Panopticon Prison Haarlem: Turning the cupola inside out


The Netherlands is in the process of closing 19 of its prisons. For one, because the number of prisoners has declined to such an extent that it left many prisons (half)empty. And two, for reasons of austerity closely linked to the ‘Masterplan‘: older and smaller prisons  will be substitute for newly built and larger complexes. As a consequence, many monumental prison buildings are being sold or given a new purpose. One of these prisons is the Panopticon Prison in Haarlem.

Built at the turn of the 20th Century, the 55-diameter cupola housed 200 prisoners at a time until it closed down in 2016. As the name of my blog reveals, the Panopticon Prison is a concept close to my heart, and especially the one in Haarlem. It was the first prison I ever visited, for research purposes in 2012. Its beautiful design not only adds an interesting shape to the Haarlem skyline, it also offers a unique insight into the influence of architecture on behaviour. Its uniqueness is further extended by the fact that only a handful of Panopticon Prisons have ever been built in the entire world. The design by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) influenced many prison architects, however the three Panopticon Prisons in The Netherlands – aside from Haarlem there also is, or was, a Panopticon Prison in Arnhem and one in Breda – belong to the few that resembles the original design the closest.

In 2016, all three panopticons in The Netherlands have closed down and thankfully all will be preserved. Interestingly enough, they all temporarily housed immigrants awaiting residence permit in 2016 and Arnhem and Breda are currently housing a Prison Escape Game while awaiting the official new destination. But all eyes are set on Haarlem, as a citizens’ initiative recently succeeded in convincing the municipality to redesign the prison into a university.

Last week, I met up with Jacqueline van de Sande, the chair of the small team that is the driving force behind the ‘Open the Cupola‘ initiative. Upon hearing of the closure of the Panopticon Prison in her home town, a friend asked her to brainstorm about the possible social functions this unique location could fulfil. The historical city of Haarlem has all there is to offer to its inhabitants and visitors; monumental architecture, classical arts, modern music. But one thing could be added: a university.

Scribbling on a coaster, the idea of a University College came to mind. A small-sized university according to the American liberal arts college system, where student get taught in English and specialisations are only determined after the first year of studying. Founder of the Dutch model, Hans Adriaansens, opened its first one in Utrecht in 1999 and since then 6 more have opened throughout The Netherlands. I have completed my undergraduate degree at University College Utrecht and could not be more excited about the idea of this education format taking shape inside a building I admire.

University College Haarlem will not only invite (international) students, but also the neighbourhood and the city of Haarlem. Next to student dorms and class rooms will the cupola provide room for local businesses, music rehearsal space and a neighbourhood cafe. Giving the University College Panopticon its own flavour, the cupola will be closely linked to the Haarlem Conservatory and arts & music will be at the core of its liberal arts curriculum.

With opening its doors to the proposed 600 students and the citizens of Haarlem, the Panopticon changes its purpose 180 degrees. The prison building that was used to enforce power and submission, enclosure and exclusion, now will create an open and welcoming meeting space for the community. From imprisonment to arts & music, the cupola will be turned inside out.

University College Haarlem is expected to open earliest September 2019.

3 thoughts on “Panopticon Prison Haarlem: Turning the cupola inside out

  1. Leuk artikel!!! Ik heb ‘t doorgestuurd naar Hans en Gabrielle van de Bredagroep. Hans omdat hij in een gevangenis werkt en Gabrielle omdat ze in het centrum van Haarlem woont. Het valt me iedere keer weer op hoe goed je Engels is! Kus, Mama


  2. I learned about Panopticons from Prof Gibson Burrell in the 1980s, and was fascinated, so was delighted to see one at the end of a long bike ride (for me) from Amsterdam.
    Further pleased to see if having a new, more positive lease of life, and hope to be able to pop in for a nosy in the far future.
    Thank you for your useful blog.


    1. Hi Tony, nice to hear of your personal link with the panopticon. And with a little bit of patience, you might be rewarded soon. The premise is currently undergoing renovations, but the “Open de Koepel” initiative is organizing regular activities while developing the university. Follow the progress and announcement of activities here:


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