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Posted 03 Sep 2015

Joost Meuwissen, ‘1980. Self-Portrait of a Society. Panopticon Prison Arnhem’. Translated from the Dutch by Maria van Tol, Oase. Journal for Architecture, #94. OMA. The First Decade (Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2015), 14-19.

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Self-Portrait of a Society. Panopticon Prison Arnhem.

Joost Meuwissen

‘But few parts of society render the self-portrait the prison system does,’ said Rem Koolhaas in 1980 with reference to the panoptic prison in Arnhem.[1]. Due to the rather limp metaphor, one would like to doubt that. But the design notes about the renovation of the panopticon prison make that impossible. Any doubts are put forward and removed. In this respect, the report to the commissioning authority, the Dutch Government Building Department RGD, is so hermetic and therefore apodictic that it is hardly open to discussion. Therefore, no discussion was forthcoming. Arnhem would become one of OMA's best-known but least discussed designs. In 1986, Koos Bosma published a favourable review in De Architect, but that was about it.[2] The design is definitely explained by the original and unmodified report to the client dated March 1980. This is also the case in the 1995 publication S, M, L, XL.[3]
According to Koolhaas, the design had been good for ‘two years of heated discussion’. These must have been held behind closed doors at the RGD. Supposedly, the architecture of OMA was eventually accepted as a solution to the ‘dilemma of the other disciplines’. This apparently proved ‘the discredited claim for architecture's ability to intervene directly in the formation of culture and to resolve, through its crystallization,

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hopelessly contradictory demands’. Koolhaas thus emphatically points out the potential of architecture to achieve things that other specialist disciplines cannot. Arnhem was OMA's first commission in the Netherlands, a study assignment ‘as an informal consolation prize’ after losing the competition for the parliament buildings in The Hague. That the Arnhem commission was not carried out, either, had other reasons: ‘Money ran out.’ We do not know that this was true. In the Netherlands, the money is always running out. It may well be that ‘the other specialist disciplines’ preferred to keep on cherishing their dilemma as a kind of reason for existence, or as a degree of organisation they had gotten used to.
Reading the report for the RGD, one only catches a glimpse of the 
‘heated discussions’ about structure and concept. The administrative supervisor, for instance, entertained ‘strong suspicions of architecture, especially concerning the built-in arrogance of a discipline that would have formal considerations and an inveterate "middle-class" mentality prevail over the well-being - both material and psychological - of the detainee.[4]. Accordingly, the ‘well-being’ of the detainee (Koolhaas called both the prisoners and the guards ‘residents) is of primary importance to the design. All of the programme items that do not address this well-being, such as the circumvallation of the grounds, are excluded or neutralised as much as possible in the design and actually designed ex negativo. Thus, form and programme purposely do no coincide, also to ensure that the form will not stand in the way of any later programme changes. This is why there are residual spaces that can be used at will. Architecture must not want to take everything into account. Horrified, Koolhaas quotes ‘the conviction of a prison governor that a prison should be so designed that the detainee will be able to escape if he tries really hard. For without this theoretical possibility, the detainee has only two chances to escape: committing suicide or taking a guard hostage.’ Thinking of escaping from a prison is petty bourgeois. A prison should be as normal as possible, to the point that only the confinement itself separates the building and the established regime from society:

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‘Now that "retaliation" and "re-education" have successively been dropped as pro confinement arguments, [the attending supervisor] emphasized the importance of realizing a condition of "normality" inside the prison [...] meaning that, apart from the inevitable detention, the conditions inside the prison must differ as little as possible from those on the outside.

That perspective warrants particular architectural attention to the circumvallation of the grounds. It becomes a presence that has to be neutralised by means of a normalising design. Koolhaas considers this a difficult issue: 
‘Is the "normality" actually positive for the prisoner, or is it meant to make mankind outside the walls forget the embarassing fact of the continuing existence of the prison?’ That is the kind of forgetting this is about: before solitary confinement existed, and therefore before the end of the eighteenth century, criminals were thrown into the dungeons and indeed surrendered to oblivion.
Before this new 
‘self-portrait of a society’, the original pales. On the one hand, this complication makes the OMA-design almost as simple as a diagram. It is just about the wall. It must be possible to architecturally negate it. This is the conceptual side of the design. On the other hand, in order to achieve this, the design becomes quite differentiated. In the notes, Koolhaas emphasises that differentiatedness, from the main difference between between inside the old prison building and outside in the prison grounds (he calls this a ‘polarity house/outside world), to the fact that the new development in the ground is not a ‘homogeneous layer’: ‘Where possible and desirable, facades and functions have been exposed providing the complex with the character of an agglomeration of separate buildings,’ and in addition, that characterisation varies by quarter of the compass. Due to this Byzantine differentiation, all the different functions, without any hierarchical context, can only be perceived as ‘outside’. Yet this ‘outside’ is no longer outside the walls. ‘Outside’ is in the prison grounds inside the walls around the actual prison building. What is special about Koolhaas's methods is in this case that the meaning of ‘outside’ has come to include the natural outside, as a truly very complicated form of giving prisoners an airing in a courtyard.
In the OMA-design, the outside as opposed to inside the prison building is in the courtyard. Koolhaas subsequently calls the latter 
‘the outside world’. The question is, how. It is not a metaphor, since architecturally speaking, the prison grounds are actually in the open air. Both forms of outside - the outside area inside the walls and the outside world outside the walls - are differentiated in a brilliant manner that can be traced back to Schinkel's 1825 Altes Museum in Berlin. The residents always have two yonders at their disposal: the one they see from the inside, out of the corner of their eye; the other looking, not quite impertinently, from the outside in. ‘Not quite’ is the key here. Architecture is always ‘not quite’. According

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to Schinkel and Koolhaas, this inside is the same kind of yonder as the outside. That is a classicistic neutralisation. The symbolic shape used to bring this about is the 
‘floor’. A layering of floors or, as in Arnhem, the excavation of an additional floor not only creates different outsides per floor, but also ensures that one floor is always outside another. This is the skyscraper formula Koolhaas applies in his 1978 publication Delirious New York.[5]
The prison in Arnhem is such a skyscraper. Had the programme been uncomplicated, the design could have brought about the paradigm shift in architecture that was established a few years later by the ‘horizontal skyscraper’ for Parc de la Villette in Paris. A programme of requirements is always too much for the available space - leave the space out, as a category, and the programme can be realised. If the limited space is forced to become the programme, there is no longer any problem or any shortage. The symbolic shape of the skyscraper, like a stack of floors that have nothing to do with each other, results in an excess of space. Due to the more or less hidden lift connection - the ‘crossroads’ of vertical access, designed as little as possible, the ‘way out’ in the middle of the prison building in the design for Arnhem - it does not matter what floor you are going to. In addition, a floor surface, in principle, does not coincide with the activities that are performed on it. The surface is not determined on the basis of a programme. It is always too big or too small, yet available nonetheless. The prison wall becomes as superfluous as an exterior facade.
With a new, other, lower-lying floor, the 
‘dismal’ view of the fence from the ground floor is replaced by a sideways glance from below, which integrates the wall with the trees outside the grounds. ‘In general,’ Koolhaas says, ‘lowering a walled terrain increases the view of the outside world, for instances of treetops.’ The design method used here is unusually integrative. No distinction is made between the wall and treetops. They are two floors. However the trees must, thus, be visible. They do not command a view of an indeterminate yonder, but they actually become other ‘skyscrapers’ that, like the buildings on the drawing of Madelon Vriesendorp on the original cover of Delirious New York, look inside. Or perhaps do not look inside, yet look nonetheless, so look inside with the curtains open.


[1]  Rem Koolhaas, ‘Een ont­werp voor de gevangenis te Arnhem’, Lessen in architectuur – 2. Tweede leergang Lessen in Archi­tectuur, gehouden op 8 en 9 oktober 1980 in de Aula van de Technische Hogeschool te Delft. Edited by Joost Meuwissen (Delft: Stichting Postdoktoraal Onderwijs in het bouwen, [1981]), 92-105.

[2]  Koos Bosma, ‘Van individuele dressuur naar collectief tijdverdrijf: renovatie van de Koepel in Arnhem’, De Architect, Volume 17 - Number 5 - May, 1986 (The Hague: Ten Hagen bv[, 1986]), 85-90.

[3]  Rem Koolhaas, ‘Revision. Study for the Renovation of a Panopticon Prison. Arnhem, Netherlands 1979-81’, Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large. Edited by Jennifer Sigler. Photography by Hans Werlemann (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers-New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995), 235-253.

[4]  [Rem Koolhaas,] ´Studie om in hoofdlijnen na te gaan of het bestaande Huis van Bewaring De Koepel te Arnhem bruikbaar kan worden gemaakt voor een tijdsduur van circa 50 jaar, rekening houdend met huidige inzichten betreffen­de de huisvesting van gedetineerden´. Verricht voor de Rijks­gebouwendienst, Den Haag, door Rem Koolhaas, Architect. Londen. Maart 1980 (Rotterdam: The OMA Archive Collection).

[5]  Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York. A Retroactive Mani­festo for Manhattan (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 127-133.


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