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Editor: Stephen Clowney
Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday's Architecture Moment: Beautiful Prisons

PrisonBars

I’ve been loosely following the commentary on the recent prison litigation case out of the Supreme Court.  To recap, in Brown v. Plata, the Court ruled that California’s prisons are so overcrowded that they violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  What’s really eye-catching is that Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, attached three black-and-white photographs of the prisons to the opinion. The pictures are pretty horrible and remind you that jails are terribly dehumanizing places.

This is all a rather long way of saying that I started wondering if there were any really beautiful prisons out there.  Can our sites of incarceration inspire as well as punish?  Here’s a completely unscientific list of what I think are the ten most beautiful prisons in the world:

10.  Yancheng Prison (Jiangsu Province, China):  Allegedly, Yancheng Prison is modeled on the U.S. White House. It boasts an Olympics-sized running track, a conference centre, luxury offices, and potted plants by every cell door.  According to the internet, this is where China sends Communist Party officials accused of abuse of power or corruption.

9.  The Montgomery Burns State Prison (Springfield):  The town of Springfield commissioned a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, which went bankrupt overnight. The town then converted the structure into a high security prison.

8.  Eddyville Prison, (Eddyville, Kentucky):  Locals refer to it as the Castle on the Hill.  This book on Amazon concurs!

7.  Kakola Prison (Turku, Finland):  During the 50s and 60s, the prison at Turku was famous for its toy factory.

6.  Central Prison, (Raleigh, NC):  I’m not sure this photo is completely representative, but it reminds me of the famous brutalist architecture in New Haven.

5.  Halden Prison (Norway):  Time magazine describes this as the world’s most humane prison.

4.  East Jutland State Prison (Horsens, Denmark):  Each building surrounds a natural dip in the ground, and has a view of the inner courtyards and gardens of the prison. There are also many views of the surrounding agricultural landscape.

3.  Philadelphia Eastern Penitentiary (Philadelphia, PA):  I half expect a knight in shining armor to appear on the turrets.

2.  Leoben Prison (Leoben, Austria):  The New York Times called this “a striking building,” “sleek structure made of glass, wood and concrete, stately but agile, sure in its rhythms and proportions.”

1.  Allegheny County Jail (Pittsburgh, PA):  Designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful buildings in the United States.  The design is considered quite innovative in that it’s built around an interior courtyard. This feature allows natural light and fresh air to reach most corners of the building. As was common with Richardson’s other buildings, the roof is steep and has dormers placed at all the corners.  Also worth noting, The prison is connected to the courthouse by the “Bridge of Sighs.” The design was based on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

Steve Clowney

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