Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Discipline and Design

"Communications office bunker below the Imperial Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam," photograph by Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority, 2007

Looking to get a travel visa, I recently made my way to the Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations. Whooshing through the revolving door and into the United Nations Plaza, the usual trappings of New York City office-building lobby life were all present: guards behind the desk, bag checks, Tensabarrier lines, sign-in sheets.

Emerging onto the fourth floor, I again felt a rather familiar feeling descend. The hallways, buffed and polished with ancient strata layers of industrial-strength wax, were lined with solid metal doors, each painted the same, Pantone-exact shade of dark gray. The doors were marked with standardized nameplates, each bearing the name of semi-official, semi-dubious import-export agencies and the like. Entering the Mission, I saw a gilt-edged clock in the shape of Viet Nam to the right, and a florid portrait of Ho Chi Minh to the left (a curious departure, I thought, from the usual practice of putting the current head of state on display). As there was a short queue, the small row of chairs occupied, the man behind the desk ushered me into a nondescript back room, where I leafed through old ASEAN trade reports.

Soon grown bored with rice harvest estimates, I began to think about the aesthetics of the place. From the minute I walked through the doors of 866 UN Plaza, everything had screamed "bureaucracy." There was the careful arranging of distancing space, the mind-numbing repetition of the décor, the ritualized processes of official engagement. But I wondered: How does it get to be this way? How does bureaucratic design arise? Is it a function of bureaucracy itself, or does it work to further the bureaucratic agenda? Are there official guidebooks that recommend exactly which colors of gray will induce the desired feelings of subordination, alienation and anonymity? Does it have to look the way it does to be what it is?

These thoughts came to mind again while looking through the photographer Richard Ross's eerily poignant and affecting book, Architecture of Authority (whose title seems even more authoritative without the "the"). Ross, in an incredible act of bureaucratic finagling, somehow talked himself into any number of the world's most secretive spaces, from holding cells at Guantanamo Bay to detainee housing at Abu Ghraib. There too are spaces that are ostensibly less secret, like Customs checkpoints at LAX at inspection points at the U.S.-Mexico border, but even the photographing of these spaces — which now of course bear "No Photography" signs — now takes some work.

"Secondary Inspection Room, U.S. Customs, Los Angeles International Airport," photograph by Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority, 2007

Some of the most bluntly powerful photographs are of the places that exude the most authority, those places built to confine, restrain or seemingly strip away any kind of humanity through a radical reordering of architectural space, a draining of context: a shot of one stark white holding room literally has, as one of its few features, a drain on the floor, as if everything else that existed there had been sucked down through it. The "Secondary Inspection Room" (the "pat-down room") at the U.S. Customs unit at LAX, for example, is breathtakingly empty; a white cube with a simple rectangle of overhead fluorescent light, one power outlet, and, thrust against the far wall, a simple blue table with only one seat (which floats off the ground). There is a kind of artistic purity to it, like James Turrell channeling Kafka, but also an asphyxiating absence of life — not even a banal sign on the wall or yellowing Far Side cartoons to stare at while you're being searched.

But I was more intrigued by Ross's photographs of the less alien spaces — the schools and waiting rooms of everyday life. The second-floor corridor of Santa Barbara High School, with the dull shine of its gray linoleum floor stretching into the distance, brought me right back to the UN Plaza. Or the row of bluish-gray chairs, lined up perfectly in front of a light gray backdrop, with only a clock to break the visual monotony, at a California DMV office. Looking at these places, it's hard not to wonder if they look the way they do for simple reasons of economy and efficiency, or whether they meet some environment psychologist's strictures of calming techniques. Or even whether they are meant to influence our behavior, subsuming us to their logic and reformulating our subjectivity, albeit in ways less obvious than things like traffic markings (which Ross also includes).

"Confessional, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris," photograph by Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority, 2007

For example, to what extent do the battered interrogation rooms in the LAPD headquarters, shown in Ross' book with their scarred, dirty acoustical tiled-walls and institutional furniture (with a dangling pair of handcuffs attached), in which you can almost breathe the long hours of sweat and smoke, induce criminal suspects to offer their confessions (as do, Ross suggests, the architecture of Catholic confessionals), either through the compactness of the space itself, the hidden gaze from behind the two-way mirror, or precisely through their legibility as police interrogation rooms, familiar to us all through countless cop shows? What if, to use a TV example, suspects were interviewed in Dr. Melfi's office on The Sopranos, while Tony vented to Dr. Melfi in one of these police interrogation rooms? How would the subjects change, how would the dialogue change?

In Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault argued that the surveillance techniques of Bentham's panopticon had gradually spread to the less punitive institutions of daily life, from the workplace to schools, and that "the practice of placing individuals under 'observation' is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures." And it's hard not to feel constantly in a panopticon these days, queuing to approach the plexiglassed Customs window in some airport under the dusky globe of panoramic CCTV. In a different vein, consider doctor's offices, those sites of "examination." Ross does not include them here, but their regimentations of space, and dramas of subjugation, are quite familiar to us all: The sign-in sheets, the rows of waiting-room chairs, the waiting itself (we lose power in not knowing the wait time), the brief sequestering in solitary confinement, stripped and sitting on a cold metal table and waiting again, thus weakened and humbled in time to face the authority of the doctor. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David riffs brilliantly on these routines: the protocol of the sign-in sheet (is your name called by appointment time or by your rank on the sheet?), or having to first describe your condition to the nurse, to then only have to repeat it to the doctor. He takes this to its absurd end when he dates a doctor (after first making an "appointment"), who turns out to have a reception desk in her home (replete with waiting room and magazines) and a doctor's scale in her bathroom. She sends him notes scribbled on prescription pads in the famously illegible scrawl (another way of maintaining authority?).

"Mary Boone Gallery, New York," photograph by Richard Ross, Architecture of Authority, 2007

Ross's book recalls another brilliant evocation of these hidden-in-plain-daylight design conventions, the photographer Andy Freeberg's Sentry series, which documented the peculiar, if overlooked, fact that virtually all art galleries possess the same front-of-house convention: a massive desk, usually a blank white slab, behind which the gallerist's head is just partially visible. It's a whimsical, if spot-on, summation of the aesthetics of intimidation, exclusivity and lack of transparency that make the art market work in the first place. On a more sweeping and fully realized scale, Ross probes the disciplinary dynamics in the cruel hidden places you would expect them, and in the banal everyday places you might not have even noticed them.

Posted in: Architecture, Media, Photography

Comments [6]

The first set of questions posed, Is it (design) a function of bureaucracy itself, or does it work to further the bureaucratic agenda? Are there official guidebooks that recommend exactly which colors of gray will induce the desired feelings of subordination, alienation and anonymity? Does it have to look the way it does to be what it is?

I feel that places, like the United Nations Plaza, are designed to make the visitor feel a sense of intimidation. Also, it could be a way for them to say "do what you need to and then get out" because of the volume of visitors on a daily basis. If they very as comfy as a coffee shop people would go there to read the paper or just "hang out".

As for school waiting rooms and DMV offices, it is highly possible that the makers of places such as these simply do not have a desire to design. It does seem that waiting rooms are always either under-designed or way over-designed. It would be great if every waiting area, no matter where it is, could be designed and decorated with the intent to make its inhabitants comfortable but this is not a realistic goal for a lot of places. Do schools really have the funds they can budget for decoration? And do we, as taxpayers, really want to pitch in to help out in this area?

Mr. Vanderbilt highlights that cold bureaucratic spaces are not just senseless design but intentional authoritative tools to control people. It is unfortunate that we have to spend any time visiting these places, whether seeing the doctor, being interrogated or visiting an art gallery. Consider the long term dehumanizing impact of routinely being in one of these dead spaces—people start to reflect the places they spend time in. I am fortunate to have windows and a plant near my desk, though I write this under the fluorescent light of my cubicle, which is a controlling space in its own way.
Aaron Stienstra

Really interesting review of the book and Ross' work. I'm going to have to check it out. I am especially interested in the questions raised by Ross' juxtaposition of different modernist designs (from the seemingly benign (Mary Boone Gallery) to the terrifying) and what that adds to the critique of a modernist aesthetic. I also interested in your juxtaposition of the Foucault's critique of Order and look forward to revisiting those ideas, especially the question of whether this design effects are unique to a modernist aesthetic.

Joshua Herbert


We, as designers, "do everything for a reason" so to speak even if it is not consciously so. It may be true that the people who design spaces such as schools and DMV offices do not have a "desire to design", but that doesn't change the fact that they have indeed designed the spaces, whether they realize it or not.

I think it would be more accurate to say that the non-designers of these spaces tend to try and match aesthetics that they recognize as the norm with that particular type of space; things they are used to seeing in these places. Maybe we feel that it adds to the credibility of the institution? I don't know. But I know that there is a reason we are drawn to certain aesthetics, designers or not. People may not "know" design, but there is a sense people get from design, intentional or not, and when you "design" a space you definitely communicate what the person entering the space is supposed to do/feel when they are there.

everyone knows what authority is and those who have it know how to project it. I guess it evolve from the first chieftain who decided he go the biggest rock to sit on.

I found it interesting that the least "scary" of the images shown here is the first one. The Communications office bunker below the Imperial Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe because we've seen rooms like that in a thousand movies. The Secondary Inspection Room at Los Angeles International Airport is the most disturbing. Maybe it's that cold but cheery blue in that stark space.

"the places that exude the most authority, those places built to confine, restrain or seemingly strip away any kind of humanity through a radical reordering of architectural space"

Why don't we take something we all know well a office cubicle. These spaces have been engineered to perform exactly what the quote specifies. Cubicles do indeed influence our actions we become submissive and passive forced to work with no end in sight. Moreover, they reduce person to person communication within the corporate structure which has been noted to reduce productivity, the exact thing they are supposed to increase.

Prague Designed

Jobs | July 23