Last edited 03 Nov 2020



The Panopticon is an architectural concept design for institutional buildings, most commonly associated with prisons. It was developed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late-18th century as a building that would serve as a system of control. The name was derived from the figure in Greek mythology, Panoptes, who was a giant with a hundred eyes.

The form of the panopticon was based around the idea that all the inhabitants (or inmates) of an institution could be monitored by a single central figure (or guard) at all times. While it is impossible for the single figure to observe everyone at once, the idea was that since those under surveillance would not know when they were being observed, they would be incentivised to act as though they were always being observed.

In terms of architecture, Bentham’s drawings proposed a circular structure with individual cells arranged along the external wall. These would face inwards towards a central rotunda or ‘inspection house’ from which the guard would be able to observe all the inmates.

Bentham conceived the panopticon as a suitable concept, not just for prisons, but for buildings such as schools, hospitals, asylums, and so on. Although no true panopticon was ever constructed, the radial concept was very influential on building designers, particularly 19th century prisons (e.g. HM Wandsworth, HM Strangeways, UK). Perhaps the closest example is the Presidio Modelo in Cuba which is now a museum.

Despite the fact that panopticons were never built, Bentham’s concept has become synonymous with theories relating to surveillance, control and security.

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