1st Jun 2021 — Reclaim Holloway – a vision for a Women’s…

Reclaim Holloway – a vision for a Women’s Building on the site of Holloway Prison

With a focus on the importance of the site that housed women for 100+ years and celebrating women, Sarah Wigglesworth reflects on women’s roles in history and society.

Following its closure in 2016, Holloway Prison has stood vacant, pending development by Peabody and London Square, which acquired this valuable inner-city site. Since 1893 when it became single-sex, it has been associated with women and their struggles for freedom and human rights.

Perhaps most notably, it was where the suffragettes were incarcerated. Four executions also took place there, the last being Ruth Ellis in 1955, their bodies buried there until later exhumation. In the 1970s the castellated star-shaped structure was rebuilt based on more progressive principles, acknowledging that most women inmates are not violent and thrive better in a more communal environment.

The original castellated star-shaped structure
The 1970s Holloway Prision

As it enters a new phase to become housing, London Borough of Islington’s development brief for the prison site has locked in a requirement for a building to celebrate women’s association with this location. The question then begged is: what sort of building should celebrate women in this place? What should it contain, what should it feel like, what is its relationship with the existing structures, how should it be constructed, who should run, manage and maintain it; how should it address the memories inherent in the site and the physical remains of the prison?

Internal view of one of the original prison wings

The site undoubtedly has a sad history. Incarceration is, in my opinion, a solution invented for male, mainly violent, misdemeanours, transferred uncritically to the female population. Women are more likely to spend time in prison as a consequence of poverty and other types of victimhood such as being subjected to domestic violence or sexual, emotional or physical abuse.

Accordingly, for the vast majority of women sent to gaol, it is systemic social disadvantage and oppression that has led them there. If prison is intended to punish, it punishes not simply its inmates but visits distress on families and trauma upon future, innocent, generations. If intended to rehabilitate, its lack of care means it signally fails. How, then, can the idea of prison be recorded, memorialised and its physicality captured in a manner that is authentic and relevant, and yet also critical and even redemptive?

Photograph of modern prison cell following closure
Existing building fabric and embodied carbon


I see a possible answer as having three dimensions: the practical, the physical and the symbolic. At a practical level, the building should provide support for women to help them live safe, secure, financially independent and fulfilling lives. This could involve training, work opportunities, services offering support and solidarity, knowledge-sharing, education, counselling, consciousness-raising, confidence-building and therapy. It could also mean skills sharing, creative spaces and workspace for entrepreneurs, networking and start-ups. Women-led mentoring could be part of the package.

Women should design and build this building. This would empower and skill-up a generation of construction professionals and show that construction is a viable – even desirable – occupation for girls and women. Women should run and manage the building, finding the forms of association and organisational structure that works for them; my own view is that leadership as a concept needs to be re-thought; structures should be networked rather than hierarchical and risk should be embraced in order that the organisation can grow and nurture proud, confident, wise leaders.


Physically, the prison building still exists in its original form. It embodies the literal space and material housing of prison life. It would be a gift to the project to retain at least a part of it in its original form as a reminder of what life was like there, to which there is no wish to return. This need not be a literal retention: the space standards of a cell, the relationship of window to bed to basin could all be faithfully recreated but inscribed in other ways, for example, as a garden or a sculpture. To do this would be profoundly moving and poignant. The extant fabric also represents a vast quantity of material – brick, concrete, windows, plant, metalwork and so forth – which will have to be somehow disposed of or re-deployed.

In view of the climate crisis, it represents a huge amount of embodied carbon, which should not be squandered without careful thought about its eventual destination. At the very least these materials should be audited, salvaged and reused in the new building, representing as they do the very embodiment of the former walls of incarceration. This would signify a redemptive scenario that seeks to liberate women rather than repress them.

Photograph of the wavey walls

This brings me to my final topic, the symbolic. Behind each scenario described, there lies a representational implication. This plays out against a backdrop of what this building itself makes available for women – women managing the premises and the support of women by women. Buildings convey implicit messages through their appearance, scale and siting. In terms of what the building could symbolise physically, the celebrated wavey walls enclosing the site are a powerful symbol, just as the Berlin wall was.

It could be deliberately deconstructed or rehabilitated as an element in the landscaping or the new complex. The women’s building should be flexible spatially, it should privilege the tactile above the visual and it should promote a sense of pleasure and joy. It should signal openness and welcome, while incorporating the capacity for privacy. It should avoid crude and reductionist cliches such as being coloured red (think menstruation), using curvaceous forms (referencing a hackneyed idea of the female body) or be confined to a domestic scale. Such tactics condemn women to be in thrall to their biology and the sites that have for centuries confined their agency and are inappropriate.


Nonetheless, while memorialising the era of the prison, the building should have a clear identity of its own. It should have dignity and gravitas but be non-institutional, avoiding all the tropes of power, authority and patriarchal systems. It should have a sense of scale but not be overbearing and self-important. But it should also avoid grandiosity, pomposity and the trappings of social status. It should be radical, exciting, uplifting and aspirational. It deserves to soar and break free from the structures that have bound women in the past.

A stand-alone building would be the perfect way to symbolise women’s power to exist independently of oppressive patriarchal powers or the dependency of others on their goodwill and labour; but each of the other components I have mentioned need putting in place too. Fundamentally, women must be given the opportunity to shape this place to their own desires and needs. In particular, this means rejecting the paternalistic manner in which the procurement of the current design is taking place. True engagement would be the first tactic in the strategy for designing a building fit for women. This is the hardest aspect to achieve but absolutely necessary if this building is to create a worthy setting in which women can thrive.

You can read more about the proposal’s for the Women’s Building on the Reclaim Holloway website. For more information on the overarching development on the Holloway Prison site, please visit the Community Plan For Holloway website.

First in a series of four architectural panel talks discussing the planned Women’s Building on the site of Holloway Prison, Sarah joins the discussion in their event on the 7th June at 19:00. Get your free ticket here!