By Kate Ritter.
We often experience architecture by physical means – moving through a space, touching its walls, studying the way a truss is joined. But another important side of understanding a building is through the emotions it evokes. These can be generated through accounts of people and historic events, and also through atmosphere, which tends to be less tangible.
Twice this past summer, I co-lead an outing to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. This maximum-security prison, with its imposing concrete wall that seems to go on forever, envelopes a spectrum of architectural styles, and is a prime example of how “sense of place” is a powerful concept. During the tour, which is filled to capacity each year, our participants were given a historic background of the prison’s evolution. We discussed the preservation challenges surrounding a cluster of vacant employee residences, built in the Craftsman and Colonial Revival styles, standing in limbo until a use could be fulfilled once again. We marveled at the grand Richardsonian Romanesque hospital complex, known as “the Annex,” illustrating a norm of institutional architecture from the late-19th century. Absorbing the prison externally was nothing less than interesting, but it wasn’t until we entered through the security area and heard the heavy steel door close and lock behind us that we really began to feel what this place is about.
Having been a generally adventuresome person throughout my life, I was more intrigued than nervous about witnessing the inside of a large active prison. But my curiosity was accompanied by a shred of intensity as we walked along through the narrow hallways. Our group was instructed to stay to the right, and remain in two lines. Harsh materials were everywhere – iron, wire, concrete, brick – and the echoes of squeaking gates and faint television chatter travelled throughout the long corridors.
At one point, a prisoner who was working as a porter came to converse with our group. He was sentenced for life, and was privileged to have a job at the prison for his long-term good behavior. As he talked about his existence in the utilitarian 1930s and 40s cellblocks, and never having known his grandchildren, the personal aspect of this place began to combine with my thoughts surrounding its character. Our tour of Clinton Correctional Facility exemplifies how humans and our environments are intertwined. Viewing is just one element of processing context, and whether modest or grand, inviting or foreboding, every place has a story to tell.
Kate Ritter is the program director with AARCH, and has enjoyed exploring and absorbing places off-the-beaten-path throughout most of her life.