The city also belongs to prisoners!

Modernisation of prisons in Belgium is in full swing. The Valaar site in Wilrijk was recently announced as the location for the new Antwerp detention facility. With a view of the project definition for Antwerp, it is important to learn from the finalised design process of the prisons in Beveren and Dendermonde. Stéphane Beel’s clean design can after all not disguise that prisons are already outmoded at the time of

Form without content

It is thanks to Stefaan De Clerck, former Belgian Minister of Justice, that within the historic wave of renewal of prisons, substantial attention is being paid to the architectural and spatial qualities of prisons. With an ambitious Master Plan 2008-2012-2016 and a visionary offensive, expectations were certainly increased. The
architectural and spatial qualities were also included as a criterion (20 points out of a 100) in the public tender for the so-called 4Gs – a public-private partnership (DBFM) for the construction of prisons in Beveren, Dendermonde, Leuze-en-Hainaut and Marche-en-Famenne.


The exaggerated ambitions met with fierce criticism from Peter Vermeulen (Ruimte Magazine #4, Jan-Feb 2010). He argued that the architectural quality impulse was unrelated to a well-thought-out vision on humane detention. After all, the first selection of candidate builders was based on financial capacity, references and an extremely modest ‘vision on detention’. Vermeulen predicted that the introduction of well-known, prestigious architects is insufficient for a fundamental renewal of prison architecture.


This prediction is today confirmed by the construction of the prisons in Beveren and Dendermonde by Dutch developer BAM-PPP. The parties involved naturally boast about the realisation of quality architecture. It is however doubtful whether Stéphane Beel’s signature architectural style also involves a renewal in content. An update in the criminal sentencing is nowhere to be found in the design; Edouard Ducpétiaux nineteenth-century vision is maintained and the Basic Law 2005 (Basiswet) is largely ignored.


The dominant position of the cell clearly shows that life in the prisons of Beveren en Dendermonde will be hardly any different from that in previous centuries. There is nothing to exclude the use of cells by multiple persons. The entire space outside of the cells is designed from a viewpoint of security angst – not from a more positive vision on work, recreation or reintegration into society. And again we see a generic design that, using some minor modifications, can be reproduced at various locations.




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