Putting the Penance into Penitentiary


This post isn’t about architecture in the usual sense, and the photographs certainly aren’t, but it is about the effect of philosophy on architecture, and of architecture on society, both critical aspects of the art of architecture.


I’ve lived in and around Philadelphia for most of my life.  It’s a place rich with the history of America, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to visit a good many of it’s historical sites.  One place I hadn’t visited until recently was Eastern State Penitentiary.  It should have been much higher on my ‘must see’ list.

If you’re not from Philadelphia, or not a fan of the penal system, this might not seem unusual;  after all, who’d want to go see an old, run down prison.  But if you’re visiting Philadelphia, I’m here to tell you, ESP should definitely be on your ‘hit’ list.  Judging from the number of languages I overheard being spoken by visitors there on even a slow day, I’m not alone.

Cell Block 8

You won’t see the immaculately preserved history of Independence Hall, or the symbolic significance of the Liberty Bell at ESP;  it’s been kept as a ‘preserved ruin’.  You won’t see the sweeping portrayal of history of the National Constitution Center or the new Museum of the American Revolution.  And you won’t see the beautiful and hallowed grounds of Valley Forge.  What you will see, and experience, is a unique look at the history of a segment of society that’s usually studiously hidden:  residents of the largest prison system in the world.

Eastern State’s place in that history is unequaled:  when it was shut down in 1971, it had operated continuously for 142 of the United States then 195 years.  When opened in 1829, ESP was a state of the art facility costing $800,000, one of the most expensive American building projects of it’s day.  It would soon become world renown.  It offered individual flush toilets, running water, and skylights in every cell and had central heating;  all at a time when even the White House was still using chamber pots and coal stoves.

Mop Rack, Cell Block 7

But more revolutionary than it’s physical structure was it’s philosophical foundation.  Sprouting from principles of the new European Age of Enlightenment, and the hometown beliefs of the Quakers, ESP would become the world’s first ‘penitentiary’.  Meeting at the home of Benjamin Franklin in 1787, The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (a name born prior to the current age of acronyms!) set out with the goal of seeing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard for humane prison design.  The vision was to create an environment that fostered reflection resulting in genuine regret for one’s actions and resulting in penitence and reform.  It took more than 30 years of lobbying for it’s cause, but the Society would see it’s vision come to life on farmland just outside of Philadelphia.

Cell Block 5, closed

With towering, 30 ft. high barrel-vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout, ESP was designed to have an almost monastic feel.  Prison life was to be monastic, as well.  Solitary confinement was the order of the day;  individual cells had individual courtyards surrounded by 10 ft. walls;  lit only by skylights (the ‘eye of God’), the only reading material the Bible;  interactions with other prisoners were forbidden, and with the guards were at an absolute minimum.

Ceiling Detail, Cell Block 7

The concept was immediately controversial and the facility drew visitors and tourists from around the world.  Was solitary confinement a humane method to inspire reform;  or was it cruel to deprive prisoners of social interaction and news of home?

Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1831, reporting to the French government:

“Thrown into solitude… [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him…. Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness..”

Discarded Furniture

Charles Dickens perhaps best foretold it’s fate recounting his 1842 visit in his travel journal, American Notes for General Circulation. The chapter is titled “Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison:

“In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….   I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body;  and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,…   and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear;  therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Modern behavioral science, and experience, show that long-term isolation results not in reflection and penitence, but in madness.  The solitary confinement system was officially abandoned at Eastern State Penitentiary in 1913…   due to over crowding.  ESP continued to operate as a conventional prison for close to 60 more years, housing such notable inmates as ‘Slick Willie’ Sutton and Al Capone.  It was named a National Historic Site in 1965, and permanently closed in 1971.  After numerous failed attempts to redevelop the site, it was opened to the public for tours in 1994.  It hosts an annual Halloween haunted house, ‘Terror Behind the Walls‘.  As a part of it’s educational mission, ESP has incorporated the exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a look at the current state of the criminal justice system in the U.S.

Al Capone’s Cell

Eastern State Penitentiary’s early notoriety inspired some 300 similar prisons internationally, but despite the gradual the prison reform of the last 40 years, it’s sincere attempt at establishing a humane and effective system of incarceration has not seen a serious re-visitation in the U.S. in close to 200 years.  Given it’s unique place in history, ESP should be a symbol for the enlightened reform of our prison system;  given the will and the resources, it could be once again.


Artist Installation:  Identity Control by Tyler Held



BIG Architecture in Philadelphia

Navy Yard office buildings

1200 Intrepid Ave., Navy Yard Corporate Center, Philadelphia, PA


One of the hottest and most innovative architecture firms in the world, the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has recently completed only it’s second project in the United States.  1200 Intrepid, a small, speculative office building tucked away in a quiet corner of Philadelphia at the Navy Yard Corporate Center.

A modest four-story spec office building, a category of commercial architecture generally considered to be the equivalent of the tract home, is not the kind of project you’d expect an architect of the stature of Ingels, winner of the 2016 Louis Kahn Memorial award, to take on as an entree to a major new market.  Nor is contracting with a firm of BIG’s repute what you’d expect from a commercial real estate developer looking to put up a building of under 100,000 sq. ft.  But kudos to both Ingels and Philadelphia’s Liberty Property Trust for proving that size doesn’t matter.

From three sides, 1200 Intrepid looks to be a typical, nondescript building that’d be quite at home in most any American office park.  Though tastefully executed with clean, mature lines, it’s easily ignored from the Center’s main drag.  It’s the fourth side, the back(?) side, where Ingels’ imprint looms large.


1200 Intrepid Ave., Philadelphia Naval Shipyard

The circular theme is carried through in the bicycle racks.


Taking his cue from the adjacent Central Green, a five acre green space dominated by a circular track and bounded by a semi-circular drive, Ingels ‘impressed’ this arc into the facade of his building.  Not content with a simple concave wall, though, Ingels inscribed the rear face of 1200 Intrepid with a compound curve, pressing the base of the wall significantly further back than the roof-line, resulting in a “cave-like canopy” that hangs over anyone approaching it and enveloping them into the building.


1200 Intrepid Ave., Philadelphia Naval Shipyard

The concave facade seems to envelop visitors as they enter.


The environment-conscious design carries through to the lobby of the building where it’s twisting atrium works its way up four stories to be capped by a periscope, giving a view not of blue sky, but of blue water and ships at anchor, lending the building a distinctly nautical flavor, and uniting it even further with its environment.


Navy Yard office buildings

The atrium, with it’s periscope view of the shipyard.


While 1200 Intrepid may not have the visual impact or get the media attention of BIG’s other American project, the also recently completed VIA 57 West, a 32 story residential building covering nearly a full city block on the Hudson River in New York city and winner of the 2016 Best Tall Building of the Americas award, it’s long-term impact on commercial architecture may prove to be greater.  By incorporating a couple of thoughtful twists to an otherwise modest office building, Ingels and Liberty Property Trust have proven that combining an architect who’s not willing to settle for the mundane, with a developer who’s willing to take a little risk, can result in a unique piece of architecture that doesn’t bust the budget.


1200 Intrepid Ave., Philadelphia Naval Shipyard

1200 Intrepid reflected in one of its own windows.


1200 Intrepid Ave., Philadelphia Naval Shipyard

Architecture?… or Sculpture?

Earlier this summer, Philadelphia played host to Future Sensations,  a traveling exhibit celebrating the 350th anniversary of the French construction materials company Saint-Gobain, whose U.S. headquarters is in suburban Philadelphia.

Now, I don’t usually go in for these corporate PR productions (and I didn’t actually ‘go in’ to this one either), but I knew as soon as I saw the promos that I wanted to photograph it! Continue reading

The World’s Most Attractive Office Building

In my previous blog post I talked about photographing what the New York Times Magazine called ‘the millennium’s most important building,’ the Seagram’s Building.  This time, another of New York’s superlative buildings:  Frank Gehry’s IAC Building, called ‘the worlds most attractive office building’ by Vanity Fair magazine (April 2008).

My first exposure to the IAC Building, headquarters for Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorporation, was from the High Line:  a tantalizing splash of white against the grays and browns of the city.  I had to check it out!
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The Millennium’s Most Important Building

Whenever I get up to New York I try to work some ‘play’ time into my schedule.  For me, ‘play time’ in NYC involves cameras and architecture!  Whether it consists of wandering out from where ever I happen to be and seeing what there is to be seen, or heading out with a plan, there’s always great architecture to be found.

On my most recent trip earlier this year, I was on a mission…   my target:  what’s been called “the millennium’s most important building,”  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s Seagram’s Building at 375 Park Ave.  I was certainly aware of the Seagram’s Bldg., but my travels had never taken me by it (I guess I don’t often travel in Park Ave. circles!).  I set out to rectify the oversight.

In addition to being perhaps “the millenniums most important,” it may also be it’s most understated.  It’s ultra-clean lines, and it’s dark edifice of ‘whiskey-brown’ tinted glass and bronze-clad structural steel combine to make the building appear to retreat from the eye.  And placed as it is on the rear-third of it’s site and fronted by an expansive plaza, the building sits almost hidden by it’s protruding neighbors until your approach reveals it’s presence.  Once in sight, it’s hard to pull your eye away.

The Seagram’s inspires contemplation.  Gazing on the building while strolling around it, and the serenity of the design encourages a stroll, the eye is repeatedly delighted as the simple lines evolve into one pleasing composition after another, and subtle details reveal themselves.  I found my stroll interrupted time and again as the building demanded that I dwell on it.
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