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

Peter Wayne
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:29

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.

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