arch-peace editorials

23 May 2011

The Detention Spectacle

While an architecture student, I took a subject that involved the then recently de-commissioned Melbourne City Watch House. Part of the Russell Street 'jail precinct' in the city centre, the building was a temporary holding centre for prisoners awaiting trial or spending a night in the lock-up for trouble-making of some sort. Unlike the Old Melbourne Gaol next door, which closed its doors in 1929, the watch house was in operation right up until 1994. The knowledge of this was sobering, given the grim – bordering on archaic – conditions inside. Chilly, narrow stone-walled cells empty of all but a bench and an exposed toilet pan in a corner had been shared by whoever happened to be locked up for the night – as recently as the 90's! The property was owned by RMIT University, and, in conjunction with the National Trust, possibilities for its potential adaptive re-use as a museum – from a site of extreme seclusion from the outside world into a site of public spectacle – were being explored. As a historic place stripped of its former function, but occupying prime real estate, there was a perceived need for it to become something else – and a well-intentioned push to open it up the public, allowing its story to be told. At the same time there was a recognition of the gravity of the place and what was understood to be the often traumatic experience of confinement, and to try to interpret and communicate something of this to hypothetical visitors, without diminishing or trivialising the space and its memories in the process.

Approaches to heritage interpretation have changed since the conversion of the Old Melbourne Gaol (which has been doing trade for tourists and school groups for nearly 40 years) where life size dioramas lurk ghoulishly in cells, while less palatable real traces like graffiti have been erased from the walls with a coat of paint. The 'Disneyfication' (clean up and dramatise) route is a common one for the prison museum to take and has been pursued enthusiastically in Australia: Fremantle prison in Western Australia (which I believe also offers wedding receptions) and Port Arthur, Tasmania being a couple of examples. The developers of another local, Pentridge, held on to the bit that they had to and enticed buyers to the Tuscan piazza-inspired housing development that replaced the rest with a corker of a slogan 'Escape to Pentridge'. (NB: original plans for a museum seem not to have eventuated, although, bizarrely, the surviving D Division execution wing has been freshly re-launched as a wine cellar and function centre).

My semester's explorations at the watch house wound up five years ago, but I see that on offer these days is an interactive experience, where visitors get to be 'locked up' and then self-guide themselves through the building, assisted by some multimedia installations. I haven't taken the tour, and cringe a little at the breathless by-line 'Have you ever wondered what it's like to be arrested?' but, on the face of it, an apparent attempt to minimise sanitising interventions to the space and provoke some degree of emotional reflection beyond the stock-standard interpretive panel of text is a strategy with something going for it. If the prison museum has any usefulness at all I can't help feeling it's in giving voice to a place shaped by experiences that are alien and disturbing to most of us, confronting us with our own pre-conceptions and fears and perhaps bringing us a little closer to an understanding, rather than cramming school-aged heads with facts and figures.

I've been reflecting on the idea of the prison-museum lately in light of the recent furious debate surrounding the Australian government policy on asylum seekers; mandatory detention centres being one of the thorny issues attached. While I have no direct experience of the insides of a detention centre, there seems little to dispute the parallels with a prison (whatever the bleatings of indignation at supposed perks like government-subsidised excursions for detainees). The experience of incarceration is undeniably an uncomfortable one at best, potentially a traumatic one at worst and so, like prisons, our detention centres have the potential to be sites of trauma. Mental health researcher and former Australian of the Year has described the Howard-era centres of the 1990's (apparently there have been improvements since) as 'factories of mental illness'. Unlike a prison however, the occupants are generally not criminals, although this may depend somewhat on your definition of crime; certainly the euphemisms of 'illegals' and 'boat people' applied to arrivals do their best to de-humanise and criminalise asylum seekers, irrespective of whether their claims to asylum are ultimately deemed legitimate. I continue to be surprised and dismayed at the division in community attitudes to refugees. Although there are many voices expressing outrage at a government policy doing its utmost to resist offering refuge, it seems that a cynical appeal to self-interest, playing on fears of population pressures and a 'big Australia' is still an effective vote-winner. The illusory spectacle of thousands of boats looming on the horizon, and the fictional criminalisation of their occupants, is a piece of theatre so compelling that neither major party can tear itself away.

Headlines were made yet again a few weeks ago at the Villawood detention centre on the outskirts of Sydney, known for the staging of multiple protests over the years by would-be 'illegal' immigrants and outside supporters alike, when several buildings were burnt down by a group of detainees whose claims had allegedly been rejected. I see there are plans to redevelop the notorious Villawood in 2012 in order to address problems with its existing state (a government strategy document available online makes the apparently significant distinction between 'punitive' and 'administrative' imprisonment) in an effort to create an environment with less of a prison-like feel. While being a believer in the power of good design, and in part wanting to give credit to a suggestion that redesign might be able to make a difference to the experiences of detainees, for me it is difficult to get past the sense that their mandatory detention is fundamentally not right, and the most sensitively conceived design solution cannot make it so. A challenge indeed presents itself to the architect tasked with solving that unique design conundrum – how to design a prison that doesn't feel like a prison?

While detention centres are around, I'd suggest there are big implications for our sense of self as a country. A certain pride in our cultural diversity exists in Australia (albeit with an undercurrent of racism lurking below), alongside the glorification of sporting and war heroes that I've always found harder to stomach. We have a history of immigration as a major contributor to our present day society – uncomfortable as some of those associations that frame our conflicted sense of national identity might be. What does it say about us that we continue to be complicit in the operation of these sites? Detention centres are an inhumane and expensive violation of human rights (as expressly acknowledged by the United Nations Human Rights Council) that target people who have in many cases already been through severely traumatic events, and they are far from proven to have 'worked' in deterring asylum seekers – read Crikey correspondent Bernard Keane's recent article 'Our shrinking asylum seeker problem' for an interesting look at the influence of 'push' factors in countries of origin and simple geography on fluctuations in numbers. The closure of these centres and implementation of a strategy for housing arrivals in the community while refugee claims are processed is no doubt a complex prospect, but it is a conscionable one.

With one optimistic eye on future abandonment of the mandatory detention policy, and the thought – what then? - I was interested to learn that the notorious Villawood has heritage listings on the Register of the National Estate and the Commonwealth Heritage List. A closer look at the listings revealed that Villawood is significant primarily for certain structures that date from the 1960's and their associations with immigration at this time, and as the site of a former munitions factory. More recent events don't warrant a look in, but there is reference to the intense personal experiences of the much earlier migrants who spent time there, leading me to wonder about the experiences of those more recent occupants, today's and those during the 'concentration camp' years of the 1990's denounced by Pr McGorry – should they be recorded, interpreted and communicated in the future and how might this be done in a sensitive and meaningful way?

It's hard to imagine the future redundant detention centre holding much appeal as a backdrop for wedding receptions or destination for busloads of tourists, but perhaps that's just a failure of imagination on my part – the likes of the Pentridge Piazza developers may well see it differently. I wonder will the future heritage listing of the Villawood detention centre own up to its social significance as a surviving example of human rights abuse perpetrated by the Australian government, or will it be swept under the rug? Maybe there will be an interactive experience available – 'how would it feel to be an asylum seeker?' Of course, these are questions that need to be put to the people belonging to the memories – particularly former detainees – in order to have any substance and even with their support and involvement, there's always the risk that rebirth as a site of spectacle (or perhaps more appropriately, remembrance) might go pear-shaped – for misrepresentation or trivialisation to win out. But perhaps a greater danger lies in the erasure of such loaded sites, and the potential for cultural amnesia that allows wounds to go unhealed and mistakes to be buried and made again. They're small and secondary questions of course, when the closure of the centres themselves seems far from imminent. I can only hope that when the blustering and fear-mongering ends and the last one closes its doors, the quieter conversation that then might begin – about how a place reflecting a sad and shameful chapter of our history, can be conserved, interpreted and represented to foster mutual understanding, not suspicion – will go some way to restoring our collective dignity.

Eleanor Chapman
Architects for Peace, May 2011


Anonymous said...

Great piece Eleanor. It reminded me of my weekend in Castlemaine in the late '90s, when the old Benthamite panopticon was operating as a hotel. The tiny wine bar was in the solitary confinement dungeon, and an after dark tour took tipsy patrons through the graveyard, where the hung were apparently buried vertical. All feeding our morbid fascination with things villainous, while keeping us at a comfortable distance. Peter

beatriz said...

Eleanor, this is a timely and complex topic, which you have skilfully unpacked, great editorial!

I would like to focus on one of your examples. This is the Villawood detention centre that was once a “Migrant Hostel” and illustrates my concerns in regards to the preservation of some of these structures. In this case, I don’t imagine that the transition from a ‘migrant hostel’ to a detention centre was too difficult to achieve. Migrant hostels in Australia were never conceived or designed to welcome people to this country. These places are harsh to the eye and are segregated from its immediate neighbourhood and from the city. These “hostels” were/are tacked away from people’s views and their consciousness. While the real stories of people currently arriving to migrant centres are of no interest to the general public, it is telling that the re-make of their stories (a few years later and amidst a beautified building) becomes somewhat more palatable and of interest. It is here in particular where I share your concerns in regards to the Dysneyfication of some of these buildings.

Rather than romanticising and distorting history by investing in major restorations—to be enjoyed by visitors (rather than users)—perhaps we could do something now to improve the conditions of those currently occupied facilities. In this way the real history (without spectacle), written during people’s arrival in Australia, could indeed be a better one.

Anonymous said...

Peter, your 'prison-lite' experience pretty much gets to the heart of my discomfort with the prison-museum. I think these places rely on that distance between the innocent, detached museum goer 'ús' and the 'villanous' criminal - 'them' - the less palatable prospect of being challenged to identify with the former occupants is a much harder thing to achieve and no doubt less of a ticket-seller. The issue as it applies to detention centres is yet more difficult – asylum seekers are not criminals in my mind and yet concerted government efforts to criminalise them essentially set up the same us/them dichotomy that conveniently relieves “us’’ of the burden of empathy.

Beatriz, thanks for your comments. I agree that the imperative is to act now to either improve (if that’s possible) or shut down detention centres. I suspect in some ways it is utterly irresponsible to project a hope for capturing memory (as authentically as possible) that might foster understanding and learning from our mistakes, while allowing the ‘real’ miserable history to continue to take shape. Hopefully it’s not an either/or scenario – ie a battle to be fought on multiple fronts?


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