research by project & text. Petros Phokaides and Michael Vlasopoulos
chose to study the prison as an analogy for the contextual aura of the present era, in the way lots of past intellectuals chose to describe the prison through the means of a structure that inscribes the essence of the state, that which controls the moral and legal framework of the whole. Following this tradition of thought, we imagine the contemporary prison as a record of our present situation -built or theoretical- waiting to be retrieved from the sociologists of the future. A device for inspection and contemplation on future systems and social issues. We suppose that architects collaborate with sociologists only indirectly through different historical strata. The sociologist continues the work of the architect and vice-versa in a continuous act of cyphering and de-cyphering meaning in a built structure. Prison is at its core, a machine to prevent the escape, the breaking out. We came up with a story of a building that cannot yet be realized in its complete, intimidating form but nevertheless haunts our collective imagination that constantly collects symbols only to be substituted by new ones. This monster has to be built in order to be destroyed. It is crucial to use architecture as a way to crystallize our fears of an imminent concretization of the so far invisible “ether of telecommunications”. The prison has the ability to mould a figure of the inmate as a creature of an outer residual world. The surfaces of the prison used to be intensely decorated with gothic scenes and mythical creatures. Similar monsters were engineered by the folklore during the medieval ages and were the inhabitants of the dangerous realm of the exterior of the city frontiers. Ravaged by beasts, anarchy, chaos or hell. The first of the architects that ever design a prison inscribed the fears of the unknown, the abnormal and the anomaly onto the prison walls. The intimidating stories which they embedded onto the facades were an attempt to internalize the horror of the outlandish space within a set of walls. Let’s debate on Built matter instead of plain fears.
If life nests within a house, the prison -this cumbersome artifact of our recent western history- is probably inspired from the shelter. In times where the chaos of the unknown and the uncanniness of the not yet cartographed surrounds the established area of the city, the exile (ostracism) used to constitute a very significant punishment indeed. It’s very difficult -if not unfeasible- to distinguish the historical moment in which the prison -in its present institutionalized form- along with the confinement and the captivity of the body that its function suggests, took the form of a small replica of the house -a contemporary cell or a shell. The unearthly creature of Kafka’s The Burrow builds a house for itself that slowly and gradually turns into his condemn, while it digs deeper and deeper into its intricate labyrinth of tunnels. This blurs the distinction between the safe sanctuous home and the hellish absurdity of the jail. Unfortunately the mole-like creature and silent narrator never finishes nor succeeds in securing its handcrafted hollowed-out house, since its temporary escape fills his confined soul with anxiety and inertia and a psychosis with domesticity. There’s an uncontrolled desire for confinement and solitude here. An urge for nesting. This beast is a digger of its own toxic home.
We should then watch carefully the way that the dystopian vision of G. Orwell gains entrance into the house and destroys its holy seclusion through the introduction of a television set being able to transmit and receive -a predecessor of our modern cybernetic human-machine interfaces. It renders the prison obsolete since it is metonymized into a domesticated installation that educes fear, control and punishment. In a way, the cell and the room, similar in form and function are both bounded spaces, but at the same time they stretch out the concept of the confinement to two absolute extremes: the ultimate shelter in contrast with the absolute punishment.
There were older times where interiority was -in absolute contrast with the present day- a manifestation of freedom and security, and the exterior was so vast and unattainable that led to a proliferation of myths, related with the unknown territory of the woods surrounding the medieval city walls. The outside was infested with beasts and demons. The exile was an ultimate punishment. Later on, the human sacrifice serves as a metaphor of the vastness, emptiness of the desert. The control over the morality and behavior of the population was tooled up with the death sentence. The gilotine and the incineration takes place in a centre of a social context, only to be seen by lots of people, and imposes unforgettable lessons, a supposedly cathartic exit of the social body and the ritualistic detachment of the soul from its body. As opposed to the prison confinement in practice, the social body always practiced detachment of its unwanted components in any way possible -physical or meta-physical.
Our project concerns a space where an elaborate network of wiring, communications and logistics form a manifold of intensive, unprecedented connections. All of this infrastructure that surrounds our modern way of life: tubes that transmit and receive, hold or mobilize, crawl in the ostensibly impenetrable domesticities. Instead of an animated flux of the everyday life, we designed a suffocating overabundance of technology; a chilling uncanniness of the space behind the cameras. The cell is sealed shut with tubes, wires and cables. A multi-layered sensory apparatus lodged in an egg structure; a cell in a shell. We ‘re standing in front of a saturated surface of informational absorbance, positioning the inmates in the core of the prison. From that standpoint, the prisoner finds himself in the center of what used to be the Panopticon, but instead of him looking towards a centralized eye-gaze, he’s the observer and the observed at the same time. We locate the figure of the astronaut at the centre of our blasphemy. This creature (nor machine nor human) operates within a stream of information that travels through the wires of the control room. The astronaut is actually a team of swarming machines and groups collecting data. The astronaut “sees” through the flight control’s statistical-mechanical vision. The astronaut thinks with the guidance of an elaborate group of decision makers. Our ‘astronauts’ voyage through their everyday life using the same tools. It looks like a voluntary underground exile, in the heart of the informational flows, in favor of the absolute protection and captivation of the self, much like in the case of the bomb shelters in the cold war american culture. The machine here is still enslaved by the human and, in contrast with the dystopian nightmare of the Matrix movies, the biological energy of the body doesn’t fuel the hungry, angry machine, but it’s wasted in order to retrieve the necessary information. The information in the Matrix is used to nurture the atrophic bodies whereas here, the information is the ultimate outcome of this experiment.
of the lack of a Big Brother: To deliberately be the subject of the surveillance. The outdated fear of a single face observing us is slowly being substituted by the idea of a surveillance assemblage that comprises every single urge for recording and classification that is internal to our very existential core. This type of space and body confinement arising in our era, is not governed by a single and absolute centre of power and knowledge, not even in Foucault’s terms by multiple centres or structures of power, diffused throughout the social body. As new types of surveillance come into existence; as the computational power increases and as new modes of real-time monitoring, of registering and classification arise, the face of the infamous ‘big brother’ still refuses to appear. Instead, you have a demonization of an inorganic system that supports life. The urge for power and control is replaced by a rush/desire/drive for information. The big brother’s gaze, dematerialized, stores our collective memory as an alert optic nerve. In this real-time recording, processed by an ‘invisible’ and complex set of devices and recording tools, that shrink and become more accurate at the same time, a vast amount of data is being aggregated.
And because of the abundance of archival capacity, the device’s ‘shutter’ is left open, just like in a documentary film. Without hesitation, or delay, the animal’s life is framed in fast forward. All this technological evolution will eventually reach a frontier. A movie file with 75 years duration in average. In such a scenario, future generations will go back in their forefathers’ archives claiming a copy of all their records, logs, registers. It can be said that we’re already in search of a materiality of our memories. The introduction of real time monitoring systems is accompanied by a continuous flux of data that is being stored in the background, through numerous institutions and their operation; continually remodeling and archiving the world and the human body. In this condition, the subject surrenders itself to a surveillance assemblage almost voluntarily; almost deliberately.
It had always been unfair -but still interesting- to manipulate the concept of the flesh as the prison of the soul; dualities that distinguish the material from the immaterial. The technology we exponentially deploy is able of attaining every little piece of information, that once added up to our own, unique identity. It slowly but steadily transforms flesh into pure information. This process of decorporealization that takes place inside the hospitals’ MRI and the military’ s identification gadgets breed a new generation of people that harvest this data for their own delirious need for a quantifiable soul. The dream of grasping a handful of data that represent a model -if not the human itself- is a persistent goal that has been camouflaged through different historical beliefs. The dream of the eternal memory of life. Data stands for our last hope for escape from our physical impoverishment. The prison as the observatory of the psyche: a laboratory being run by its own guinea pigs.
The first architectural experiment: People voluntarily subject themselves to extreme security technologies. In a new post-urban condition, living in the city is understood by specific social groups as highly important and dangerous at the same time. Urban space understood as the source of fear and anxiety, the need for retreat, of voluntary exile in the core of the city becomes necessary to construct a homogenous and distant environment. As in Kafka’s Castle- the fragile border between interior and exterior must be sustained by all means, resulting to an acceleration rather than a suspension of anxiety. Sound alarms systems, surveillance and monitoring technology coupled with prison-like perimeter walls spread throughout the gated community and the houses. The human body submits itself to technology of control, only to fortify its space and destroy its porous. While fear and the need of security is domesticated, the house becomes the site of architectural tests, aiming to create a new type of control environment and the seals to sustain it.
Architecture’s symbolic role of providing shelter and creating stable and ordered environments gives rise to buildings insusceptible towards change. But what if architecture is ready to sacrifice its benevolent purpose to society, to submit to the crave for data, and institutionalize the first experiment.? What if architecture radicalizes its tools and technology to propose a controlled environment to monitor its own space? A real time documentation of the way the body inhabits space, the way the body moves inside space, the frequency of its contact to architecture and the surfaces...A series of quality controls, medical or psychological experiments take place, rendering the subject a cosmonaut of the everyday life. Rehabilitation programs are substituted by the participation in the first real architectural experiment. Technology can record the speed that architecture disintegrates under the ravages of time. In that case, the surface that records every possible interaction with the space is designed to be so sensitive and intelligent-like that every thing that happens during the day -small, irrelevant or unimportant- can be collected, evaluated or archived. All aspects of everyday life should then be catalogued and classified with the same intensity of a house being scrutinized after a domestic murder. The shell of an absolutely controlled environment, an introverted home hollowed out of the infrastructural tissue.
This prison can be compared to an ultimate system -such as the ones raiding the sci-fi imagination- where the system -usually possessing a woman’s voice of uncommon sophistication- calms and sustain the human body through time, preserving its life in cryogenic chambers. Recording every possible little detail or fluctuation in the bodily functions. A specter hovering above the white surfaces; ubiquitous, female voice and ear.
A system in auto-pilot.
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Available in LSE Research Online: September 2007