Through the Lens: When Hollywood Designs Prisons

The architecture of containment is a fascinating area. The spartan utilitarian spaces of prisons are among the most highly considered, sophisticated and expensive there are. It’s unusual for designers to create spaces for people who experience it against their will (well, mostly) and it is a tricky balance between creating sensitive, positive places for rehabilitation and community expectations about what punishment should look like. There are different approaches around the world: the US take a particular stance; the Norwegians have another. Hollywood, of course, has its own interpretation. And it is not concerned by such trivialities as the Geneva Convention.

A still from Fortress. Image © Davis Entertainment & Village Roadshow

In 1992’s Fortress starring Christopher Lambert, inmates were held captive not by bars and fences but by surgically inserted devices which inflicted pain if security lines were crossed. While this made for a fairly simple built solution, the hideous cruelty was a long lasting memory for audiences. This happens surprisingly often in film - where the means of containment also becomes a means of punishment, straying into the area of torture. The ‘Sky cell’ from Game of Thrones used danger to detain prisoners - carved into a high cliff, one wall is open to the elements, presumably to permit some to take their fate into their own hands, with the added encouragement of a slightly sloping floor. The wizard Gandalf was also incarcerated using death defying heights in Lord of the Rings - marooning him on a dizzyingly high tower platform. The Bond series, of course, offers many more examples, usually involving shark infested water, piranhas or crocodiles. It is the psychological edge inflicted by these places that turns containment into punishment, a solution which would never be accepted by civilized society but which make a big impact on film.

The Sky Cell in Game of Thrones. Image © Home Box Office

It is interesting though, that although prisons have been depicted countless times in the movies, they have rarely been glamorized. This is unusual for Hollywood, which has for decades managed to make drug use, guns and other elements of the underworld desirable. Even shows based in reality, such as HBO’s Oz present a very grim picture of prison life: the exaggerated lack of natural light, the monochrome colour scheme, claustrophobic cells, jarring acoustics and constant surveillance make for a chilling film experience. At best depressing, at worst sickening, the series is addictive to watch but you certainly don't want to join any of the characters.

Similar to Game of Throne's Sky Cell, in Lord of the Rings Gandalf is imprisoned by being abandoned on a tall platform. Image © New Line Cinema & WingNut Films

For most of us, our film experience is the closest exposure we have to high security incarceration. Designers who have been involved with commissions for Corrective Services clients will know that prison design has come a long way and there are now accepted ways of achieving containment in a utilitarian but humane way (although architects' work on prisons is still not without its controversies). However, as most people are largely informed by film references, the historical model of bars and chains remain the most recognised architectural language of a jail (largely the result of hugely successful films as 1994’s Shawshank Redemption and 1999’s The Green Mile which presented their violent, horrifying prison experiences in a historical context).

Even in more realistic series such as Oz, prisons are presented as brutal places to be. Image © Home Box Office

The disincentive value of this is immeasurable. When prisons are so generally associated with deprivation, fear and torture, there seems to be no point warning wayward youth about consequences because Hollywood has already provided the message for us: Continue on this path and this is the kind of hideous place you will end up. And it will not be pleasant. It turns out that for once, when the film industry takes artistic liberty, they are actually providing a community service.

This article comes courtesy of Charlotte Neilson, the author of the fascinating design blog Casting Architecture. Her column, Through the Lens, looks at architecture and production design in TV and film.

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Cite: Charlotte Neilson. "Through the Lens: When Hollywood Designs Prisons" 09 Feb 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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