The Park Hotel: The Unvisible Spatialities of Border Carceralism
In his speculative fiction novel The City and the City, China Mieville tells the story of Besźel and Ul Qoma, two cities that are geographically intertwined, but legally and politically divided by an imaginary border. A building in Besźel may physically stand next to one in Ul Qoma, yet each is intentionally unseen to the other by the citizens' way of looking. In Mieville’s world, citizens must entirely ignore the other city that surrounds them. Part of this process is captured in the following excerpt:
“It was, not surprisingly that day perhaps, hard to observe borders, to see and unsee only what I should, on my way home. I was hemmed in by people not in my city, walking slowly through areas crowded but not crowded in Besźel. I focused on the stones really around me—cathedrals, bars, the brick flourishes of what had been a school—that I had grown up with. I ignored the rest or tried.”
These intentionally unseen spaces are described in the novel as being unvisible. They are outside the spectrum of social and political vision, and do not register within the citizens’ everyday experiences. This action does not occur through physical concealment of the other city, but through habitual non-seeing, directed, promoted, and enforced by authorities.
Although unseeing is known by all to be a false act, these imagined borders hold real power. To those that live in Mieville’s world, the other city truly is unvisible.
Standing in Lincoln Square, underneath the looming shadow of the Park Hotel, this quality of unvisible space seems apt in reading Meaville’s city within our own. As scattered groups of people enjoy the dimming, late-summer sunlight in the quiet park, surrounding us all are the constant political discourses that have created this border prison in the middle of the city.
The Park Hotel, known to those detained inside as the Park Prison, was an adhoc immigration detention centre in central Melbourne for more than two years. The centre began use after imprisoned asylum seekers were transferred from Australia’s offshore detention archipelagoes to the mainland, under the short lived Medevac legislation, for urgent and neglected medical treatments. Many never received the treatments they were transferred for, and ended up imprisoned within hotels like the Park Prison, which was used as an incarceration facility for over 60 men.
The appropriated hotel was deemed an Alternative Place of Detention: a space, in this case within the city, which has been removed entirely from it. In the same way remote islands occupied by the Australian settler nation have been retrospectively removed from its migration zone, the hotel was removed entirely from the city which surrounds it.
Beyond the mundaneness of the architecture of Alternative Places of Detention, authorities employ tactics to enhance, and reiterate its unvisibility. Blackened coverings are placed over windows, preventing visual connection between those detained inside the hotel, and supporters and media in the square adjacent, forcing detained asylum seekers to use the lights from their phones to signal to those outside.
Diagram of the Park Hotel in relation to the square below.
I inhabit one of these positions outside. As someone of Anglo and Italian descent, a settler on occupied Indigneous lands, I am granted and benefit from a position of whiteness within this colony. It is from this position that I seek to question the structures which uphold whiteness, and to work towards the dismantling of these systems that are conducted in my name. The structures of colonialism which we have inherited, live within, and benefit from, are social and cultural, but also, importantly, spatial.
Borders are containers of space. They have architectural manifestations, which have a specific spatial quality, captured by the anthropologist Marc Augé’s term “non-places.” Augé describes the transient, nondescript environments of late-capitalism as places outside of identity, time and possibilities for social relations. Spaces of the border such as hotels and airport waiting rooms are non-places. They are liminal and designed to be moved through, to be a non-descript temporary state, but here, are rendered permanent by practices of confinement and detention.
The Park Hotel as a non-place.
How can we understand the emergence of this hotel within a larger context, connected to a complex web of colonial tools of control? What form does colonial border carceralism take in the 21st Century, and how can understanding its spatialities help resist it? How does the reconfiguration of a hotel into a space of incarceration connect these carceral patterns to the finicialized and capital-driven city of the settler colony in the 21st century?
It is from the position of being taught a spatial discipline, the practice of architecture, that I begin to approach these questions. While writing this, I hope not to answer all these questions, but begin to sketch out the methods of engagement to allow both citizens and spatial practitioners to challenge and resist the continual spatial production of borders and carceralism.
It is first important to recognize that the Park Hotel is an embodiment and continuation of the ongoing colonial project of Australia, a project which was always constructed upon spaces of extraterritorial incarceration. Mandatory detention is spatially, politically and ideologically linked to various historical forms of administrative detention, government processes which render entire categories of peoples as detainable, based not on action, but upon their social, racial or religious categorization.
Administrative detention represents one of the key spatial tools of colonisation, whereby incarceration has been used as a mechanism to produce spatial practices of social and racial exclusion, and inversely, national social cohesion within the settler-colonial society. These practices form part of the spatial effects of the White Australia Policy (The Immigration Restriction Act 1901), and have been used to facilitate the invasion of Indigenous lands. The spatial expression of this ideology can be seen in the architectural typologies which emerge through it: the prison, the mission, the internment camp, the workcamp, the lock hospital, and the detention centre.
The Park Hotel’s transition to a detention facility occurred during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic within Australia. Notably, before it adopted its current use, the hotel was used as an adhoc quarantine facility.
The historical overlaps of these two forms of confinement are more connected than they may first appear, with fears around disease, and social and racial cohesion continually mixed within the histories of settler occupation of this country. Ideals of purity, both racial and medical, produced the early obsession with borders, and often these policies were intertwined. These historical parallels are reflected upon by political scientists Amy Nethery and Umut Ozguc:
“Since the early days of colonial settlement, different forms of confinement have been used not only to control the spread of illness, but also to respond to a wide range of perceived social and political problems. These policies reinforced the imaginary idea of Australia as a clean, strong and healthy nation, a united federation in control of its borders.”
They argue that Australia’s colonial dynamics have conditioned settlers to believe that the detention of specific groups is acceptable when undertaken in the ‘national interest’. This has always been adapted to reflect policies of racial homogeneity.
The hotel prison in Carlton is an iteration of this racialized trajectory, and also reflects the neoliberal capture of the contemporary settler colony: state sanctioned forms of spatial violence are linked with corporate structures and profiteering.The settler imaginaries of these lands as an ocean-bound fortress—a prison where social exclusion could be enacted on a mass scale—are combined with the modern forms of neo-colonial settler city. A private hotel constructed on stolen land, traded as a speculative commodity, and now used as a detention prison.
In both its iterations, as a quarantine hotel and detention centre, the structure is based on the re-use of an existing typology, that of the hotel, to generate a new carceral space. They both employ private security and service-workers, directed by the imperatives of a multinational corporation, for the facility's operation.
The transition towards privately operated securitization of borders and associated spaces of confinement extends beyond the singular operation of this site, and into the wider spatial, political and economic operations of borderscapes. Anthropologist Catherine Besteman describes the integration of this process in her book, “Militarized Global Apartheid.” Her definition is long, but worth reproducing here:
“Militarized global apartheid is a loosely integrated effort by countries in the global north to protect themselves against the mobility of people from the global south. The new apartheid apparatus takes the form of militarized border technologies and personnel, interdictions at sea, biometric tracking of the mobile, detention centers, holding facilities, and the criminalization of mobility. It extends deep into many places from which people are attempting to leave and pushes them back; it tracks them to interrupt their mobility, stops them at certain borders for detention and deportation, pushes them into the most dangerous travel routes, and creates new forms of criminality. It stretches across most of the globe, depends on an immense investment of capital, and feeds a new global security industrial complex. It draws on and remakes historically sedimented racial formations that are highly localized but articulated with global imaginaries of race and racial difference. Because the new apartheid relies on and nurtures xenophobic ideologies and racialized worldviews, it recasts the terms of sovereignty, citizenship, community, belonging, justice, refuge, and civil rights and requires the few who benefit to collectively and knowingly demonize and ostracize the many who are harmed. It is at its most visibly militarized in Israel, and also in Australia, Europe, and the United States, where it serves the purpose of guarding hegemonic whiteness.”
These dynamics are critical for us to understand the Park Hotel within the larger context of global border politics and their role in upholding the ongoing power structures of the settler colonial invasion of these lands. This is a place which operates beyonds its immediate understanding of site within the city, and is link to a wider political, ideological and spatial system of militarized borders and securitized detention networks, used to uphold global inequalities of wealth and whiteness.
The hotel is positioned within this global security industrial-complex, with the multi-national contractor of government services, Serco, being the operator of the Park Hotel over its duration of existence. They have previously received contracts to run Christmas Island Detention centre, and form part of the constellation of private security and logistics companies operating and profiting from Australia's detention networks, such as G4S, who operate private prisons in Australia, as well as having held the contract to run Manus Detention Centre.
Diagram of connections between sites within the Australian Immigration Detention systems.
The cost of detaining an asylum seeker in Park Hotel was estimated at $471,500 per year. This is another colonial extractivist process, which transfers wealth from government to private corporations by indefinitely detaining people. In addition to the operation of detention as a profitable process, the hotel itself remains a valuable speculative commodity. In early 2020, while the hotel was used as a quarantine facility, which led to a Board of Inquiry investigation into its failed operation, it was owned by Rydges. It was sold in September of that year to the Carlton Realestate Group, a New York based private real estate banking firm, for $35 million. Two months after this transaction, the Medivac asylum seekers detained in the Mantra Hotel in Preston were moved into the Park Hotel.
Floorplan of one of the rooms of the Park Hotel.
As the No One Is Illegal activist, and author Harsha Walia describes in her 2013 book Undoing Border Imperialism, the apparatus of private property that dictates who can and can’t gain access to stolen Indigneous lands, and the borderscapes that criminalise the movement of certain people onto these lands, exist simultaneously as bordering practices used to uphold 21st Century colonial capitalism.
These legal, spatial and social methods can be conceptualised as similar practices and logics that operate at vastly different scales, yet produce similarities in outcome, namely social and spatial exclusion. Undoing border imperialism, she argues, would involve challenging all of the aspects of borders which produce and reinforce both these socially and spatially constructed hierarchies.
As an architectural educator and spatial practitioner, these observations raise specific questions around the use of space, and the professional and public complicity of carceral spaces’ creation and continuation. What tools do we have as both citizens and space makers to contest the systems and spaces of invasion and occupation? Can the same spatial knowledges that are used to confine and control racialized bodies on the border be used to resist ongoing architectural forms of carceralism and borders? How can we resist the proliferation of borders within our own lives, spaces and practices?
There is potential to draw from new forms of practices of architecture which have emerged to contest structures of power within the built environment and use architectural representation as a form of counter-narrative. Within this sphere, the methodologies of Forensic Architecture demonstrate the discipline’s ability not only to create spaces, but to reconstruct and counter-investigate events within space. They represent new methods of revealing and documenting human rights abuses happening both within, and by, architecture. The process of harnessing the processes of design thinking for counter-investigation is envisioned as a new aesthetical practice of social justice, what Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman calls, “Investigative Aesthetics.”
But beyond this, we have the ability to collectively re-imagine what an alternative could be through both action and speculation. As cultural geographer Suvendrini Perera reminds us, alternative uses of space, movements, and understandings of spaces have always been used to challenge colonial structures and disrupt the assumed singularity of the colonial national construction. We must continue these processes in envisioning worlds beyond continued coloniality and border imperialism. It is here that the practice of spatial knowledge and space-making might both challenge the unvisible power structures which we are intertwined within, and become tools to collectively reveal and dismantle these forms constructing new spatial futures.
Mark Romei was born as a settler on occupied Wurundjeri Country. Through studying architecture, he became interested in the potential combination of emancipatory politics and spatial practices, within the fields of art, design, community building, and education. He is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University and has previously worked with the reserach collective DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Research) in Palestine and Sweden.