The Architecture of Psychological Warfare: How Maddening Modern Art Inspired the Designs of Prison Cells

Pat Finn Pat Finn

“Appropriation” is a concept that has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. This is when someone takes an idea or cultural practice and uses it for purposes that are contrary to the will of its originators. While the term is usually invoked in cases of “cultural appropriation” — which occurs when the creative labor of a marginalized group is exploited by members of a more powerful group — it can be relevant at other times, as well. For instance, there is surely no better way to describe how anarchist forces made use of modern art during the Spanish Civil War, when they borrowed the ideas of Bauhaus-affiliated artists as well as the Surrealists to design psychological torture chambers.

This shocking story was uncovered in the early 2000s by José Milicua, a Spanish art historian. Milicuawas rifling through records from the Spanish Civil War when he discovered the testimony of Alphonse Laurencic, a French architect turned revolutionary who claimed to have designedvery unusual prison cells to house fascist soldiers captured on the battlefield.

Replica of one of the cells, recreated through Laurencic’s descriptions; image via Open Culture

Laurencic testified that the color theories of Wassily Kandinsky and others inspired him to coat the walls of his six-by-three-foot jail cells with disorienting geometric patterns. In order to add to the nauseating mood, the beds were tilted at 20-degree angles, ensuring that prisoners would slide off if they tried to sleep. The floors were covered with a maze of standing bricks designed to prevent prisoners from walking in a straight line. To top it all off, flashing lights were used to emphasize the garish colors of the space. Closed off from any possibility of repose, the prisoners had no choice but to fix their gazes on the infernal images plastered across the wall.

Left: cover of R.L. Chacón, Por que hice las ‘Chekas’ de Barcelona: Laurencic ante el Consejo de Guerra, 1939; right: photo of one of Laurencic’s cells on Calle Zaragoza, Barcelona, 1939; images via Hidden Persuaders

What could be so bad about abstract patterns? Like many of the most challenging paintings of the day, these compositions aimed for dissonance rather than harmony and involved subtly askew formations designed to provoke dizziness and visual discomfort. These designs, in addition to the lack of straight lines or right angles in the space, created a sense of creeping unease in the minds of the prisoners, which made them more pliable for interrogation. All of this was made possible by Laurencic’s study of modern-art theorists, especially those associated with the Bauhaus, who examined the power of aesthetics in everyday life.

As an appropriator, Laurencic put the work of the Bauhaus to purposes totally contrary to the storied institution’s original intentions. While the Bauhaus aspired to use its artistic knowledge to create functional, beautiful spaces for living and working, Laurencic did exactly the opposite.

The Bauhaus was a school of art and architecture that functioned as a kind of “think tank” for modernist aesthetics during Weimar-era Germany. Laurencic claimed that he drew on theories developed here to design his prison cells. Image via Wikipedia

The anarchists’ misuse of modernist ideas shouldn’t be surprising. As the philosopher and champion of modernist aesthetics Theodor Adorno said, “Dissonance is the truth about harmony.” By exploring the conditions of harmony in exacting detail — and experimenting with its mirror twin, dissonance — modern artists opened the door to their findings being misused. Every creative breakthrough carries a risk of appropriation.

There is an interesting irony to this story, however. The anarchists were fighting on the Republican side, against the fascist forces of Franco. Fascists famously detested modern art, referring to it as a “degenerate” celebration of everything that was unnatural and unpleasant. While the fascists could not have been more wrong about true modern artists, they would have been right in viewing Laurencic’s creations as aesthetic abominations. By deviating from modernism’s original intentions, Laurencic nearly affirmed the philistinism of his fascist enemy.

For more on the connection between the built environment and art, check out our special 2016 Chicago Biennale feature: Atelier Bow-Wow Asks: Is Architecture Art?.

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