I have visited many amazing places the past weeks, but I have to say, that not often you can describe something with the word spellbinding. However one place in Breda for sure deserves this word, as it is extremely interesting and holds your attention completely. Koepel Panopticon Prison is one of the three panopticon- inspired prisons in Netherlands, and we were extremely lucky with lady A to visit this prisons last month. The prison was actually operating till 2014, and has not been open for public very often after that. But it seems once again, that we have been in a right place in a right time with lady A, as I have heard from locals how hard it is to visit this place. It will be difficult to give a good overview of this amazing building and the idea behind it, but let`s try!
I have to say, that before visiting the prison I had never heard about panopticon buildings. I mean I knew these kind of buildings exist, but I did not know more about the idea behind it. And more I have read about it, more interesting it is, so I want to give a short overview about the idea behind panopticon. The panopticon is a institution building type, which was originally designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1798. The idea behind the concept design is, that all (pan-) prisoners can be observed (-opticon) without them knowing if and when they are being watched. The clear view of every prisoner is reach because of the central platform, and the cells are surrounding this area in a ring. It is not of course possible, that one guard could see in every direction, but when the prisoners can not know when they are watched, they have to act as they would be watched at all times. This is said to control effectively prisoners own behavior constantly – interesting! What is also interesting, is that the word panopticon is reference to the name of a hundred eyes giant Panoptes from Greek mythology.
Bentham did not originally plan panopticon only for prisons, but to be used for hospitals, schools and other institutional buildings also. Still when talking about panopticon mostly people relate it to prisons. In Bentham`s original design, addition to guards being able to see the prisoners all the time, another essential element was, that the prisoners could not see the guards. However no true panopticon prison following Bentham`s original design has ever been built (not sure why), but many circular prisons with panopticon tower has been build. There are approximately 25 panopticon inspired prisons in the world, and in the Netherlands there are three of these.
Architect Johan Frederik Metzelaar desigend the Koepel panoticon prison in Breda, and it was built between 1886-1895. The prison has housed both men and women, but the most known prisoners are “The Four of Breda”. They were German war criminals captured during the Second World War. In 2001 the prison got national monument status and then in 2014 the prison was closed. After it has been housing refugees, which sounds like a smart move, as there is a lot space and “private” rooms. I tried to find out which kind of plans has been made for the future, but did not find information about this. I think it would be amazing venue for many things, so I hope they will use it innovatively.
Only the first floor cells were open during our visit, and they were actually nothing special. But it would surely have been interesting to see the prison from “higher” for different view and photos. And I have to say it was SO difficult to make photos in a round area, which would give good overview of the place.
There is also ground floor in the prison, and the main floor is partly made from glass. But visitors were not allowed to walk in the glass area, which was a smart thing as both me, and lady A were wearing dresses that day.
The ground floor had this one bigger room with arches and I cannot imagine for what use this space was designed originally. Maybe for the guards, or?
In the ground floor there were also few rooms with kitchen. I kept wondering if these were open for the prisoners in the last years, or if these were maybe build when the prison was used for the refugees. I think it is nice not to know all the details when visiting places like this, so then you can imagine different “solutions”. Maybe later I will find the right answers and then it will be nice to see how close my thoughts were.
The prison is so huge, that it felt like there was not so many people visiting it, even tough I think there was actually a lot people. The day we visited the prison, you needed to have a reservation for your visit. Thank`s lady A for making it! It was nice that they controlled how much people would be same time inside, so you could make your visit without crowd. But I also think that this way not everyone got the change to visit the prison, which is sad.
Outside the prison looks more like a castle and I could have never guessed, that the building has been a prison.
I have to say, that this post ended up being much more “lesson” of history than I originally planned it to be. However, I hope you got at least some view of panopticon and the old prison. Have a nice evening!