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Panopticon prisons prevented ‘moral contamination’

Architecture of judicial institutions and courthouses reflects the spirit of the times
05 December 2012

The panopticon prisons built in the late 19th century were designed to minimize contact between prisoners. It was felt that this would help inmates repent, would prevent ‘moral contamination’ and would maintain order and discipline. This simply echoed the ideas of the government of the day about the benefits of punishment. In that same period, the architecture of youth penitentiaries gradually came to reflect the belief that it was better to rehabilitate young people than to punish them. This is one of the many conclusions arrived at by cultural studies scholar Ros Floor in his doctoral thesis Architectuur van het recht. Nederlandse Justitiegebouwen 1870-1914 [Architecture of the judiciary. Dutch judicial buildings 1870-1914]. Floor will be awarded his PhD for this research at the University of Groningen on 13 December.

Floor’s study looked at the major construction of judicial institutions and courthouses in the period 1870 to 1914. In terms of intensity, this building campaign is matched only by the wave of new prisons and courthouses at the end of the 20th century.

Panopticon prisons

Today’s prisons look entirely different from the famous panopticon prisons of Arnhem, Breda and Haarlem. These days there is space for work and recreation, and prisoners are able to maintain social contacts – all of which is reflected in prison design. As well as cells, there are countless other spaces, and cells are often located in wings so that neighbours across the corridor are never far away. The panopticon prisons of more than a century ago were built with quite a different purpose in mind, says Floor. ‘The prison system wanted to prevent inmates from having contact with each other. In a wing prison you’re five metres away from your opposite neighbour. In a panopticon prison it’s 51 metres. This idea goes right back to the eighteenth century but it wasn’t often put into practice. It’s extraordinary that there are three such prisons in the Netherlands.’ Floor’s research reveals that it wasn’t only panopticon prisons that reflected the government’s desire at that time to lock up those whose behaviour was not tolerated. Criminals, beggars, vagrants, criminal and neglected youths and psychiatric patients were also incarcerated in closed institutions.

Building campaign

In the period that Floor describes, many courthouses, state reformatories, borstals and other judicial institutions were built as part of the overhaul of the judicial system under the 1848 Constitution. Legislation in 1875-1877 on the organization of the judiciary, the Penal Code (introduced in 1886) and child protection laws (which took effect in 1905) were milestones in this regard. This building activity is in many ways comparable to the judicial building campaign of a century later, says Floor. ‘The end of the 20th century saw another wave of building, which once again was linked to the rapid growth of the judicial domain. There are increasing numbers of court cases and today’s prisons have to satisfy very different requirements.’


This is the first time that such a detailed study has been made of the architecture of Dutch court buildings, state reformatories and borstals in particular. Floor’s interest was sparked during the period he spent working at the courthouse in Breda. ‘I routinely visited different courthouses and was struck by their grandeur. I became curious about the story behind the similarities and differences between these buildings.’ He discovered that the Ministry of Justice buildings reflected ideas about the societal role of the state, about jurisprudence, detention and rehabilitation, as well as about architecture. ‘In the period I studied, it was a functional architecture that prevailed, with a design that you could call eclectic. You can see a vocabulary of forms that was considered appropriate for judicial buildings. The courthouses – and there are surviving examples in Tiel, Zutphen, Breda and Rotterdam – had classical features, but also to an increasing degree displayed elements of the Neo-Renaissance. In the more recent state reformatories and borstals we see elements of the Chalet style, including decorated eaves. These youth penitentiaries provided space to house young people in groups of fifteen rather than in individual cells.’


The rather uniform architectural design is due in part to the fact that from 1870 onwards the Ministry of Justice had its own project control department headed by an architectural engineer who designed the buildings himself. Initially this was J.F. Metzelaar (1818-1897), who was succeeded in 1886 by his son W.C. Metzelaar (1848-1918). In the years 1922-1924 the department became part of the Government Buildings Agency.

Curriculum vitae

Ros Floor (Vleuten, 1950) completed his degree in sociology in 1974. He later studied general culture studies at the Open University of the Netherlands (until 2004). In 2009 he published a monograph on the Metzelaars, father and son. Floor’s PhD research was carried out under the supervision of Prof. A. van der Woud at the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen. He is currently working as a quality, planning and control advisor for the National Office of the Child Care and Protection Board in Utrecht.

For more information

Ros Floor,

Last modified:22 November 2021 3.40 p.m.
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