Chris Alker on the Architecture of Re-Socialization

Chris Alker

Chris Alker

For the past fifteen years, five while attending the University of Texas at Austin and ten years working in the building industry, I have been a student of architecture.

Over these years my increasing frustration with the practice has led me to examine and re-examine the power of architecture.

In doing so, the words of the American architect Louis Sullivan, “Form ever follows function”, never seem to be far from my mind. However, it is not the skyscraper, for which Sullivan is best known, that, for me, most embodies his credo. Rather it is two often overlooked architectural typologies, the castle and the prison. Both architectures, absent from Spiro Kostof’s staple university text,

A History of Architecture, have most likely been glazed over due to their lack of importance in the development of architectural style, a common preoccupation regarding the history of our profession.

The castle, built throughout the world for over 900 years, was the cornerstone of military architecture and evolved in parallel with advances in weaponry and warfare technology. The Roman architect Vitruvius, mostly cited for his contribution of “Firmness, commodity and delight”, was integral to this evolution with his writings on the layout and construction of these strongholds. Every formal characteristic of the architecture (the angular towers, timber reinforced curtain walls, buttressed battlements,etc.) was in perfect harmony with an offensive or defensive application. With the invention of gunpowder in the 14th century, and later the increasingly destructive power of artillery, the days of the castle eventually declined. Many were abandoned, or converted (or rather inverted), into prisons, as was the case with the French Alcatraz, Chateau d’if in the Mediterranean Sea.

Today castles stand as monuments of history visited by curious tourists and serve as the inspiration for kitschy McMansion builders. The prison on the other hand continues to be built and affect many people’s lives on a daily basis. Since 2006, it is estimated that at least 9.25 million people are currently imprisoned worldwide, and over 25% of them are housed in the American prison system. Whether this statistic is a result of our laws or the environment in which they were raised is still up for debate, but it is the role that architecture plays that is of great interest to me.

According to New York Times writer Jim Lewis, “It sounds odd to say, but it’s nonetheless true: we punish people with architecture. The building is the method. We put criminals in a locked room, inside a locked structure, and we leave them there for a specified period of time.”

As I see it, the “function” of prison architecture is threefold. These facilities are in place to (1) contain convicted criminals in order to protect society from future harm, (2) punish these individuals for their actions, and (3) to adjust their behavior so that they may successfully return to society as a law abiding citizens.

For years, it is these first two functions of the architecture that has been fixated on by way of a one-size-fits-all approach regardless of gender or nationality. In the United States money earmarked for prisons is most undoubtedly used for more bars, more walls and more razor wire.

Due to privatization, new design innovations seem to center around efficiency. Larger and larger groups of prisoners are managed by increasing surveillance and security while decreasing staff. These efforts do little to change prisoner behavior or deter re-offending, as recidivism rates suggest. In fact, the prison program has been expanded to do just the opposite by accommodating spaces for torture or sensory deprivation as is the case with the much publicized American detention camp, Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba.

It is also important to note that while the focus on prison containment and punishment is centered on the primary inhabitant, the inmate, the affect on those that work there as well as the families of the imprisoned is significant.

Prison architecture with a lopsided functional emphasis will adversely affect those that are neither the object of punishment or containment. As Society evolves, the design or our prisons remain in the dark ages. This is a problem. Gandhi has been paraphrased by many in his proclamation that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This statement is not lost on prisoners, who are considered by many to be animals. The Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa invokes the sentiment with his statement, “It isn’t true that convicts live like animals: animals have more room to move around.” It is only by balancing these three functions that we may hope to make progress. Unfortunately the rehabilitation, or re-socialization, aspect of prison design is the one function that has been the least explored and often only in theory.

Two notable examples include Rem Koolhaas’ 1980 proposal for the Renovation of the Koepel Panopticon Prison in the Netherlands aimed at recouping “…the programmatic initiative that…has seemed the true ambition of modern architecture – an architecture that can support and provoke modern conditions”, and Will Alsop’s 2007 Creative Prison exhibition, a utopian prison which takes the form and structure of a university campus. American culture is full of references that discount the rehabilitative nature of prisons. Let us recount a scene from the 1994 blockbuster, Shawshank Redemption: 1967 Parole Hearings Man: Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated? Red: Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.

Halden Fengsel Prison

Halden Fengsel Prison

Thankfully new architecture experiments are taking place, primarily in Europe, in an effort to bridge this gap. The 252 million dollar Halden Prison completed last year in Norway, designed by Erik Moller Architects, includes amenities like a sound studio, jogging trails and a freestanding two-bedroom house where inmates can host their families during overnight visits. In Austria, the Leoben Prison designed by Joseph Hohensinn has been described as a sleek wood and glass structure that looks more like a university library, minus the razor wire.

Both pieces of architecture appear to be well crafted structures with modern aesthetics that would be right at home in any glossy architecture magazine. To most, they do not “look like prisons”. It is my belief that this is again due to the hegemonic inertia surrounding the first two of the three functions of a prison I outlined earlier. If there was more emphasis on rehabilitation, and resocialization, then isn’t the idea of these facilities appearing as university architecture is right in step with Mr. Sullivan’s proclamation?

Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin Prison and the undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections Rehabilitation, poses and answers the question regarding the effectiveness of architecture on recividism.

“Can the architectural design of a prison or jail improve outcomes of evidencedbased programs? I believe the answer is yes..The challenge for architects will be to convey the benefit of appropriate design on recidivism reduction programs.” –Jeanne Woodford

Not only would the success of these experimental architectures mean decreasing recidivism, but increase interest from the architecture community at large and provide new models for prison design that will change lives. Pursuing architecture in this fashion, rather than an architecture of fashion, we can reinstate the power of it to make our society a better place.

You can get in touch with Chris here.


Adams, William L. “Norway Builds The World’s Most Humane Prison.”   Time Magazine, 10 May 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2011.,9171,1986002,00.html
Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Lewis, Jim. “Behind Bars…Sort Of.”  The New York Times, 14 June 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.
McGray, Douglas. “Behind The Bars.” Metropolis Magazine, 17 July 2006.
Toy, Sidney. “Chapter III: Fortifications of Greece and Rome, 300 B.C. to 200
B.C.” Castles: Their Construction and History. New York: Dover Publications, 1985. 22. Print.
Woodford, Jeanne. “The Future of Prison Design.” AAJ Journal (2007).
Newsletter of the Academy of Architecture for Justice. American Institute of Architects, 19 Jan. 2007. Web. 03 Apr. 2011.
Halden Prison Homepage –
The Municipality of Leoben Homepage –
Leoben Prison Homepage –
Josef Hohensinn Homepage –
Prison and Prison System Design Blog Homepage –