Fatma Gonca Tunc and Monica Cabrera

Architecture is a venue towards the infringement on human rights.  Buildings pertaining to the prison typology, many would agree, are the best examples of this harm. This is due to the fact that they are renditions of modern-day slave forts. To which they are similar not only in their physical manifestations, but more than that, in the way they exploit the happenings within their walls. That is to say, that notorious containment facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and the Eastern State Penitentiary, derive most of their fame from their exploitation of human rights. These were places much like the famous slave fort, Elmina Castle. Places of domination, and of course, involuntary subjugation. In this sense, structures utilized for the purpose of containment and chastisement are characterized by their manipulation and restriction of the human senses (e.g. sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and perception) as will be explored in the above-mentioned edifications.


Slave Forts (The Elmina Castle)

Elmina Castle, Ghana, Afrika, 1482

In the 15th century, slavery was a common practice. Portugal was the first country to engage and successfully develop an infrastructure for the trading and enslavement of Afrikan slaves. Portugal, among other European powers, dominated the trade market. The most prominent of all forts erected for this purpose was Fort São Jorge de Mina, most commonly known as Elmina Castle. The slave quarters within were comprised of dark dungeons located in the basement of the castle. This animal-pen-like dungeons had two small slits, which allowed for some insignificant airflow and light to penetrate. Living as animals, the slaves were not privy to luxuries such as water and basic sanitation, and the food that was provided for them, was sufficient so that only the strong would survive. Originally designed to hold 200 slaves, the limits of these enclosures were contested, by at time housing up to 1,000 Afrikans, which had to remain in these dungeons for upwards of 3 months before being traded off. In distinct contrast to the barbaric appearance of the dungeons, the Officer’s quarters, located on the uppermost expanse of the castle was airy and light in construction, composed of big windows offering a view of the vast expanse of white sand and navy oceans. This 97,000 square-foot rectangular composition was balanced on the tip of Elmina’s peninsula, with four immense watch towers on the four main corners of the plan which allowed the guards on watch to supervise the slaves while they were permitted on the main courtyard. It was the first pre-cast building to have been planned and executed in Sub-Saharan Afrika. And its inherent vertical division, in terms of the hierarchal arrangement of the slaves versus the Officers, was a direct commentary on the status of the people, and as such the abhorrent living conditions of some, and the luxurious ones of others.

Plan of the Elmina Castle in Ghana, Afrika, which shows the massing of the castle and its interaction with the site.
Francis D.K. Ching and Mark Jarzombek and Vikramaditya Prakash, The Global History of Architecture, 1943, p. 556.


Eastern State Penitentiary

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

Designed by English neo-classical architect John Haviland, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was the grounds for social reform. Begun in 1822, the world’s first penitentiary marked a new era of imprisonment upon the opening of its doors in 1829. Precedents had been previously established as to the treatment of the inmates, but the Penitentiary harbored the first instance of Quaker ministrations in such a capacity. Based on the concept of penitence, Haviland wanted the building to be perceived as a monastery. The system utilized for the administration of the Penitentiary, titled the Separate System, ­ consisted of the ideology that prisoners when faced with complete isolation, would feel remorse for their crimes, and would repent, and thus emerge as cleansed men. The exterior façade differed immensely from the interior in respect to what it sought to communicate to its audience. The exterior demarcated a stance of power, as it conveyed that it was a place of containment and barricade, while the interior bespoke of a monastery-like vernacular. The wagon wheel design was engendered as a facilitator for the supervision of the prisoners, as well as an inhibitor of attempts at escaping the compound. The floor plan originally consisted of seven single-story cell blocks, each with two rows of large single cells all emanating from a common point, on which Haviland located a two-story octagonal rotunda. This strategic floor plan was termed the hub-and-spoke plan. The Penitentiary’s doors were opened before construction was finalized. And in lieu with the growing crime in Pennsylvania, it was made apparent that the Penitentiary would have to accommodate for more prisoners than what was originally intended. A typical prisoner cell was composed of a solid concrete rectangular block with either a skylight or a window, which were called “The Window/Eye of God.” It was dimensioned at 8’x12’ and usually was 10’ tall, with hot water heating in order to conserve a comfortable temperature within the cells, as well as a water tap for the prisoner’s use, a toilet, and an exercise yard attached to each cell.  By the completion of the Cell Block 3, the plans had to be modified for the remaining four cell blocks as to allow for a second story in all. Later on, additional cell blocks had to be constructed in order to accommodate for more and more prisoners. One of these additions was Cell Block 15, which was most commonly known for the fact that it housed the most dangerous and misbehaved of prisoners. Such was the danger these inmates posed, that the guards were physically removed from the inmates at all times by the use of gates. As opposed to the original scheme of the penitentiary, the guards developed a series of torture regimens in order to ‘punish’ the inmates for misbehavior. Some examples of the most common practices were: The Water Bath, The Iron Gag, The Mad Chair, and The Hole. The Water Bath consisted of the guards throwing ice water at the prisoners and then hanging them from the walls of the penitentiary and left to dry during the night. The Iron Gag and The Mad Chair were similar in nature to the Water Bath, as it was physical torture. The Hole, however, took on another dimension, as it consisted of a design simple in nature: a lightless pit with absolutely zero ventilation which had been dug under Cell Block 14. It was common practice to leave the inmates there for days and sometimes whole weeks with little to no food and very scarce amounts of water, in order to minimize any interaction with the prisoner. These chambers were created for the purpose of torture, and were successful in their endeavor, but the practice was not limited to these walls, in that it transgressed through the whole facility due to the configuration of the cells, which provided their own manner of torturous practices in their enforcement of subjugation.

This is John Haviland’s original proposition of the seven wings radiating from the rotunda.
Eastern State Penitentiary, “1836 Plan,”


Camp Delta

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Bahía de Guantanamo, Cuba (US Territory)

Guantanamo Bay is comprised of numerous erections, including a detention camp. The buildings within are characterized by their resemblance to animal holding cells in that they are assembled from precast steel pieces, which, when conjoined, make up block of forty square-foot cells. Each block, is composed of four of these cells flanking either side of a main corridor. The walls of the cells are made of steel mesh which allow light to penetrate during the day, and taunt the inmates with the fact that all their senses are engaged with the outside. That is to say: They can observe their surrounding, hear everything that is going on, communicate verbally with outsiders; even their sense of smell is readily engaged. However, this mesh provides a mere illusion, as they can interact with the camp, but they are physically far removed from it.

This is a floor plan of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base Camp and Detainment Facilities.
University of Texas Libraries, “Camp delta assembly areas 2003,”



Places of containment are characterized by their physical manifestation and its effect on the human mind. Torture is a common practice in facilities which are of the same nature as Elmina Castle, the Eastern State Penitentiary, and Camp Delta within Guantanamo Bay. In the same way as architecture was created as a form of shelter from the elements, it has as well developed a capacity to harbor a jurisdiction of its own in which its inhabitants may be subjected to treatment which may not be permitted outside of the confines. In that sense, architecture creates a possibility for torturous practices. That is to say, that the laws that apply to the outside world, do not necessarily translate within these compounds. Instead of these edifications being simple detainment (holding) facilities, they have evolved into torture chambers.




Charlie Savage, “Judge Urges President to Address Prison Strike”, The New York Times, 8 July 2013,

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, “Gitmo Is Killing Me”, The New York Times, 14 April 2013,

“Slave forts case study”, USI: Understanding Slavery Initiative,

Wikipedia Contributors, “Eastern State Penitentiary,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

Millipedia: ethical multimedia, “Transatlantic Slave Trade”, The Real Histories Directory,

“Elmina and Cape Coast”,

Wikipedia contributors, “John Haviland,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

Eastern State Penitentiary, “General Overview,”

Shelly Gatto, “Eastern State Penitentiary,” Fringe Paranormal, 29 July 2011,

USI, Understanding Slavery, 2011

Emilie Filou, “A pilgrimage to Ghana’s slave forts”, 13 June 2013,

Rowan Mark, Male Slave Dungeon, 29 August 2013,

Encyclopedia Entries

“George W. Bush,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v., 2013,

“Guantanamo, Bagram and Illegal U.S. Detentions,” Amnesty International – USA,

Scholarly Articles

Fleur Johns, “Guantanamo Bay and the Annihilation of the Exception”, Oxford Journals: European Journal of International Law, September 2005,

“Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole,” Cambridge University Press: International & Comparative Law Quarterly, 17 September 2008,

Gareth Austin, “Factor markets in Nieboer conditions: pre-colonial West Africa, c. 1500-1900”, Cambridge University Press: Continuity and Change, May 2009,

Stuart Grassian, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Washington University Law: Journal of Law & Policy,

Chai Woodham, “Eastern State Penitentiary: A Prison With a Past”, Smithsonian Magazine, 1 October 2008,

Orthographic Documentation

“Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Caimanera, Guantanamo, Cuba”, Google Maps,

Scott Horton, “The Guantanamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle”, Harper’s Magazine, March 2010,

“Camp Delta Assembly Areas”, Wikimapia, 2011,

Bill Cobb, “Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”, Flickr, 10 June 2012

“Plan and section of a slave ship”, 13 September 2011,

Video and Audio

National Geographic, “Explorer: Inside Guantanamo”, YouTube, 7 February 2012,

Reprieve UK, “Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) demonstrates Guantanamo force-feeding Standard Operating Procedure”, YouTube, 8 July 2013,

GhanaTourism, “Elmina Castle,” YouTube, 16 May 2009,

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