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Prisons in the Renaissance & Revolutionary Era – Designs by Filarete, Ledoux and Piranese

prison architecture


Prison Architecture

“Prison design is restricted to planning of cell blocks, facilities and fences where they are hardly encouraged to think outside two dimensions. Understanding architecture, is important to understand prisons.”

Cover Image: Palace of Justice in Aix-en Provence, France  (Source: Wikipedia)

Founder’s Remarks

by Susmita

You may be a fan of Prison Break, or may have heard of the popular game Prison Architect – a ‘private prison’ construction and management simulation video game by Introversion Software. And in the recent months, photos of high-end, near-luxury prisons in Austria and northern Europe keep doing the rounds. But like most Shawshank Redemption fans would concur, in the realm of existing reality, these prisons may be an exception.

austria prison founder's note.jpg
Courtyard of a prison in Leoben, Austria (Source: NY Times)

In this post, Shreya presents her analysis on some seminal ideas that emerged from the Renaissance era that talk about the character and quality of prisons as a space. Spaces which affect the mindset of the inmates. I’ve been a fan of environmental psychology for a long time. And i’ve been a bigger fan of “good” prison design after stumbling upon a certain book called “Architecture of Incarceration” in the college library. Personally, i believe design, which includes prison design, can shape the environment in a way which inspires inmates to transform into happier, more socially acceptable beings – free of guilt to restart their lives. And why single out the prisoners… the cell environment equally affects the guard and other staff who work there.

Quoting from this NYTimes article:

There’s something about prisons that engages man’s imagination. Alberti discussed them, Piranesi drew them, Jeremy Bentham proposed them. But the imagination of incarceration rarely translates directly into design.

Now it’s our turn to learn how the Classical Masters did it in the old times when tools like Auto CAD and BIM did not exist! And how they defined the “character” of the prisons as per the prevailing ethos of the times (could be markedly different from the rtionale behind some ‘modern’ prisons). Shreya has done a cool job of documenting and analyzing it. A more ‘technical’ version would appear as a research paper soon.

The Need for Prison Architecture

As per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly three-fourths of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states (in the US) were arrested for a new crime within five years of release from prison. This system obviously, is not functioning the way it should. Among a lot of parameters like Prison administration, prisoners’ psychology, the laws, etc, a very important factor is the character of the space i.e. the prison building they are living in.

Prison design is one of the most complex design processes due to its role in the functioning of the society over years of civilization. Understanding architecture, is important to understand prisons. Even if we forget the hierarchical order among function and form, neither of them can be ignored for a successful prison. Functionally, it must serve its purpose. Physically, it must speak its function.

Due to this reason, prisons have been a subject of interest to architects as a long tradition. Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance’s most celebrated art theorist, wrote a treatise on prison design while the engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranesi designed the concept of carceri d’invenzione (imaginary prisons). However, it is said, that we have the best theories of the world on prisons, but the worst constructed and worst regulated of any. It would not be wrong to say that prison design, in recent times, is restricted to planning of cell blocks, facilities and fences where they are hardly encouraged to think outside two dimensions.

Thus, we can look into the past to some famous prison designs, resulting in revival of useful design features forgotten over time. A comparative analysis of chosen design ideas of real and imaginary prisons from past treatises will give us a deeper special understanding based on their character. This would lead to three dimensional holistic designs that can control the inmates mentally and physically in a fruitful manner.

Particularly, i have analyzed 3 prison design ideas of renowned theorists of the Renaissance.

The Meaning of “Character” in Architectural Design

We first need to set the right parameters for any analysis. As Samir Younès states “Type, Character and Style could bear an analogical correspondence to universal grammar.”  Among the above three, in context of prison design, knowing a character of a space seemed important and legit.

According to Quatremere De Quincy, the word ‘character’ has three principles and different expressions, which i discuss here:

  1. One uses the word ‘character’ in praising a work of art. For example when one says that this work has character. So it is understandable by this expression that this work is endowed with qualities equivalent to strength, might, size and moral loftiness.
  2. Another use of the word character is an expression similar to the first, but implies a distinctive mark or originality.
  3. The third expression for the use of the word character, seems to indicate the ability that a work has. To convey to us its particular nature, and its purpose.

Samir Younés states in his book that Character comes from the Greek word ‘characteer’, which means a mark, a particular object’s distinctive sign.

What is the character of a prison that makes a prison, a prison?

Chronologically, extracts on prison have been identified from some of the treatises. For example, Filarete thoroughly describes a prison in measuring units of ‘braccia’. Boullee talks about expressive or speaking architecture that developed a predilection for commissions that were compatible with architecture parlance. He worked on the alteration of the prison of La Petite- Force. Lequeu’s Ecclesiastical Prison is of utmost sobriety and suggests an opposite message compared to Boullee’s to design space. Palladio, while talking about characters of spaces says, “prisons were characterized at that time by the darkness of the rooms, passages and stairs”.

Hence, finding multiple reads of prisons from various treatises would help us characterize and understand what Prison is and how it should be.

Three Prison Designs I decided to Study

Alberti mentions three kinds of Prisons: one for orderly persons, a second for debtors, and a third for criminals. Of these last there were two kinds – one is subterranean, like that presumed to be where Socrates was confined, near the Areopagus, Athens. And the other one like the Ear of Dionysius, at Syracuse.

Prison architecture sicily ear of dionysius
“Ear of Dionysius” – a Prison with exceptional acoustics. The term also refers to surveillance for political gains

“Ear of Dionysius” – a Prison with exceptional acoustics. The term also refers to surveillance for political gains (Image Source:

The Romans called them Ergastula, where they confined slaves in fetters, who were brought out to works. They had half of the head shorn, and the face marked, and were put to work in cutting stones. A collection of souterreins, only lighted by a narrow window, that the prisoners might not escape, at St. Columbe, in France, Charior ascribes to this use. Alberti adds a very strong wall, apertures, and vault.

Among such prison designs, three renaissance architects and one each of their prison designs have been analyzed here.

The Three Architects and their Prisons

1. Designs by Filarete (Renaissance Architect from Florence)

In Book 10 of his treatises of Architecture, Filarete talks about prison design in great depth.  He broadly categorizes two kinds of prisons, small and large.

A small prison had a vaulted roof along with a torture chamber. While the bigger prison was square in shape surrounded by thick double walls with water or moat in between the walls. The doors were at one corner of one of these walls and opened in the inside court through narrow, low-height doors. The court had natural lighting from barred windows.

Cells were designed according to the seriousness of crime. For murderers, thieves and traitors, the prison cells had vaulted roof and were comparatively darker. The vaults were as high as they were wide. The window slits were designed high up the wall so that no one could reach them. The doors in these were low, narrow and unpleasant. Between the prison wall and the exterior wall, where water is, above the water the wall is an iron grating running all around building.

2. Ledoux and Aix-en-Provence, France

prison architecture
Plan and Perspective of the Prison design at Aix-en-Provence by Ledoux (Image Source-

Claude- Nicholas Ledoux, in his treatises published in 1804, proposed a prison design for the city of Aix in France. Designed in 1776 to prison Aix-en-Provence, the draft Ledoux illustrates this tradition of “prison-talking” that evokes both a tomb and fortress.

  Architecture Parlante or Speaking Architecture

Ledoux coined the phraseArchitectureParlante’ which meant any architecture should explain its own function or identity. This concept was extended to other ‘Revolutionary’ era architects like Boullee and Lequeu. Ledoux practiced speaking architecture throughout his career. The plan of the Prisons of the city of Aix comprised of a square with four inner courts. Applying ‘speaking architecture’, Ledoux dramatized the structure with various contrasts. The building projects tension on the surface and antagonism in the masses. Emil Kaufmann in his book ‘Three Revolutionary Architects, Boulle, Ledoux and Lequeu’writes,

“The overwhelming grandeur of this design discloses the character of its creator; the dramatic quality reflects the spirit of the period.”

3. Giovanni Battista Piranesi and his Imaginary Prisons

The Prisons, is a series of 16 prints produced in first and second states that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and mighty machines. The series was started in 1745. The painting seemed to display fantastic labyrinthine structures, epic in volume. Their monumental size, elaborate design and surrealism were very different from the shabby dungeons that were the actual prisons of the time.

However, they are more like nightmares than dreams. Characteristically, they represent the negation of time and incoherence of space.

Piranesi revolutionized the stylistic canons for the representation of prisons- an iron cage or a cell surrounded by massive bars and expressed the feeling of seeing life as an unstoppable, eternal return of pain and evil.

Section through Boullee’s Cenotafia de Newton (Image (Source- Numero Cinq)

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s plan for the memorial to Newton has a striking pictorialism inspired in part by the Prison Caprices of Piranesi. His plans were grand and the structure is symbolic and expressive of its purpose in the most pictorial way. It was his genius to say that institutional buildings should have a presence in the city. Many prisons now use smaller cell blocks where guards have more direct contact with inmates.Among other problems, one of the main difficulties in today’s prison designs is the restriction in movement of prisoners inside prison.

The Round Tower sketch from the Imaginary Prison Drawings by Piranesi (ISource – Pinterest)

Prison Architecture: Comparing the 3 Prison Designs

We can now draw a comparison among the three prison designs and their defining characteristics:

Filarete’s Prison:

  • Plan – central square for less dangerous criminals; four smaller corner square units for more dangerous criminals
  • Distinctive feature – double wall filled with water. Unpleasant, low and narrow doors
  • Volume – High walls and vaulted roofs. Window slits were high up.

Aix en Provence by Ledoux:

  • Plan – closed, dark and plan-less spaces
  • Distinctive feature – heavy towers on the corners; intersecting dramatic masses
  • Volume – barrels vaults over huge cubes

Piranese and his Imaginary Prisons:

  • Plan – a square with four inner courts (as seen in image)
  • Distinctive feature – stylistic canons that represented prisons
  • Volume – monumental masses which made inmates feel smaller

Summarizing the 3 types of Prison Architecture

Filarete’s prisons favored naturally lit, open spaces for less dangerous prisoners, while darker, smaller spaces for more dangerous ones. Ledoux, in his designs of Aix-en Provence, was all for openness in the middle areas with darker cells in the corners. Piranesi on the other hand advocated darker, empty spaces for alienation.

The underlying psychological feature in all the 3 designs lingers more towards the negative aspects: unwelcome, heavy and inducing a feeling of being lost. The massing of the form also expresses the severity of the crime and the punishment. The internal and external volumes tend to evoke a feeling of submissiveness and discouragement.

Incarceration in broad terms did not aim to be a very pleasant experience in the Renaissance and Revolutionary periods. And the design vocabulary worked to have a similar effect on those confined.

The urban/rural context of the facility, the budgets, the mindsets and the unique requirements are also a huge deciding factor in the kind of prisons that would come up. Prison Architecture would evolve with changing times!

What do You Think about Prison Architectrue? Share with us in the Comments!

What are your thoughts on the prison design of the yester-years, vis a vis those of today? What other major prison designs from the Renaissance & Revolutionary era could we include in the study?

Does it help to make imprisonment a more positive experience? Or should the inmates (and jail staff) be subject to a darker, gloomier, heavier atmosphere?


To connect with the author, see Shreya’s LinkedIn profile

You can also find Shreya on Instagram

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