Grey Room

Strategies of Containment: Iron, Fire, and Labor Management

Jonah Rowen

Edward Holl. Port Royal Naval Hospital, 1817–1820.


The insights of Robin Evans, Michel Foucault, and many others on the Panopticon as an “architectural figure”—and on “panopticism” as its theoretical corollary—make it easy to overlook the project’s constructional particularities. Yet its inventor, Samuel Bentham, planned the Panopticon in great material detail, notably in specifications for the building’s resistance to fire. Samuel (brother of Jeremy Bentham, with whose utilitarianism the structure is usually associated) “designed [the Panopticon] to be fire-proof, as far as any structure could be made so.” Above all, this meant using iron instead of wood. Thus Bentham’s specification gives the Panopticon a different set of architectural associations than Foucault’s “compact model of the disciplinary mechanism,” with its implications for modern imprisonment, spatial confinement, and scopic control. Instead, the Panopticon becomes one among a number of early projects conceived expressly for averting the threat of fire, according to a notion of containment that differs markedly from the confinement of bodies in space. Containment here meant a set of principles that allowed architects, engineers, and manufacturers to enact social-structural control by means of materiality.

The present article uncovers a connected lineage of experimental iron-structured buildings designed for the British navy in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Much as Foucault’s intellectual construct of panopticism diffused across society as a whole (and not only in the Panopticon’s shape), fire-resistant iron architecture also enacted a kind of control—over both human beings and nonhuman elements—unrelated to its form.