Having lived in Ahmedabad, I am no newcomer to well thought out architecture. I have witnessed excellent and timeless architecture from almost every era. Exposure has enabled me to develop a unique design philosophy based on compassion and femininity. I believe that even though building arts’ history is vibrant and expansive, it was still created and written by humans.
Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021
Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Zeel patel
Country: Gujarat, India
Humans err. By looking at history through this lens, we can see how it is full of miscalculations parading around as ‘culture’. It is compassion that enables us to look at these mistakes and nurture them to do better for the future. With all its glorious monuments, outstanding ornamentation and necessary inventions, there are still toxicities that we are carrying in the future, and it’s our job to take on the responsibility not to continue.
One such example of this miscalculation is prison architecture. It is full of mistakes, and it is one of the most significant examples of built environment being damaging enough to make human conditions worse than they were before. On this occasion of celebrating heritage, it’s time to rethink its future, along with it, its past and one way to do that is by recognizing how our wonderful heritage was problematic. By being honest and vulnerable, we give the past more importance and the ultimate respect.
‘Repairs’ are for Buildings. For Humans, Rehabilitation.
‘My heart beats in my core, and I know I am breathing, but just that, breathing. Barely alive. I feel my limbs expanding from my core. They can serve numerous functions like grabbing things, pushing things away, walking, standing! These arms and legs they want to stretch. Let me… oh. A wall… Let me stand up. What? A ceiling! Oh no! I am being crushed! This dark,
noiseless space around me is hefty. My heart is beating unusually fast, the only thing I can hear. I want to scream; hence, I will. That is all that is in my capacity to do in a situation such as this. No, screaming will not break walls, bend the will of the material but somehow, I will be lighter than I was a moment ago. The scent in the air is diabolical. I can smell my remains, sweat
and in it, my failure, my broken future. With every breath, I become less human, more ‘object’. I only asked them for more mashed potatoes and now I have a bruise to show for it. Why am I kept here? Assuredly, it’s knowledge that I am more valuable. Assuredly, they know that whatever
they are trying to teach, I am not learning this way. Assuredly, they don’t want to keep me barely alive because killing is illegal. Assuredly, this must not be rehabilitation!
Oh, little heart, you have kept this body alive throughout all its mistakes and, you must keep it alive through this bewildering turmoil! Every day that I am idle in this cell, I become less
intelligent. I’m ready to learn my lesson, but what lesson is it? I’m afraid if I don’t stand up soon enough, I’ll forget to walk, don’t see the sun, I’ll forget what colors are, don’t listen to another person’s voice, I’ll forget my own. Nevertheless, little heart, continue beating through this, for there is light at the end of the tunnel, for I am human. Right?’
The year is 1800. The church pronounced public execution inhumane. That decision changed the course of reform as we know it. The British, undeniably, followed suit and constructed prisons, which were civilized compared to beheadings, which is ironic considering they went to great lengths of immorality to establish their command at regions they saw fit. This is because their core philosophy was that of capitalism. It’s reflected in the regions they have colonized. There has been a dominance or marriage of different types of architecture, products, ultimately, ideology at these locations. Finding pleasure in their debauchery resulted in grandiose delusions, albeit eloquent, which is why they have been triumphant in creating exceptional architectures and interiors. When constructing one of the first serious prisons, they translated their architectural elements in its design. When maliciousness is paraded around as sympathy, the oppressors begin to think of themselves as gods. It is then that prisons go from being
opportunities to just another burden to keep up. Their ‘panopticons’ which were built structures when they established, is now a full- ledged concept, and rightfully so. Panopticons gave surveillance a sinister meaning. Through this construction, the prisoners are kept in cells that are too small for human dimensions. The small spaces, poor ventilation due to no windows, lack of natural light due to no openings and lack of geometry, textures around them cause a sensory deprivation so deep that it spawns emotional burden instead. This is the complex past, the authorities wanting to do better but only in ways that don’t threaten their reputation. The prisoners in these enormous, bulky, echoing, undetailed, unempathetic, straightforward, impersonal prisons feel like they are no more than objects. They lose their minds and, even in the best cases, develop horrific prison psychiatric syndromes. These exaggerated time outs did
absolutely nothing to rehabilitate them, instead, they erased their brain to a blank canvas and repainted it messily, sending this fresh chaos into the real world, expecting them to do everyday things as if they have a normal functioning mind anymore. The prisons of the past are problematic. They reek of stigma and force appalling treatment. The government’s hypocrisy proves to be damaging to the very idea they desperately want to commercialize. The people they deemed worthy of giving another chance to go in a condition worse than what they came in with, when their eyes have been desecrated to the point where they see red on the traffic signal and go berserk because it’s too intense of a color to look at.
‘I am made to believe I float amidst thick broth of civilization. Isn’t that why I was sent here in the first place, because I disrupted the linear growth of the concept of civilization by committing a crime? If the one who judges me knows better than me, why are they treating me worse than I treated the world? Power is a funny thing to have, a dangerous thing not to have. I never thought I would take the joint of my elbow for granted. For it is being civilized that suggests the bend of the elbow has more meaning than just picking up and putting food in my mouth. For it is being civilized that enabled me to bend my elbows and rest them on a table, to pull my window close, to hold my lover in an embrace so tender, it would become unbelievable to grasp how just our skin touching can give us so much meaning. A simple act, bending of an elbow. Resulting actions? Magnificent. If I had known there existed a space that would make me forget that I have a body, reduce me to a meagre blood-filled, beating carcass, I would have preferred death. It seems like it has been ages since I saw any color other than grey, any shape other than rectangles. I miss the complexity of light and shadow. Here, there’s nothing to grab to, nothing to go up and down from, nothing to rearrange. Lately, my mind is the only place where I can see anything. It’s playing tricks on me, I feel deranged. My spirit is being laughed at by the world, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.’
As the years passed on, their diplomatic ideology changed to not only anti-death, but to pro future. Since people can make themselves exceptionally useful in many ways now, life is more valuable than ever. Alas, prison architecture has remained the same. It has not kept up with the times. What once was a plausible solution to inhumanity is now a dilemma to the very thing. It’s common knowledge that if space and ideology don’t go hand in hand, the residents will suffer from confusion and aggression. When thinking about reform and how it can be diversified, it’s essential to know better perspectives on humanity matter. Prisons are as good as the authorities are compassionate. Rehabilitation is mandatory for redemption. Crime has to be put in a grey area, and criminals have to be treated as such. Often, humans partake in political wrong, for the mind and spirit are not restricted by politics. Through proper rehabilitation, not only is the criminal repented, but his spirit rebirthed, which proves to be in benefit of the common good. An important thing to remember is that every individual is different, hence, their rehabilitation. A person who hacked a major website can also be a great entrepreneur, and it’s foolish not to discover and harvest that talent. As a result, at the very least, they can be stable tax-paying citizens at the end, at the very best, well, the possibilities are endless, and all of them are better than a cold, empty, unnatural prison cell. In this day and age, a person should not be defined by his crime, within reason, he should be celebrated for how he overcame that part of himself, he should be educated to realize that the world he lives in can offer him better things, and it starts
with the place he goes to realize his offences. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, after that they shape us”. The built environment will always make people’s body, hence their mind, bend to its will. Therefore, it’s critical to focus on long term, respectful, organic and more meaningful good.
‘As I jog on this track, I am breaking a sweat. My muscles are on fire, but I feel good. I feel alive. I can hear my heartbeat, and it’s telling me that it likes to see my body move for its benefit. As I jog, I think about the reason I’m here. My days seem to be packed and I seem to have much work. Nevertheless, I’m glad it’s this way. I am glad I was made to attend those classes, I know about business studies now. I understand what I did was wrong, and it ruined so many people, but I didn’t know any better, I was merely looking out for myself, my family. I am grateful to get another chance. I feel hopeful because I can finally make myself productive and useful in ways I feel proud. I will now go to my room, switch on the lights, open the windows and let the breeze soothe me as I study. It is bizarre, for I have never felt worthy and taken care of. I have so many ideas of what I can do with myself when I get out. Lastly, I will put on the image of my new favorite music artist on the magnet board and sleep on my bed to their music. Absurd, for my
idea of an ideal life, was skewed, but being in this place is bringing me closer to myself, and it’s better than ideal, it’s resplendent’.