Building Bentham’s Panoption – A Simple Idea in Architecture

For our first project Virtual Architectures will be working to realise Jeremy Bentham’s design for the perfect prison, the Panopticon, in virtual reality. Jeremy Bentham was an British philosopher and jurist from the 18th century who is best know for his contribution to ethics in the founding of modern Utilitarianism. In formulating his plan for the Panopticon he described it as follows:

Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!

Bentham originally commissioned the British architect Will Reveley to draw up the plans:

The Panopticon

[Image – Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon drawn by Willey Reveley in 1791 via Wikipedia]

As you can see from Reveley’s rendering, the interior of the Panopticon was to have a circular plan with un-obscured cells arranged around the edge. This was intended to provide the prison inspector lodged in the center of the building with a panoramic view of all the prisoners. This feature would be combined with a design solution for the lodge that would prevent the inspector being seen by the prisoners so they would never know which of them was being looked at by the inspector at any given moment. This uncertainty on the part of the prisoners was expected to promote a sense of total surveillance which would have a psychological affect on each prisoner by having them internalise the function of surveillance. Not knowing they were being watched they’d have to assume they were watched at all times.

For Bentham this ‘simple idea in architecture’ was intended to provide a model for the construction of any building in which large number of people could be effectively and economically supervised by relatively few: not only prisons but also factories, hospitals and schools. Today the Panopticon has become a metaphor for total surveillance in which it is the public who assume the burden of their own control.

In the coming months Virtual Architectures will be researching Bentham’s writings on the Panopticon in order to construct his design in Virtual Reality with the intention that it be publicly exhibited so each of you can make up your own minds.

Please follow Virtual Architectures for further details.

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