The Designer and The Prison: A Love Story


Léopold Lambert – Paris on March 30, 2016
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Carceral dome for the Zaandam migrant detention center by Customr Willem van der Sluis / Photo by Luuk Kramer

As the latest issue of The Funambulist Magazine is dedicated to Carceral Environments, Daniela Ortiz brought to my attention the (past) existence of these carceral domes designed in 2007 by Dutch designer Customr Willem van der Sluis for a migrant detention center in Zaandam, a town situated a few kilometers north of Amsterdam. This is far from being the first collaboration between designers/architects and the industrial carceral complex in all its forms, and we should never refuse a debate of ideas with non-abolitionist designers providing that the extreme violence of incarceration is acknowledged as an axiom of the conversation. Furthermore, if we trust the successive dated imagery available on Google Earth, we can see that the domes were dismantled in 2013, and as such, they might not be so relevant to address here. However, the way the designer describes his project in two videos (see below), helped by a complaisant media coverage, provides a discourse banalizing the violence of architecture (which is far from exclusive to this particular project) and, as such, it seems important to analyse here.

The Zaandam migrant detention center is one of the three of the kinds in the Netherlands. It is situated on an industrial dock and the cells themselves are located in carceral barges anchored to it. In June 2008, Amnesty International published a report (the cover page is a photo of the Zaandam prison) about the criminalization and incarceration of persons in irregular visa situation in the country. The first paragraph of the report states the following: “Each year some 20,000 irregular migrants and asylum-seekers are detained in the Netherlands, where the use and duration of detention and other restrictive administrative measures is increasing. This report examines how far these measures have led to a deterioration in the human rights situation of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers. It also underlines Amnesty International’s growing concern over the control and security oriented approach by governments worldwide, in an effort to “combat” irregular migration, at the cost of migrants’ human rights” (Amnesty International, “The Netherlands: The Detention of Irregular Migrants and Asylum-Seekers,” 2008.). It is crucial to associate these concerns with the design of the domes examined here, since they fully contribute to the exercise of violence denounced by the report — the counter argument presented by the designer that the domes act as “an inverted panopticon” combines the odd architect obsession for Bentham’s carceral scheme and the eloquence of illusive ideas. Although the domes have been dismantled (perhaps moved to another location), they fully take their place in the inventory of the various inventive efforts provided by designers and architects in the enforcement of the walls of Fortress Schengen (see past articles about Calais and the Slovenian/Croatian border for instance) whether these walls are built on the borders themselves, or internally in the forms of heavily monitored refugee camps and detention centers.

In the videos presented here, as well as in articles written about this project, both the designer and journalists use the term of “illegal immigrants” without ever questioning the outrageous idea that a person could possibly be defined as “illegal,” and to be imprisoned for their administrative situation. The idea of improving the conditions of life of imprisoned bodies, usually argued by reformists of carceral environments (often in a non-substantiated manner), is barely mentioned here, which might indicate the actual indifference of the designer regarding the political program of his project and the vision of society it embodies. What might easily appear shocking in a situation where architecture deploys its full carceral violence, should also appear to us as such in other programs however: condominium buildings in gentrifying areas, police stations in neighborhoods antagonized by the police, gated communities, etc.

Moreover, the designer’s discourse in both videos adopts the exact same tone and share many arguments with design and architectural projects traditionally presented in various specialized media. “Modular,” “light,” “patterns,” “a signal at night,” etc. described here are recurrent notions an audience might recurrently hear in the 3 minute speeches that popular architects have became masters to deliver. The description of the influence for perforation patterns often take orientalist accents, but in this case, the designer go even as far as comparing his patterns to “tricks used in numerous religions” to trigger “a kind of ecstasy.”

Using someone’s speech against himself is however easy and it is not the point to judge this designer as an individual here. Beyond the complicity that designers accept regarding the political program that their projects serve (sometimes to the point of reaching the “concerns’ of an organization like Amnesty International), there needs to be an understanding of what is appealing (even unconsciously) to architects for them to work on such a program. Architecture is fundamentally a discipline that consists in anticipating the spatial organization of bodies in a given context. It is important for them that this anticipation proves right since their projects are conceived to optimally fulfill their intended function if it does. The degree with which it make sure that this anticipation proves right varies, but no other environments than the carceral ones are reaching the quasi-certitude of this prediction — the corridor is another one as written in another essay. There is therefore a certain bliss for designers to know that their creation will be experienced the exact same way than they intended it to be, whatever the intention may have been — malevolent, benevolent, it is irrelevant here. The domes examined in this article enclosed a small football field (whose lines are visibly disturbed by the ‘ecstatic’ light pattern on the floor described above); the carceral characteristics of this small building thus insure that its function is not subverted into something else than what it was intended to be. “The Designer and The Prison” is thus a love story, since no program than the prison fulfills better the inherent quality of architecture. A resistance to such a passionate relation is to be envisioned. In my opinion it can only consist in either a complete refusal to use the design instrument to embody certain programs, or the counter-intuitive (and therefore requiring intense reflection) use of design against its own intrinsic logic.

For a deeper analysis of the architecture of migrant detention centers, see the 2014 Archipelago conversation with Tings Chak, as well as the graphic essay in the latest issue of The Funambulist Magazine by Tings and Sarah Turnbul