Architecture and Human Status

Monika England and Illa Labroo

Use the right arrow key in the Prezi, not the play button.


Architecture has the power to create zones that can change or define people’s political, legal and social statuses. Places such as diplomatic missions, prisons, and churches consist of buildings and zones that have played key roles in history where classification of status has been a source of contention. The compounds of diplomatic missions, such as the United Nations, enjoy certain privileges of extraterritoriality and are exempt from local laws, therefore changing inhabitants’ legal statuses. Prisons have the ability to separate people based on social and legal statuses, and was emphasized in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon principle. In the European Middle Ages, it was recognized by English law that churches like Westminster were places where people could find sanctuary and were afforded a legal status that protected them from arrest.

Diplomatic missions are groups that include embassies and intergovernmental organizations present in another state or country in order to formally represent their home state, country, or organization. The United Nations is a diplomatic mission that was established after World War II by 51 countries. The organization’s goal was to unite the world in keeping peace, developing and maintaining friendly relations amongst nations, improving poverty, hunger, decreasing illiteracy, encouraging respect for human rights and freedoms, and lastly, “to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals” [1].

This rendering of the United Nations Headquarters shows the international zone of the complex.
This rendering of the United Nations Headquarters shows the complex and its boundaries of the international zone.

One of these such centres is the United Nations Headquarters on the East River in New York City. Multiple leading architects from all over the world, including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, collaborated on the design of the UN Headquarters. The complex, completed in 1952, is composed of a distinctive General Assembly building, a horizontal block of Council Chambers, a tower for the Secretariat, a public plaza, and a Library Building added in 1961. The international zone is bounded to the south by the East River, to the north by 1st ave, to the west by E 42nd street, and to the east by E 48th street. The headquarters building uses a modern steel frame structure and International Style aesthetic to symbolize change and give the building a new feel. According to the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, the headquarters building in New York is a zone in which diplomatic immunity of communication, functional immunity of delegates, and juridical personality are established and enforced within the architectural boundaries of the building. In other words, the United Nations requires a series of privileges and immunities for the people located within the confines of its boundaries. It is international territory, and therefore neutral territory. The UN headquarters is immune from U.S. law in order to maintain impartiality. The international organization occupies the land and is the sole administrator of the spaces within the buildings, by treaty with the United States government. As soon as one enters this building, their legal status is changed.

Prisons are an example of a building typology that creates zones which separate and define people based on social and legal statuses. In the late 18th century Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social theorist, devised a new prison design technique. This was called the Panopticon principle and it revolved around the idea of inmates being watched without knowing it. It was a new idea of a kind of mental imprisonment—one that would make the prisoners drive themselves crazy. The design of these national penitentiaries created zones in concentric circles, with the guard/watchperson’s stations and offices in the center, and the prison cells surrounding the outside.

The highlighted walls form the boundary between prison cells and guard zones in this plan of the Millbank Prison.
The highlighted walls form the boundary between prison cells and guard zones in this plan of the Millbank Prison.

One example of a prison with this arrangement of spaces was the Millbank Prison in London. It was built in 1816 by William Williams with offices and viewing spaces in the center and prisoner cells in the shape of hexagons on the circumference of that center. The load bearing masonry walls of the prison provided structure, and kept the cells extremely cold throughout the year. At the very center of Millbank Prison is a chapel. This part of the building was in contrast to the cells for many reasons. The amount of ornamentation in the chapel was greater than the sparse, orthogonal walls of the cells. The function of the chapel was to bring the prisoners together to repent for their sins, while the function of the cells were to lock them away separately.The Panopticon was the driving force that created clear zones between prisoners (who were being watched) and guards (who were watching). The highlighted walls of the prison cells are what separate these two zones (Wikimedia). These spaces have the ability to define and change one’s social and legal status. As soon as one enters the cell, they are considered a prisoner. They are at the bottom of the social ladder because they are confined to a small space in which they have no control over themselves or their surroundings, unlike the guards who have complete control—not only of themselves, but of the prisoners as well. The guards are able to see everything and the prisoners, nothing. These zones also determine one’s legal status. Prisoners in their cells are not free, and they have limited rights. Guards are the opposite. They can enter and exit the prison as they please, and they are entirely free.

The idea that religious places could be considered zones of protection began in Ancient Greece and Rome, where sacred zones were based around altars and temples. The principle of the right of asylum was adopted by early Christian churches and England’s King Ethelbert created the first laws regarding religious sanctuary around 600 AD. The idea of sanctuary depended on the “belief that one entering assumes part of the holiness of a place. It would be committing sacrilege to remove the person from the sacred place, so the right of sanctuary was considered inviolable.” [2] People sought sanctuary for many reasons, but mostly to delay legal actions or to escape hostility. One of the most notable places of refuge in London was Westminster Abbey. Built under the orders of King Henry III in 1245, architects Henry of Reyns, John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley designed the English Gothic church to be a place of safety; with a construction system of cut stone bearing masonry, it was built to be able to withstand attack. During the times of the medieval system of asylum, the entire precinct at Westminster was considered sacred ground, but within the church there was a specific part of the building that especially upheld the rules: the Sanctuary at Westminster. It was a “large square keep two stories high, with thick stone walls and only one exterior door, made of heavy oak.” [2]

The current sanctuary is situated on the axis of the nave, between the choir and the high altar.
The current sanctuary is situated on the axis of the nave, between the choir and the high altar.

In order to invoke the right of asylum, one had to enter the physical church space and announce their claim to asylum by exclaiming “Sanctuary!” After that they had forty days of protection as long as they stayed within the walls of the church. The physical architecture acted as the boundary for the legally enacted sanctuary. In Medieval England, during the War of the Roses, the Lancastrians and the Yorkists fought against each other and would alternate reign over the kingdom. During a period when Edward IV of the Yorkists lost his throne to Henry VI, Edward’s Queen Elizabeth Woodville suddenly found herself surrounded by Lancastrians supporting Henry VI, and rushed into Westminster for sanctuary to protect herself and her children from public dissent. Because of her new status under sanctuary in the church, no one could legally come in and remove her from Westminster. Today, the sanctuary space lies on the axis of the nave, between the choir and the high altar.

All of these building types are related because they exemplify the notion that architecture has the ability to influence the boundaries of spaces that can change the political, legal, and social statuses of its inhabitants. Buildings have consistently shown throughout history their potential to impact events that specifically deal with determining human status and consequent relations. Laws, politics, and society are all ways that people interact with each other and architecture is the physical element that can be the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to situations where status may be ambiguous yet necessary to understand.

1. United Nations. “UN at a Glance.”

2. Jokinen, Anniina. “The Sanctuary at Westminster.”


Research Resources

Topic 1: 1900-1989 Diplomatic Missions

United Nations, “UN at a Glance.” Accessed October 20, 2013.

Reinisch, August. Audiovisual Library of International Law, “Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.” Accessed October 27, 2013.

Encyclopedia Britannica Kids, “New York City: UN headquarters.” Accessed October 20, 2013.

Discover Diplomacy, “What is a US Embassy?.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

Integrity Legal, “Laws and Rules Regarding Extraterritoriality.” Accessed October 7, 2013.

Ascensio, Hervé. “Extraterritoriality as an Instrument.” Accessed October 20, 2013.

Freeman, Chas W., and Sally Marks. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Diplomacy.” Accessed October 20, 2013.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Diplomatic Immunity.” Accessed October 7, 2013.


Topic 2: 1750-1900 Prisons

Wikimedia Commons, “Millbank Prison Plan.” Accessed October 20, 2013.

The Free Dictionary, “Prisoners’ Rights.” Accessed October 13, 2013.’Rights.

De Maille, Vince J. “Incarceration 101.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

Victorian Crime and Punishment, “Changes in the 19th Century.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

Bliss, Melissa., “Millbank Penitentiary.” Accessed October 27, 2013. Penitentiary


Topic 3: 1500-1750 — Churches as sanctuary

Adams, Cecil. The Straight Dope, “The Straight Dope. Fighting ignorance since 1973.” Last modified October 5, 2012. Accessed October 13, 2013.

Engber, Daniel. “Can Criminals Hide In Church? On the tradition of religious sanctuary..” Slate, August 16, 2006. (accessed October 13, 2013).

Jokinen, Anniina. Luminarium, “The Sanctuary at Westminster.” Last modified January 7, 2007. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Westminster Abbey Founded 960, “History.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Elizabeth Woodville (queen of England).” Accessed October 20, 2013.

ArchitectureWeek, “Great Buildings Collection. Westminster Abbey.” Accessed October 27, 2013.

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