August 13, 2014 | 5 Comments

Halden Prison (Erik Møller Architects & HLM Architects)

From the curators: Halden Prison is located in Østfold, in southern Norway, and is, according to some, perhaps the world’s most humane prison. Completed in 2010, Halden is a high-security facility that houses 250 of Norway’s toughest criminals. It was designed by Erik Møller Architects and HLM Architects after an invited architectural competition initiated by the Norwegian Department of Justice and Statsbygg, the government agency responsible for real estate. A central tenet of the design brief was the rehabilitation of prisoners in order to decrease recidivism, and this is reflected in the plan, interior design, and external landscaping. Long vertical windows maximize the light that enters the cells, and the green surroundings are easily viewed through generous fenestration in common areas. The architects state that, “Nature is actively involved as a social rehabilitative factor in the architecture…the opportunity to follow seasonal changes helps to clarify the passage of time for the inmates.” Although simple, the interior furnishings are modern and inviting; safety glass is used so bars can be avoided; and shared living and food-preparation spaces are included to encourage cooperation between inmates and simulate a sense of normal, everyday life to prepare for release. 

The Norwegian penal system, which boasts a low recidivism rate of 20%, prioritizes the human rights of its inmates, even those of the notorious Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik, who was held during his trial at Ila Prison, a former Nazi concentration camp, has taken to protesting the deprivations of his incarceration—including, in his eyes, poor access to video games—and making daily demands for more walks and monetary allowance, and fewer body searches. Whether this proves Hannah Arendt’s point, writing of the Eichmann trial, “on the banality of evil,” or the tormenting efficacy of a reward system built on a foundation of large and small daily humiliations, remains to be seen.

Breivik’s complaints belie the overall comforts of the Norwegian system. As opposed to the labyrinthine American model based on physical constraints, from handcuffs to the Supermax, Halden’s design involves a sleight of hand, culminating in an outer wall camouflaged by trees. Its architecture exemplifies a contemporary Scandinavian vernacular of formal restraint, simplicity, and muted palette. Much has already been written of Halden’s cells, decorated with designer furniture, flat-screen TVs, and unbarred windows, and the prison’s communal amenities, including workshops, game rooms, open kitchens, a sound studio, a library, a rock-climbing wall, and forested paths. But in the words of a Halden inmate, “The real issue is freedom, which is taken away from you. That is the worst thing that can happen to you.” One might be forgiven for thinking of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962), and the exquisite madness of the bourgeoisie performing a finite set of actions behind an invisible fourth wall, unable to leave the parlor room.

But “the devil is in the details”—thin and familiar interior elements that signal the inmates’ relative lack of freedom. Fabric, paint, door hardware, and artwork are disconcertingly bright and cheery, if generic in the showroom mode of the Swedish IKEA. As inmates and prison guards (the latter outnumber the former) freely intermingle, it is the monochromatic blue fabric of the prison uniform that stands out. The spray-painted image of an inmate in uniform hurling a ball and chain—writ large on the prison wall and small on the latrine door by the Norwegian graffiti artist Dolk—further distracts from the convict’s body, the traditional surveillance object.

Though contemporary Norway has neither death penalty nor life sentence, its history maps the spectrum, from execution to punishment to discipline, of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975). Through the 19th century, beheadings were staged within Oslo’s Akershus Festning (Akershus Fortress), a medieval walled complex built to guarantee Norwegian sovereignty. During the 18th century, Oslo’s Tjuvholment (Thief Island) boasted a section called Slaveriet (the Slavery), from which prisoners were rented out as day laborers. Today, the inmates of Halden are paid approximately $9 per day for their labor, while Thief Island is undergoing an ambitious redevelopment. Home to Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, apartments, and restaurants, the former prison islet is the face of a new Oslo. A recently completed hotel, The Thief, may be Halden’s architectural doppelgänger. Equally commended with awards for interior design, the hotel’s 119 rooms also feature flat-screen TVs and designer furniture; its common spaces hung with art curated by the former director of Norway’s National Museum of Art.

A cultural attitude toward rehabilitation is legible throughout the built environments and its designed objects, signs, buildings, and open spaces. Design intervention extends from controlling behavior within the walls of Halden to the redevelopment of “a city district given a new chance.” Regjeringskvartalet (Government Square) however, the first scene of Breivik’s crimes, remains in suspended animation, still scarred by the July 2011 bombing. The status of this public space reminds us that to discipline or to punish is to also to stage a theater of cautionary tales that shame, entertain, warn, and deter. From the TV series Oz (1997–2003) to Cool Hand Luke (1967) to Wim Wenders’s ongoing Cathedrals of Culture 3-D series—an episode of which documents life inside Halden—the invisible fourth wall implicates architecture itself as a media apparatus.

The flat-screen TVs of Halden and The Thief form a mediatic connection in which Halden is brought into relief as a place apart, a site of theater, training, and labor that collects Foucault’s carceral system—school, hospital, military barrack, and factory—into one camp-like space that calls to mind past traumas of European incarceration. One imagines the ultimate denouement, whereby inmates of Halden watch themselves or their mediatic avatars through TV-like “artificial windows.” But unlike those who stay at The Thief, there can be no reality check, no view out the window to the true horizon beyond the waters of Oslofjord, and no checking out. The otherwise magazine-ready interiors of Halden are haunted by Piranesi’s monstrous Carceri (1761)—another composition that deploys familiar forms to uncanny effect.


Can design transform violence into humanity, brutality into compassion?

  1. August 13, 2014, 5:32 pm

    Raphael Sperry

    What kind of modernism is this?

    These images of Halden prison call to mind the close connection of modernist style and austerity, and the parallel connection of austerity with incarceration as a form of punishment. When prisons are austere, it can be for divergent purposes: some prisons are intended for deprivation (e.g. of sensory stimulation and comfort) as a means of punishment; other prisons have been built for a kind of purification through penitence – the antecedent of today’s search for rehabilitation. The forerunner of the prison cell (both architecturally and linguistically) is the monk’s cell. So is the austere modernism of Halden a signifier of equality between prisoners and the high-culture modernism of the dominant culture (as Leung seems to suggest), a mode of deprivation of sensory stimulation, or a means of purifying prisoners to enable their re-integration with society? That’s my question.

  2. September 7, 2014, 9:11 pm

    Jamie Lee

    Very interesting article! I found it comically ironic that Halden’s “architectural doppelgänger” is a hotel called “The Thief.” While the well-heeled book a night of leisure at The Thief, actual thieves mark their time in a space similarly designed.

    I liked the metaphor of architectural space as theatre of public narratives. This made me think that the amenities found in both The Thief and the prison — flatscreen TVs and designer furniture — are mere stage props, meaningless with the context of human interaction, whether of punishment or commerce and consumer capitalism.

  3. November 6, 2014, 4:53 am

    Zach Mueller

    wait so Banksy was on the project as well?

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