Such a hotchpotch of porridges - News - Art - The Independent

Such a hotchpotch of porridges

From Norman towers and Victorian country houses to Forties Nissen huts and Sixties concrete blocks, the architecture of incarceration embraces all sty les. Peter Wayne gives an insider's view

Leonardo da Vinci was convinced that working in a small room helped him to concentrate his energies on the task at hand. The smaller the cubic capacity of the workplace, the less chance of ephemeral distraction, the purer the thought process. Hav ing inhabited (more than 11 years) an average of four different cells in 30 different prisons throughout the United Kingdom, I think that I can lay some claim to authority on the subject of the architecture of incarceration. I write this from a cell in B ristolprison.

I wonder, though, if there are linking strands that can be drawn across a canvas of an eclectic architectural hotchpotch that stretches from Peterhead Prison, perched high on precipitous cliffs on the north-east coast of Scotland, to dour, dank Dartmoor,immutably cold and grey, on the edge of our most fearsome national park.

Functionalism, of the most brutal kind, might be one. Sir Richard Rogers told me recently that when he designed his controversial Lloyd's building in the City of London, he deferred to the vast brick and cast iron atria prevalent in so many of our prisons. "Both Norman Foster and I," he said, whether with a note of irony or not, "are influenced by the functional aspects of penal architecture and use them in the hi-tech process."

This functionalism, harking back to Louis Sullivan's great architectural rule that form forever follows function, is the one element ubiquitous in shaping the core of more than 200 penal institutions in Britain today. From borstals to maximum security prisons, their form regularly ignores aesthetic consideration. So here, perhaps, we have a building type whose architects are required to design along truly functionalist lines: a Modern movement dream.

Actually, that is not quite true. If I survey the three principal and characteristic types of British jail - the Victorian radial prison, the "spurred" prison of the Sixties and the "open" or "dispersal" low-security prisons - I see that the more modern the prison, despite all the talk of making them more humane places, the more austere it will be.

The great Victorian prisons, built in some cases by prisoners themselves, are both the most daunting and, superficially, the most beautiful. The Victorians were adept at architectural onomatopoeia: their prisons looked authoritarian from without and within. Today, as prisoners pass through their ominous gatehouses (Wandsworth's is based loosely on Vanbrugh's great Northumbrian country house, Seaton Deleval), they are confronted with all manner of intimidating features and unexpected eccentricities, manynow listed as historical monuments. Prisoners are faced with Venetian campaniles, Gothic water towers, neo-Byzantine chapels, Roman amphitheatres, Classical rotundas, Soanian windows and eerie, barrel-vaulted underground cellars. Behave, beware and buckle under, says the architecture.

These sublime (or terrifying) aspects of the buildings are not reflected in the cells, which are brutally functional.

Radial prisons offer cellular accommodation of the most basic kind, arranged in rows rising one on top of the other, on wings of up to four storeys radiating like the spokes of a cartwheel from a vertiginous central rotunda. From here it is possible to observe every wing simply by turning a full circle. Wings and rotunda are lit by gargantuan, round-headed windows not dissimilar to those in Hawksmoor's baroque churches. Great shafts of yellow and white light penetrate thick, opaque glass. Yet for all this vastness, the cells are tiny. Each cell, home for three men for up to 23 hours a day, measures 8ft by 13ft by 9ft high. Roofs are shallow arches so that cells resemble gutted sections of railway carriages, although without the panoramic windows.

No building type can inspire such aesthetic highs or else destroy the soul so completely. I must mention here, though, the most splendid British prison of all, Lancaster. High above the city, the 11th-century castle forms part of a prison occupying the site of the old Roman Castrum. Built over Saxon foundations, financed by Roger de Poitou, damaged in the 14th century by Robert the Bruce and restored and strengthened by John of Gaunt, the square stone keep now houses the "association" (leisure) rooms ofthe prison.

I lived here in the shell of a round Norman tower, alongside the keep, sleeping in a trapezoidal cell, one of many arranged on four levels around its circumference. Access was gained by climbing a central spiral stair. From the cell windows, views over the battlements were spectacular.

No such views can be had from the "spurred" prisons of the Sixties, which followed on the heels of the Mountbatten Commission's review of the penal system. The abolition of the death penalty, together with a predilection on the part of judges to pass longer and longer sentences, created the need for many more prisons.

Invariably sited on barren plains in rural shires, these prisons manifest the most functional appearance. Their very blandness, however, helps to lull the minds of prisoners into a state of bored inertia. Wrapped in permanently water-stained concrete walls, they offer a useful stylistic comparison with contemporary buildings such as the Department of the Environment's headquarters in Westminster and any of the Brutalist local authority estates of the time. Identical in form and plan, each prison - from Long Lartin in the Vale of Evesham to Gartree in Leicestershire - is an archipelago of identical living blocks clustered around offices and communal "facilities". Uniform cells, arranged in groups of eight or 10 along spurs leading out of a central stairwell, are nothing more than tiny, perfectly cubic rooms (the spirit of Palladio and Inigo Jones?), 8ft by 8ft by 8ft. Like Leonardo, I did some of my best work in these single-prisoner cells, in this most dreary form of architecture.

About the same time that "spurred" prisons appeared, so did open prisons. These are rarely more than metamorphosed Army or Air Force camps - architecturally we are back in the Forties, with Nissen huts standing between trim lawns and fantastically coloured beds of summer flowers. Here the prisoner is lulled back to childhood in an architecture that speaks of summer camp, scouting and doing one's best.

So prison architecture can inspire aesthetically while being terrifying to live in and, with three prisoners to a cell, be a block to Leonardo-like creativity. Or else it can stultify the imagination visually, yet allow freedom of thought while locked incubic modern cells. Yet whatever type of cell and prison one is locked in, no one who has spent any serious length of time in prison would claim to be free from psychological pain.

The greatest advances in making prisons more humane, and not destroyers of those they seek to punish, have precious little to do with architectural design. They are the flush lavatory and the public telephone. Perhaps, perverse though it might be for an architectural historian with a passion for the baroque to say, any prisoner would trade in a high baroque window in a listed Victorian prison for such simple and functional innovations.

Peter Wayne is an architectural historian. He is currently detained at Her Majesty's pleasure at Brixton. This article is adapted from an essay that appears in the `Architecture of Incarceration', edited by Iona Spens, Academy Editions.

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week