Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting

Aerial view of Sandy Hook Elementary school
Aerial view of Sandy Hook Elementary school

The Sandy Hook Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place on December 4, 2012. The mass killing of students and teachers was not something new to the American public. This event has again raised the question of how schools can become safer places for students. A majority of the attention has been on gun control, which has often caused an overlooking of other means of addressing this problem. Architecture is a lens through which this issue can be looked at, and the idea of surveillance being omnipresent in institutions through means of architecture can create more controlled spaces. Architecture from several time periods have already addressed this issue, such as in the medieval ages.

Castles: Windsor Castle, Berkshire – England, 11th century, William the Conqueror

During the medieval ages, warfare and weapons began evolving and becoming more deadly. Architecture responded to this by developing ways to help defend and create a safe place for people and their kingdom. In most situations a castle is broken up into three parts: the building itself, a moat (with or without a drawbridge), and a surrounding village or town. Fundamentally, castles are based off of concentric circles of defense.

Three concentric circles of defense in a typical medieval castle.
Three concentric circles of defense in a typical medieval castle.

The space within each circle has a specific design and purpose. For the occupants of the medieval castle, this design was very effective in protecting them. These concentric circles of defense were laid out as a series of obstacles that the enemy would have to break through in order to enter the castle. The defenses attackers would come into contact with in order was the open zone/village, the thick outer wall, a surrounding moat, a thick inner wall, and lastly the main castle structure. The main castle structure was used to house the most important person in the kingdom, the king. The structure itself was used to create a safe haven and protect its occupants while allowing them to survey the surrounding area for possible attacks.

Steep walls and central tower that views the entire surrounding area.
Steep walls and central tower that views the entire surrounding area.

An example of this is the Windsor Castle in the English county of Berkshire, requested by William the Conqueror and originally built in the 11th century but added onto throughout the years. Fitting the requirements of a typical Motte and Bailey Castle design, the Windsor Castle is placed atop a steep cliff far above the ground setting itself apart from the bank of the Thames River. Below the cliff where the castle resided was a small village. The cliffs allowed for residents of the castle to survey the land from above for potential attackers. Due to these steep cliffs the site was easy to defend from the east and the south. But the castle needed reinforcing because of the lack of natural defense on the north and the west facades. This problem promoted the idea of implementing moats into castle design.

Egeskov Castle, Funen – Denmark, 16th century, Lord High Constable Frans Brockenhaus

Although most castles did not have a moat, the castles that did, had an extra line of defense. Moats are deep wide ditches that are excavated around a castle and filled with water to create an extra barrier of defense against attackers.

Egeskov Castle isolates itself from the surrounding land.
Egeskov Castle isolates itself from the surrounding land.

Moats made the use of siege equipment difficult due to the separation of the attackers from the castle. Undermining and or digging tunnels under a fortification with a moat were very difficult if not impossible. An example of  a castle with a moat is the Egeskov castle located in the south of the island of Funen, Denmark, erected in the 16th century, requested by Lord High Constable Frands Brockenhaus.

The drawbridge separates the outside world from the castle itself.
The drawbridge separates the outside world from the castle itself.

This castle implements the concept of a moat in its design, having it completely surrounded only allowing access to the castle only through means of a drawbridge. In addition to a moat, kingdoms would sometimes have villages or small towns surrounding them.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh – Scotland, 12th Century, David I of Scotland

Although a village doesn’t act as a direct defense in terms of the castle, it can be considered a zone that can be patrolled and observed. This idea of surveillance and observation can be applied to a broad range of focuses. Looking at a surrounding village creates a good amount of distance between the neighboring area and the castle’s perimeter. An example of this would be the Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, built in the 12th century by David I of Scotland.

Buffer zone created between the castle and the surrounding village.
Buffer zone created between the castle and the surrounding village.

This castle is placed atop a hill overlooking its surround village (now a large city). The village itself creates a physical barrier of protection around the castle that can be guarded, patrolled, and surveyed for enemies. This aerial view image is showing the buffer zone created between the castle and the surrounding village.

Relation to Thesis

These three aspects of castle design: the strength of the walls, the moat that separates the castle from attackers, and the village below, are all used to create a space that is both safe for its occupants and is controllable by the guards. These concepts, though outdated, can be implemented in modern terms by creating a series of obstacles visitors must enter through in order to gain access to a school, in turn putting more space between the children in the school and the possible attackers penetrating its walls. This idea of surveillance was skewed when Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon came into focus.

Prisons: Panopticon, N/A, 18th century, Jeremy Bentham

Plan and sectional perspective of Bentham’s proposed Panopticon.

The concept of the Panopticon was designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The main idea of this building was to give the guards the ability to observe all the inmates of a jail without the inmates themselves knowing whether they were being observed or not. This design makes the presence of being watched all the time ever-present the mind of the inmates, hopefully making them a better citizen if and when they were released from jail. The building’s design consisted of a central observation post where the guard was able to view all the jail cells within the structure. These jail cells were positioned in a circle around the perimeter of the institution. Depending on the time of day, prisoners would be able to be seen silhouetted within their respective jail cells. The effect of prisoners being unseen in other prisons would allow them to devise schemes with other inmates or potentially create weapons. The effect of

The interior of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon.
The interior of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

prisoners being seen would deny them this right to privacy, which in turn would prevent the planning of violence. Jeremy Bentham’s original design was conceived as being a basic plan that could equally be applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1829, John Haviland

Radial layout of the Eastern State Penitentiary
Radial layout of the Eastern State Penitentiary.

The Eastern State Penitentiary designed and built by John Haviland in 1829 was based upon the same concept of the Panopticon. Similarly to the Panopticon’s central viewing tower, the Eastern State Penitentiary used a central tower to keep watch over jail cells, which extended outwards in a radial pattern from the center. Although it used this same idea it was not implemented in the best manner.

This image is showing how the view from the center of the institution is not looking directly into each of the inmates cells. For this reason, they were unable to keep track of all the inmates at the same time, allowing them to communicate and etc.
The limited view of the interior of the cells in the penitentiary.

Due to the fact that the cells faced away from the central viewing tower, the guards were unable to see inside the jail cells, unlike the jail cells in the proposed Panopticon where inmates were viewed twenty four seven. This meant that prisoners were still able to create weapons and communicate without being scene. This image is showing how the view from the center of the institution is not looking directly into each of the inmates cells. For this reason, they were unable to keep track of all the inmates at the same time, allowing them to communicate and etc.

Relation to Thesis

This concept of ever-present surveillance can be adapted and implemented in school settings to allow for teachers and students to have a visual on a large portion of the school if not all of it. This will theoretically change the actions of others in a school setting if they know they are constantly under surveillance. If an intruder were to gain access to the building, students in other classrooms would be aware of their presence as well and would be able to act accordingly. This idea of surveillance and increased security is also seen in other architectural forms such as housing.

Public Housing : Public Housing Projects, Yonkers, New York, 1996, Oscar Newman

The first location was a series of public housing areas in Yonkers, New York. Initially, Yonkers was a segregated, high-crime area where public housing was very dense.

A typical site plan for a 48 unit site.
A typical site plan for a 48 unit site.

Newman hoped to change this by implementing his concepts concerning defensible spaces. The main task was to eliminate all public areas. These areas would instead be assigned to individual families for private use. Corridors, fire stairs, elevators, and lobbies would all be removed. Each family was assigned a front yard and rear yard that was defined by a fence. The proposed plan for these yards was that eventually families would have space immediately outside of their houses that they would identify with. This created a sense of jealousy among the residents where they would guard and maintain what was now theirs. By dividing these spaces between individual families it also decreased the area that criminal activity was able to inhabit.

Set of scattered units in Yonkers, New York.
Set of scattered units in Yonkers, New York.

Newman also suggested that they place the 200 buildings over the seven sites available in an effort to eliminate such crowding in these areas. This contrasted with what The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Program (HUD) proposed: that these 200 buildings should be placed on two sites instead of the total seven due to cost restrictions. Newman’s idea proved to be more effective because by abiding by the HUD’s proposal, they weren’t solving the issue of overly dense housing in Yonkers, they were embodying it. Overall, the plan to reduce the density of these sites was successful and led to a significant decrease in crime.

Clason Point Project, South Bronx, New York City, 1996, Oscar Newman

In his second project, Newman attempted to again change the structure in Clason Point, located in South Bronx, New York City. The original state of Clason Point was terrible and was scheduled to be demolished after World War I but remained intact.

Clason Point in it's original state.
Clason Point in it’s original state.

As a result, it suffered from a 30 percent vacancy rate which allowed drugs, gang violence, and prostitution to take place in these spaces. To combat this, again areas were subdivided among residents by use of fences and transforming large public spaces into smaller private spaces. The common areas between buildings where criminal activity occurred were transformed into areas where children would play after school and congregate. Benches and small gardens were also introduced into these spaces. The increased use of these common spaces by residents of the community pushed criminal activity out of the area. Lighting was improved to add a higher visibility of sidewalks allowing residents to survey the area more easily. Residents felt a stronger connection to spaces that they were assigned. The project had proved to be more of a success than Newman originally thought,

Clason Point after it's revitalization.
Clason Point after it’s revitalization.

with residents extending their spaces to other areas that were not originally theirs. This growing familiarity with the environment allowed residents to assess who belonged in these spaces and who did not. As a whole, the concepts implemented in Clason Point decreased crime and again promoted ownership among residents of these defined spaces. He carried over the concepts in these last two examples in his last project.

Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, Missouri, 1996, Oscar Newman

The last project was a public housing high rise, Pruitt-Igoe, in St. Louis Missouri. Similar to the previous two cases this area was ridden with crime and vandalism. Though the density of the space was not very high, residents were elevated above eleven stories. The architect wanted the ground floor to be completely open and act as a space that was available to residents for community activities.

Vandalism spread on the walls of one of the buildings in Pruitt Igoe.
Vandalism spread on the walls of one of the buildings in Pruitt Igoe.

Over time the community room became dirty as glass bottles and trash littered the floor. Vandalism was spewed on the walls and the room was completely disregarded. This happened because no one felt that this collective space was their personal space, it was just the community space. As a result residents tended to disassociate themselves as responsible for it and the space became anonymous. This was also seen in the hallways and corridors. The rooms in the high rise were well-managed and kept clean, but the hallways remained littered. This juxtaposition was another example of how spaces that were assigned to an individual or small group of individuals stayed clean and maintained. This also prompted the question of why middle class high rises were in better shape than these lower class high rises.

Positive relationship between building height and public spaces.
Positive relationship between building height and public spaces.

It was because they were able to hire staff to remain present in the building at all times where in lower class neighborhoods this was not able to occur. Instead of bringing in more money, Newman opted to design the floors so that there was limited public space and assign spaces to families. There was also a positive relation between the height of the buildings and the area of interior public space, so the higher the building the more difficult it became for the architect to assign private spaces. By decreasing the amount of public space in the high rises Newman was able to reverse the process of residents disowning certain areas, and they in turn cared for their spaces.

Relation to Thesis

The concepts implemented in Newman’s residential housing projects can be applied to school design as well. Newman emphasizes assigning public spaces to individuals because they will identify with the space more directly and thus will take better care of what is theirs. This influx of residents in these spaces will also drive out the criminal activities that take place there. The transition from large public spaces to smaller private spaces allows for residents to have greater control over their defined area.


In summation, the concepts and ideas presented by medieval castles, prisons, and residential urban housing provide a multitude of solutions to increasing the safety of schools today. Many times the media looks through a less informative lens instead of looking at what is most obvious. Looking at these architectural precedents will undoubtedly provide information for present architects on how to build in a way that keeps students safer when attending school. In the future we hope that architects are able to become more aware of this and build accordingly.


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Harrell , Adele, and Caterina Gouvis. Predicting Neighborhood Risk of Crime. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1994.

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