The Oslo prison, Botsfengselet was built in the nineteenth-century by the architect Heinrich Ernst Schirmer, and opened it’s doors to 230 male inmates in 1851. The building was located in an agricultural area surrounding Kristiania but well-connected to the city center by Gronlandsleiret. Today, due to the growth of the city, the prison is located in the actual working neighbourhood of Grønland. The neighbourhood was incorporated into Oslo in 1859. At the turn of the century Norway needed to shape its national identity, so Botsfengselet is not a mere prison but an icon of technology and power.


The plan was developed following the Pennsylvania System. The most popular prison system in Europe at the time. This type of prisons focuses the rehabilitation of the inmates through total isolation and self-reflection. Each prisoner was required to remain in total isolation in the cell where they would live and work. The building itself was designed as a machine for incarceration. We can see similar plans in the Philadelphia Prison (USA) and Pentonville Prison (UK). The architect traveled to London for a detailed study of the Pentonville Prison because Norway was not up to date in terms of stone construction, installations, safety and prison logistics of this scale. The idea of a building as a machine was born in mid XVIII century in England with the Industrialization, but it arrived to Norway some decades after.

Total isolation required that the cell be equipped with all necessities, a sink, a WC, underfloor heating, a bed that could be mounted on the wall to make space during the day for the machines needed to work there. Isolation and surveillance were the main objectives the shaped the building. This plan allows guards to see down all the corridors form the central point.  They a are able to ensure that no prisoner escapes without seeing inside the cell. Leaving the inmate totally isolated at all times in self-reflection.

Industrialization did not only affect technology,  the human condition was also improved. Sanitary reforms in the slums, in the form of water, watercourse deposits and the development of sewers improved conditions. Healthier, more efficient and profitable workers were created for the capitalists. Such advances would also raise morality, reduce crime and counteract dangerous trends. In Norway, the most prominent waterworks engineer, Johannes B. Klingenberg, argued that uncleanness and poverty went hand in hand.  He believed that access to clean water was important for lifting “the simple man” to a more civilised level. But around 1850 in Oslo this was only materialized in the Botsfengslet prison. Unlike the rest of the city, every cell had running water and underfloor heating through cast iron pipes. Until the 1850s, water supply and sewage was handled by in Norwegian cities by picking up water in streams and rivers, having wells on their properties or going to communal joint wells to collect water. Using drilled and hollow pine tree trunk pipes, water was brought to public water posts, with private water pumping for those who could afford such luxury.

The reasons for establishing such systems were primarily private consumption and fire extinguishing. The latest fire in Kristiania in 1858 had a definite impact on decisions regarding the future of the city. Funding for a new water supply was agreed.  City officials changed the old piping system made of linked pine logs with drilled holes for new water pipelines made out of cast iron. The old water pumps at the crossroads disappeared, and tap water was installed, but this wasn’t built until the end of the nineteenth – century.

Kristiania´s population growth also lead to insufficient housing.  Many immigrants struggled to find shelter. A housing shortage characterized the city during most of the nineteenth – century. It was still possible to build affordable wooden houses. In many cases the loft, the cellars and the outbuildings were used for residential purposes. Many tenants had to take in lodgers to maintain their  houses. In practice, this meant that families rented a part of a bed or a corner of a room, and in the 1850s it was common to have as many as four to five residents per room. The cramped situation of the cities dwellings contrasted with the Botsfengselet  were every prisoner had an eight sqm room to themselves with all the facilities needed.

The difference between living in the prison or in the city was immense. The disparity  led people to commit small crimes to get in the prison and take advantage of facilities provided. The prison was build following the latest technology methods in Europe and this was what the Norwegian citizens were aiming for. Botsfengselet was an icon of evolution and an important institution for the people. But after some years prisoners started to have mental health issues due to the brutal isolation of the incarceration method and the high-tech installations started to fail. The prison as an icon began to fall apart.  In September 2018 the prison had to close its doors due to the obsolete plan structure and technology.


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Feature image: Widerøes Flyveselskape/Helge Skappel, Oslo Byarkiv, Widerøes Flyveselskape AS,



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