/Starchitects Design Glamorous Prisons for Manhattan’s Elite

Starchitects Design Glamorous Prisons for Manhattan’s Elite

NYC Prisons by Starchitects
NYC's new starchitect designed prisons: Top left to bottom right: Norten's Americano, Williams and Tsien's Folk Art Prison, LOT-EK's Shipping Container Confinement, SANAA's New Detention, Norten's Celda, Ban's Shutter House

Starchitects are finally making an impact in New York, just not in the way they may have expected. Given the real estate downturn, local government has invested millions in new infrastructure. Unknown to many, Bloomberg’s administration has also taken the opportunity to build new penitentiaries where only three years ago expensive hotels were planned.Following a New York tradition started by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Detention Center, an enlightened version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the mayor himself declared that, “In anticipation of the high profile indictments of billionaire bankers and hedge fund managers, we require suitable temporary homes for them.”

Panopticon and the Guggenheim
Bentham’s Panopticon and Wright's Guggenheim

Though the full scale pursuit of bankers never materialized, the recent arrest of IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the conviction of Galleon hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam, reassured the Mayor that he made decision. “I have no regrets,” the mayor opined when recently asked if, in retrospect, he would choose to build these again.

Enrique Norten, based in Mexico City and New York, has been the most prolific, overseeing the design of two new prisons in the city, one for a large population, the other for prisoners requiring high security.

Celda, the largest of all the new facilities, is consistent with Mr. Norten’s modernist aesthetic. A simple white tower with a single setback, perforated throughout by dark rectangular fenestrations. Unforgiving and austere, the building brings a Mexican approach to convicts to midtown.

For his Americano “Hotel” Mr. Norten looked to a different source of inspiration. It’s metal mesh screen is reminiscent of the old Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, which had balconies for corridors, and a cage-like feeling as they were faced with chain-link fence to the exterior. However elegant the environment may be, the prisoners will always be reminded that they are indeed locked away.

Norten Americano Hotel and Cabrini Green
Norten's Americano above and now demolished Cabrini Green below

Shigeru Ban, known for his paper tube structures and disaster relief projects, as well as several ground-breaking homes in Japan, has produced a small minimum security prison. Just eight blocks north of the Americano, the Shutter House opens and closes it’s tightly perforated metal shutters as the warden sees fit. It goes into lockdown when visitors to the nearby high line would be tempted to look in. Otherwise, the northern facade opens wide, offering a reminder of the luxury of the homes these felons have left behind.

New York’s own Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Maximum Security Prison of Folk Art, where malefactors are schooled in traditional folk arts to keep them occupied, is as brutalist as any of the buildings mentioned here.

The most celebrated, however, is most certainly Thom Mayne’s Cooper Union’s Halfway Home For Delinquents. It’s fractured metal mesh facade symbolically references both the troubled souls of the poor kids who end up here and the their desire to escape at any cost.

Cooper Union Halfway Home For Delinquents
Morphosis' Cooper Union Halfway Home For Delinquents
Allied Works Center for Arrest and Detention museum of arts and design
Allied Works' Center for Arrest and Detention

Other note-worthy contributions are Allied Work’s Center f0r Arrest and Detention on Columbus Circle and Sanaa’s New Prison of Correctional Alterations on the Bowery. This last is plays on the desirability of being on higher floors. Each staggered block contains increasingly more dangerous prisoners as it rises. Also notable, this building is essentially one of complete confinement. All cells have skylights, but no vertical windows. These are for the administrators offices only.

What’s next for this great wave of architecture in New York City? Possibly the most innovative project of them all will be LOT-EK’s Shipping Container Confinement on Fifth Avenue.

It’s high time to commit a crime!