The Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, is a federal jail in the middle of downtown Chicago. When the brilliant Roman Mars invited me to collaborate on a Chicago-architecture episode of his world-rocking show about design, 99 Percent Invisible, this was the building I wanted to feature. (I’ll explain why below, but first, have a look.)
First, did I mention that it’s a jail in the middle of downtown Chicago?
Also, you might have noticed, it’s freaky-looking: A skinny triangular skyscraper, with walls that look like old-time computer punch-cards. Why on earth does a jail look so weird?
And: it can be strangely invisible. I used to get on the el about a block away from this building, and I never looked at it. How does that happen?
Turns out the architect, Harry Weese, was a pragmatic visionary– his best-known project is the DC Metro– and all the unusual features addressed practical problems:
The triangular shape created good sight-lines for guards, and the narrow windows made escape difficult even without having bars. They’re also beveled out, to funnel in more daylight. And the skyscraper design created more built-in security: No inmates stay below the 10th floor, and the elevator itself functions as a pair of securely locked doors.
Weese also paid a lot of attention to how inmates would experience the building, and I got curious about what it looks like inside today. Turns out: Very different from what Weese intended.
You can download the story (or grab the player to embed it in your own site) here.