into smaller temporary entities by a further subdivision of the satellite. Communication between the rings, which are connected by smaller spiral staircases and two larger stairs, permits; the formation of groups from different rings; prisoners can be part of several groupings.
With integration on the wane and the frank preference of some populations to stay together, the satellites offer a flexible regime: momentary constellations of prisoners subject to endless permutations. This possiblity is especially important in a remand center where inmates are presumed innocent and where there is no guarantee of a stable statistical breakdown on which a group architecture could be based.
A third Koepel satellite is planned at the site of the present entrance building, opposite the main gate. It is generated through an outward projection of the panopticon center, creating a sector of an implied second ring, in this case offices. Four previously connected cells become rest areas for the guards. The outer wall of the Koepel is removed here so that the ring is invaded by a wedge of supervision.
For us, the prison embodied, in a way, 100 years of wisdom, or at least of experience. The new adds a layer of modernity without claiming to be definitive. It is neither more nor less safe than the old. The old maintains its iconographic deterrence, liberating the new from having either to ignore or to express the idea of incarceration. After the intervention, the Koepel represents the dismantled past, its former center crossed out, resting on an podium of modernity that is only concerned with improving the prisoner's conditions.