by Tom Vanderbilt

In San Rafael, California, the 'criminal underground' took on new meaning when officials unveiled a new county jail adjacent—but sixty feet below—the Marin County Civic Center. The radical design, featuring glass ceilings that permit daylight to penetrate the subterranean depths (and deliver prisoners their right to discern between night and day as dictated by California law), was allegedly a compromise to placate preservationists. They worried that the 362-prisoner facility would tarnish the Civic Center—Frank Lloyd Wright's last major project, underway when the architect died in 1959. What makes this two-year-old fin de siecle correctional facility truly striking is that it unintentionally pays homage to Rome's Mamertine Prison, a facility built in 640 B.C. as a "vast system of dungeons" under the Cloaca Maxima, the city's main sewer.

Marin County aside, most contemporary prisons vary wildly from their historical precedents, looking more like the banal institutional structures we've come to associate with postwar college campuses. Indeed, in considering how prison design has changed to look less like a "prison" it may be as important to note how other architecture has changed to look more like prisons; in City of Quartz, (Verso, 1990) critic Mike Davis describes the unprecedented pattern of melding architecture and police functions into a comprehensive security effort in cities like Los Angeles. It seems that the lessons of Oscar Newman's Defensible Space (Macmillan, 1972), a best-selling guide to crime prevention through urban design, were well-heeded by architects and urban planners. Security has come to define many aspects of the built environment, from the razor wire atop apartment buildings to the self-contained postmodern office complexes to the "panopticon observatory" found in many city shopping malls.

Ah, the panopticon...the seminal idea in Western prison design, dreamed up by 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham—he called it his "simple idea in architecture." Inspired by his visit in 1787 to the Russian textile mill run by his brother Samuel, the panopticon was simple: a peripheral series of cells surrounding a single observation tower. Each cell would have a window front and back, allowing the cell activity to be lit from behind, while simultaneously obscuring the tower's windows, making the act of vigilance invisible. The effect, Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (Pantheon, 1978), was "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power." Thus while the watcher couldn't possibly view the entire prison at once, the mystery of his watching meant prisoners would put the burden of watching upon themselves (an idea that has worked better in theory than in practice). The panopticon marked the move away from the carnivalesque public floggings and executions into what one 19th-century writer called "complete and austere institutions," structures whose walls marked the very horizons of their inhabitants and concealed the machinery of a larger system of justice.

That completeness has always been an underlying theme of prison design, for no other public building needs to be designed with such an eye towards its inhabitant's total life. Everything from eating to sleeping to working to exercise needs to be accounted for under one roof; despite the homogenizing effect of state building requirements and security functions, it becomes by necessity an intensely personal architecture. "I am sure that it was constructed for me," wrote Jean Genet in A Thief's Journal. "The machinery, the materials, the proportions and the architecture are in harmony with a moral unity which makes these dwellings indestructible so long as the social form of which they are a symbol endures."