To find the future, listen for acronyms. Abbreviations are economic bellwethers, and where there is spending, proper names often disappear. Over the last 25 years, the California Department of Corrections has quietly redesignated all 33 of its state prisons. At a stroke, the storied bastions of San Quentin, Folsom and Pelican Bay became SQ, FOL and PBSP, mere nodes in a vast punitive archipelago controlled by even more obscure abbreviations: AD-SEG, SHU, LWOP, 270s, J-CAT. 1 In those same years, major museums trademarked cute, populist contractions of their names as brand logos. The art world now features a proliferation of MoMAs and MOCAs, Dias and MAKs, ICAs and CACs.
The parallel is no coincidence. Prisons and museums — two massive expansions in the built environment — led the last great wave of American urban renewal. Before the current wave of housing, sports, education and transit projects, civic space in the United States was cordoned into zones of cultural and societal transgression. After two centuries of incremental growth, the number of correctional facilities and museums in the United States tripled, from roughly 600 prisons and 6,000 museums in 1975 to more than 1,800 prisons and 18,000 museums by 2005. 2
As we consider these institutional architectures in tandem, keep three themes in mind: transgression, vision and time. Any groundbreaking structure will index a shift in one of these coordinates, and likely in all three. Take, as benchmark examples, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791) and the first Guggenheim, by Frank Lloyd Wright (1959): each offers to recodify its holdings according to new standards of behavior and quality; each establishes unprecedented interior sightlines to monitor those perimeter changes; and neither abides by the sequential logic and predictable pacing of linear, neo-Classical institutions.
In the last half century, advancements in museum and prison design have altered our perceptions of transgression, vision and time, and how architecture can shape those perceptions. We parse both creative and criminal behavior with ever more exacting judgment. We are able to see more ubiquitously and in greater detail, even as we confront new modes of digital surveillance, new standards of evidence (e.g. infrared spectroscopy and DNA testing), and new awareness of the cruelty of keepers. And our notions of time have been stretched in multiple dimensions. Works of art can be one-second video loops or performances of boundless duration; punishment is meted out in exactly fixed, “mandatory” increments, or with no temporal certainty whatsoever, as is the case for international captives denied legal recourse.
A survey of museum and prison design since the Guggenheim reveals two major waves of institutional formation, each followed by a period of reassessment and recalibration. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the architectures of Minimalism and then post-Minimalism allowed designers to isolate these three themes as exactingly as they did bodies and objects, and experiment with their prioritization. In the ’90s and aughts, the ambiguous architectures and indeterminate environments of Millennial and post-Millennial institutions scrambled those variables, with the result that any sense of transgression, vision or time in contemporary holding spaces requires a constant triangulation with the other two.
Corrections & Collections maps the sequence of these shifts and the evolution of their corollary architectures. Here I offer snapshots of each spatial logic and the people that imagined and promulgated them.
Prison and museum design converged unexpectedly in Minimalism, as the disciplinary ideals of asceticism — removal, deprivation and repetition — became central to art production and exhibition. Strategies of simplification and abstraction, which had long typified prison architecture, came to dominate museum design in the post-WWII period. Louis Kahn’s three major museums are exemplars, with each introducing a distinct aspect of penitential aesthetics into buildings for art.
Kahn’s minimalism was unremitting in its logic and in its limitations. His Yale University Art Gallery (1953) meets the street in a sheer wall of brick fascia unmodified save for concrete ledge-bands at each of its floor levels. Rather than puncture this facade with a grand frontal entrance, Kahn recessed the last section of wall into the mass of the building, and tucked the front door into the gap. Inside, the planar emphasis moves from the vertical to the horizontal, with each floor slab hovering over the next in a pyramidal waffle of reinforced concrete, explaining the striations of the exterior wall. 3 Kahn’s second New Haven project, the Yale Center for British Art (1974), broadened the scope of university art museums considerably: it holds a library, lecture hall, seminar and restoration rooms, and roughly 30,000 square feet of transcendent gallery space, in a single, immaculately calibrated concrete space-frame. Kahn’s last building and his most revolutionary in terms of its urbanism, the BAC was the first museum to integrate a full block of storefronts for rent at street level. 4
The YUAG and the BAC chart an inverse relationship between the quality of art to be displayed and the quality — or at least the cost — of the architecture built to showcase that art. The much smaller YUAG holds an indisputable array of modern and premodern masterpieces, while the BAC is a more ambitious building for more specialized genre works. Built on a shoestring, the YUAG just barely met the needs of the university and the curatorial standards of the work. By the time the BAC was envisioned, the art was understood to be a pretext for ambitious architecture and urban investment.
If the Yale Art Gallery and the Center for British Art rely on the blank plane and neutral frame for their power, respectively, Kahn’s Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, (1972) is a celebration of the extruded, repetitive bay. A more primitive building in many respects than either of his New Haven museums, the Kimbell was nonetheless far more broadly and immediately influential. By distilling the gallery space to a single, sky-lit, human-scale extrusion, the Kimbell offered something neither of the Yale museums did: a serial logic for expansion. Although Donald Judd saw the Kimbell in Greek terms — it is beautifully sited and composed — it was its Roman pragmatism that made it a systemic model for so many museums so quickly. For many art collectors, the Kimbell’s synthesis of classical forms and modern finishes made it possible to imagine dignified, privatized monuments for contemporary art.
Kahn’s museums built on a far longer history of reductionist design in American prisons, extending back past the Quakers to Thomas Jefferson’s fascination with both solitary confinement and the stripped, monolithic forms of French Enlightenment architecture. With a shared and newly simplified architectural vocabulary, institutions of constraint and display multiplied quickly after the 1970s. (The Rockefeller brothers played a surprising role in these twin expansions, initiating both the Rockefeller Drug Laws and policies for tax-exempt cultural philanthropy.) Many economies of scale resulted from the repetition of spaces and structural elements in a single building, and these standardized forms could be replicated in a variety of settings.
Post-Minimalist strategies of the 1970s and ’80s shifted the nature and rationale of incarceration and exhibition. In contrast to the repetitive linearity of Minimalist institutions, post-Minimalist prisons and museums revisit the logic of the Panopticon and the Guggenheim, consolidating the tasks of surveillance and exhibition in single, concentric volumes. These reassessments led to an array of podular prisons and “centers” for contemporary art that ask to be read as templates for personal and collective transformation rather than mere institutions of containment.
In the late 1970s, Contra Costa County in California pioneered Podular Direct Supervision, perhaps the single most important penal design milestone in 50 years. At the Martinez Detention Facility, completed in 1981 by KMD Architects, all surfaces are carpeted or brightly painted, and common areas resemble living rooms, with TVs and ping-pong tables. Inmates and guards — now “clients” and officers — mill freely in the common space, diffusing tensions. Each pod of 20 to 60 charges is isolated from the larger facility, so that specific demographic, disciplinary and medical classifications can be held and treated separately.
Though Direct Supervision was considered a liberal breakthrough, podular design was later adapted for a range of prison conditions, including the most brutal. Indirect Supervision at Pelican Bay State Prison (1989) is organized podularly, with some 20 cells forming a cruciform “Secure Housing Unit” monitored by video feed. In this modern-day dungeon, inmates are confined to bare, constantly lit cells, appointed with only a combo sink/toilet and concrete sleeping platform. There they remain for 23 hours a day; any outside movement is brief, shackled and court-ordered.
The evolution of museums since the Guggenheim is by no means as uniform as the refinement of podular prisons. However, the diversity of new museums and the “envelope-testing” that marks each opening — bigger, higher, simpler, stranger — point to a similar liberation from a single ideal notion of architecture for art. Contemporary museums illustrate the tautology that, without shared aims in terms of human improvement, the mission of museums “to edify” is often reduced to the construction of an unlikely edifice. The densest period of museum construction in history, 1985 to 2005, is rife with proposals that almost gratuitously test the limits of museological space, in readymade conversions of existing structures as well as bespoke signature buildings — beginning with the challenges of Frank Gehry’s Temporary Contemporary (1984, now Geffen Contemporary) and Peter Eisenman’s signature Wexner Center (1987), through the merengue-like gyrations of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao (1997), and concluding with the Herculean extremes of Robert Irwin and OpenOffice’s Dia:Beacon (2003), which converted a vast Nabisco box-printing plant, and Santiago Calatrava’s expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum (2001), which redirects a river in its sculptural excess.
The fact that none of these buildings precisely resembles the first Guggenheim does not detract from its role in making all of them possible as museums. The Guggenheim’s spiraling void opened the field to almost any open-span geometry as a home for art, and its counterintuitive silhouette, which underscores how the architecture defies the art within, made any structure — old or new, grand or minute, ruled or free-form — a viable candidate for future aesthetic encounters. After Wright’s coil, we know to watch one another, and the museum, as closely as we do the art.
Two larger-than-life figures emerged in the 1980s to recast the basic mathematics of incarceration and exhibition. Don Novey and Thomas Krens began their lives on opposite coasts, with radically different apprenticeships: Novey in the guards’ ranks at Folsom Prison and Krens in the curatorial art history program at Williams College. At first glance, Novey’s sharp-elbowed, navy-blue-collar rise to lead the California prison guards union bears little resemblance to Krens’s well-calibrated arc from Williams, to Yale’s School of Management, then on to lead the Guggenheim. But they relied on the same principles as they revitalized their fields: define new constituencies and secure new patrons; leverage, expand and update existing collections; fill old buildings and insist on new ones to hold the latest acquisitions as well as archived treasures. In short, fight for more walls than you need, fight for more “content” than you can hold, and use success on either front to demand more of the other. Over Novey’s two decades as president, from 1982 to 2002, the guards’ union became the most potent force in California state politics, rebalancing the state budget away from higher education and toward prisons. Krens led the Guggenheim through its most expansionist period, from 1988 until 2008, when he relinquished his general directorship to oversee the completion of the largest of his satellite projects, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Prisons and museums are now franchised according to tested prototypes, conceived as iterations in a larger skein of strategic planning. Krens and Novey pioneered new management regimes of constant expansion, pooling old and new institutions, as well as readymade and signature buildings, under the yoke of a single brand. Twenty of California’s 33 state prisons opened during Novey’s presidency, and they run to a total of 15,872 acres — 24.8 square miles — of new penal real estate, larger than the land area of Manhattan. Almost any one of California’s new prison campuses could encapsulate all of the Guggenheim museums, built and unbuilt, before and after Thomas Krens.
The close of the 20th century brought with it a sensibility that is still being realized at an architectural scale. As a society, we took the moment very seriously, by enshrining, commemorating and edifying as many historical high and low marks of the last hundred years, if not the last thousand, as quickly, grandly and “experientially” as possible. We also locked up an astounding number of people who arrived too early and too rowdy for the party.
Many new prisons and museums sought to diffuse their own presence, even as they continued to exert control over urban situations and historical events. Authorless but gargantuan metropolitan jails were disguised as office towers or power stations. The reigning logic was diplomacy through design, which informed cross-border museum commissions to “global” architects, as well as the banal facades of tower jails that appeased squeamish urban neighbors. Before 1980, few observers could have imagined that prisons would assume the guise of corporate towers, or that museums would fill the husks of so many abandoned factories. Yet both have come to pass, repeatedly, and possibly to the salvation of most major American cities. It an industrial-strength shell game of urban resource allocation and civic sleight of hand.
In the case of prisons, it took 20 years of government planning and lobbying to create facilities that appear to vanish. For museums, the change was more categorical — a few diamond-in-the-rough conversions proved that post-gallery contemporary art didn’t demand the stringent environmental controls of earlier masterworks, and then a landslide followed. These new institutions are remarkable for the inverse relationships they pose between vast interior spaces, often unprecedented in scale and complexity, and the misleadingly neutral envelopes that encase them.
The vertical turn in prison design required both a redirection of civic will and a reimagining of the buildings themselves. In 1970, the Federal Bureau of Prisons embarked on a building program to clear the impasse for more urban jail space, not only (or primarily) for its wards awaiting appellate and District Court hearings, but to establish a precedent that municipal and county authorities could cite as “good neighbors” when they pressed for their own new cell space. These federal tower jails, known as Metropolitan Correctional Facilities, shaped the state of the art in penal architecture through the ’80s and ’90s. The first five — in Chicago, San Diego, New York, Los Angeles and Brooklyn — were arguably the most radical interventions in American urban space undertaken by the federal government since the interstate highway system. With a shared vocabulary of striated concrete fascia, perforated by tall, narrow, deeply set windows, the five towers pioneered new silhouettes and new modes of interior organization based on triangular or square podular housing units. Chicago’s triangular template and San Diego’s square pods are both developed as discrete double-story volumes, which are then stacked like the trapezoidal beads in Brancusi’s Endless Column and accessed by elevators that stop only at alternate floors.
High-profile architecture firms with little or no correctional background were invited to rethink the basic public demeanor of these detention centers, and those firms took advantage of the relatively closed planar geometry of the building type to develop a dappled pattern of fenestration, composed of vertical bars within the five-inch width limit imposed by the federal bureau. The results, especially at twilight, when prisoners have some discretion over which cells are illuminated, can be disturbingly elegant. This was not lost on local officials and business owners. County and state agencies lobbied for new, and often exponentially larger, facilities based on the federal success stories, and the increased traffic that these high rises generated made them unlikely beacons of civil sector employment and downtown rejuvenation — after all, everyone but the inmates can leave for lunch.
Perhaps the definitive millennial space is the endless pixelated world of The Matrix. Many museum galleries and even more installations aspire to that kind of immersive, boundless, hyper-Cartesian continuity. Inspired by Robert Irwin’s many translucent scrim configurations, Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus Bregenz (1990–97) employs sandblasted glass shingles outside and exactingly calibrated translucent ceiling planes within to create a radically homogeneous, glowing urban presence. In prisons, podular cellblock interiors have an Inception-like feeling of endlessness and claustrophobia, with a geometrically vague double-height common area ringed by catwalks and bounded by a grid of cells. The set design of HBO’s Oz was based with some precision on a federal high-security housing unit, and amply encapsulated that show’s many convoluted plotlines without betraying its actual overall form.
Zumthor’s ambient cube at Bregenz is likely the best among hundreds of like projects realized to make old cities and exurban tracts glow anew. Steven Holl’s related success at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (2007) in Kansas City, in which subterranean galleries break the ground plane only as translucent slivers, bears mention, as does a low-security prison in Austria, the Justice Center Leoben (2004), so diaphanous in its glazing that a blogger recently compared it to an Apple Store, before encouraging American tourists to get locked up for spa treatments and ping pong. Neither was this analogy (nor those bedeviling the Broad Museum at LACMA and the Getty) the first to equate museums or prisons with retail outlets: one review likened the newly opened Mario Botta-designed SFMOMA (1994) to a $60 million IKEA. 5
IKEA’s influence extends much further than that. Quite a few prisons and museums built in the 1990s include mazes. The intake sequences of metropolitan jails routinely move new arrivals through a complex series of stations for behavioral observation and information gathering. During jail tours in both Los Angeles and San Diego, deputies emphasized the useful disorientation that these spatial sequences, often winding through an entire floor level of the building, induced in the newly detained. Museums employ a related strategy to teach linear, historic narratives. Often, these take the form of an IKEA-style forced march through chronologically organized displays, interrupted or culminated by more immersive, “first-person” spaces for empathetic reflection. These circuits of spatial processing harden what used to be a flexible curatorial strategy for organizing a route through a show into a fixed architecture of sequencing in which institutions ingest their visitors and those visitors in turn digest its holdings and mission: the infotestine.
The most innovative, if also the most deterministic, actors in this genre are museums dedicated to major watersheds in 20th-century history, especially the many devoted to memorializing the Holocaust. The urgency of imparting a specific historical narrative, tying the broad sweep of events to the specific losses and suffering of individuals, inspired a series of exhibitionary breakthroughs. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, by Pei Cobb Freed, opened in 1993 to controversy surrounding the resemblance of its rather exacting brick and steel detailing to the factory-like architecture of concentration camps. The museum’s internal orchestration of Holocaust history, however, was considered revelatory. A broad timeline of events preceding World War II leads to more and more discrete and interactive spaces linking Hitler’s war machine to genocide, and to the systematic decimation of Europe’s Jewish communities. Two spaces, the multimedia Hall of Witness and the vacated, basilica-like Hall of Remembrance, pull visitors into a collective meditation on the central trauma of the century. Many more anodyne but architecturally diverse single-topic museums, such as the nearby Newseum (1997), devoted to journalism, and Gehry’s Experience Music Project (2000), in Seattle, followed the internal cadence of the USHMM with precision.
By contrast, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin (1999) is a compelling psychological distillation of the fractured post-WWII condition, but suffers in laymen’s comparison with the American museum that preceded it, and in experiential terms with the nearby Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004), by Eisenman, in which 2,711 concrete monoliths or stelae are arrayed in a grid over an undulating ground plane. If Freed’s Holocaust museum makes history legible, and Eisenman’s memorial marks loss via abstraction, the Jewish Museum in Berlin is as haunting in its “failure” as the other two are in their success — Libeskind’s is an architecture of incommensurability that doesn’t make sense, and perhaps shouldn’t. 6
The thematic, political and spatial tactics pioneered in Holocaust museums now extend to a plethora of museums memorializing atrocity and genocide and celebrating tolerance and reconciliation. A more politically nuanced, but to date less architecturally compelling trajectory connects a series of Museums of Tolerance sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (1993), New York (2003), and Jerusalem, with the last designed, but as yet unbuilt, by Gehry. Of the latter’s many-coiled scheme, The New York Times quipped, “Something Israelis and Palestinians can agree on: they hate it.” 7 Love it or not, Gehry’s proposal suggests that in that context a museum must articulate a number of histories, rather than a single master narrative. Architectural controversy could translate into diplomatic wisdom if, in uniting warring factions in a shared fury over a building, those parties find any new grounds for agreement.
In 2006, a 20-year-old American artist, Seth Wulsin, selectively broke windowpanes in the abandoned Cárcel de Caseros in Buenos Aires, creating pixelated portraits of 48 political activists. Though built only 25 years earlier, the high-rise prison was demolished floor by floor in 2008, in part because of its role in political “disappearances” in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Wulsin’s project —likely an homage to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976), in which the artist shot out the windowpanes of Manhattan’s Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies and replaced them with images of failing South Bronx housing towers — was also motivated by a macabre design flaw. The Cárcel’s glass block facade limited the sunlight reaching the interior so completely that most inmates developed a vitamin D deficiency, turning their skin green. Wulsin’s “vandalism” followed a series of punctures in the walls that prisoners had made to emit light and communicate with their families. 8
Since 2000, institutions of display and discipline have taken on international, or transnational, dimensions, many of them unanticipated and controversial. Art and crime “collide” in prison-to-museum conversions, art that mimics criminal activity or prison life (for example, Marina Abramović’s and Darren Almond’s recent self-incarcerations), crimes against museums (high-profile heists, looting), curatorial crime, and the rise of jailhouse “outsider” art. Prison interiors are now ubiquitous in film and TV and, often catastrophically, in webcam footage. In parallel with these collisions of typology, intention and behavior, the institutions have become markedly more dispersed and transient, taking the forms of art fairs and festivals on one hand, and of transnational detention on the other. Many of the radical innovations in both sorts of “holding” have moved sub rosa, off-radar, beyond reach.
These post-Millennial demands were anticipated by Rem Koolhaas in his early schemes for Arnhem Prison, which proposed a panoptic display of failed architectures of reformation, and in his many unbuilt museums: an encyclopedic, and captive, catalog of exhibitionary strategies. The internationalization of incarceration has imperiled many basic standards of correctional conduct, and the wholesale displacement of curation to temporary settings has rendered quaint the museum’s cultural limitations. Transient art fairs now surpass museums in ratifying any emergent avant-garde, hosting spectacular installations and promulgating new agendas for future art practices.
Many commentators have equated prisons and museums over the years, but few anticipated how many prisons would simply become museums after 2000. Until recently, museums could replace prisons, as the neoclassical Tate Gallery was built on the former site of Millbank Penitentiary 115 years ago, or run in parallel with them, as the Folsom Prison Museum adjoins the entrance to that state prison, but actual one-for-one reoccupations were rare. Though we’ve built many new prisons, we’ve also decommissioned quite a few. A 2007 New York Times travel section identified three dozen prisons-turned-museums in the United States alone, and discussed their unexpected allure. As Paul Williams notes in his sharply observed Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities, “Of the institutional spaces converted into memorial museums, the most common is the former prison. … There is something about the aestheticization of the prison-museum space that, in an uncanny way, relates to the psychic disturbance associated with incarceration itself.” 9
The “disturbance” that Williams identifies tends to vary according to a former prison’s notoriety, or that of its inmates. Many defunct prisons were deemed museologically remarkable for the evident cruelty or deprivation they imposed on those held. Dungeons, pits, death chambers, as well as the macabre chairs, gurneys and stockades furnishing them, all are pungent reminders of the sadistic potential of our species. Though many prison-museum conversions are akin to generic theme parks of incarceration — with open cells, defunct restraint hardware and plaques commemorating their most infamous charges — the most successful tourist draws are sites of political trauma, such as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Nelson Mandela’s cell at the Robben Island Prison Museum.
At the 798 Art Zone in Beijing and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Perm, Russia, major sites of forced industry, if not outright incarceration, have been converted into vast arts campuses along the lines of MassMoCA. In these examples, as with earlier openings of concentration camps and gulags in the former Soviet Union, 20th century sites of catastrophic cruelty have, in only a generation’s time, become nodal points in 21st century tourism. 10
“Dada affirmed what culture denied: that a gratuitous gesture, a vulgar expression, an obscene act, even an act of violence might be more creative in liberating man’s poetic energies than the entire stock of works of art incarcerated in the cemeteries known as museums.”
Hilton Kramer, in The Age of the Avant-Garde 11
The “new normal” of mass incarceration was the theme of YouPrison, an exhibition mounted in Turin, Italy, in 2008. Curator Francesco Bonami asked 11 design practices and an equal number of theorists to reflect on the “Limitation of Freedom and Space” that now pervades the neoliberal West, and to suggest alternatives to that situation. Many designers responded with variations on their previous work in encapsulated miniature (Atelier Bow-Wow, for example) or evasive if telling riffs on the theme (Jeffrey Inaba: “We thought you said Prism”), but a few delved into carceral specifics. Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed a variable cell interior that pulled one of its museological soft-scapes inside out, and Ines and Eyal Weizman offered CELLTEXTS, a library of prison-generated literature with special resonance in a country that only recently incarcerated two of its most influential political theorists, Antonio Gramsci and Antonio Negri.
The multinational reach of YouPrison, as well as many of its projected installations, found a mainstream complement in the film The International, released the next year. A political thriller spanning three continents and five color-coded cities, The International features a series of actual museums collaged as sets for other buildings, and a shoot-out in a reconstructed Guggenheim in which Wright’s smooth, spinning interior is pocked with bullets and desecrated by a falling chandelier of projection screens. Architects trying to develop new approaches to environments for art should closely follow the dialogue between Clive Owen and an unfortunate assassin as they make their escape. Trapped in the rotunda with fast-diminishing rounds, the two duck into one of Charles Gwathmey’s side galleries, only to realize they have no option but “the ramp.” Staggering their descent, they discover a number of ways to capitalize on the spiral, by firing across it, ducking behind its balustrades and finally by bringing down the roof.
Many of today’s museum architects are still escaping the Guggenheim, often less resourcefully than the duo in The International. Some try to rival it as a vacant icon; others try, as Koolhaas did in Rotterdam and since, to sample and transform its logic, rather than its form.