Arena of A Shared Schadenfreude

Should architects design prisons? The debate has been going on for some time. Some architects and architecture collectives have taken a stance and vowed never to design buildings that are used to cause harm and that violate human rights. The continued misuse of detention centers has been denounced by the American Institute of Architects. But what of architects who have unknowingly or unwillingly become involved in the process of creating something that opposes their code of ethics, like detention centers, or worse, buildings with a hidden potential of becoming concentration camps?
The political climate in India today is wound up tight and pushing the country towards dystopia. The people have risen and are not backing down. The powers that be are rattled, not least because these are not riots, these are peaceful protests by the citizens against not only discriminatory legislation, but by extension, against the entire ideology of hatred, divisiveness, violence and fear-mongering by the ruling party in the guise of nationalism.
The police has been uncooperative at its mildest and brutal at its worst. And yet, it has been overpowered and failed to contain the groundswell of brewing dissent that volcanoed out in the form of protests by the public. Instead of proactive response and mitigation, the government and the police are counteracting these protests in aggressive and futile ways. Now, Delhi Police has supposedly proposed the conversion of a stadium into a temporary prison for protesters. (It seems– whether the news is true or not– they imagine existing prison facilities will not suffice and protesters will multiply to fill the occupancy of stadiums!)

This would not be a first.
Victims of Hurricane Katrina were housed temporarily inside a stadium that reminded of a lawless concentration camp, without basic amenities or safety precautions, resulting in overcrowding, disease, rape, murder, riots and death. Refugees and asylum-seekers in Yemen were held under inhumane conditions, without proper sanitation or toilet facilities, in abandoned stadiums that became breeding grounds for disease. However, these are examples of temporary conversions arising from urgent need, ineffective planning and dearth of infrastructure.
Stadiums, though designed for competitive sport and entertainment, also have a history of violence and vicarious bloodlust and could easily serve as a symbol of totalitarian architecture.
The Colosseum in Ancient Rome saw spectators cheering on as gladiators fought lions and other wild and hungry beasts unto death, accompanied by hangings or performances as the half-time show. Their lives were dispensable as they were being executed for crimes they committed, and the shows almost always ended with a tearing apart of the condemned prisoner by an unforgiving animal. This arena was not the only one of its kind; Medieval amphitheaters that served as spaces of performance as well as public punishment were commonplace across Europe.
After the military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically-elected communist leader and put the right-wing army chief, General Pinochet in power in 1973, the National Stadium served as a detention camp and torture facility for tens of thousands of men and women for almost two months, resulting in political genocide under the military. The prisoners were mostly activists and suspected supporters of the former president, and were even hidden away under the stadium during international football matches.
It is common knowledge that stadiums in Afghanistan under the Taliban were used for public executions, many of innocents, which were not just enjoyed by the audience present but vicariously by consumers of sensationalized news the world over. The stadiums quickly went back to hosting sporting events post-execution. China has also practiced public sentencing and execution in stadiums, which thousands of people turned up to watch. These make up for just a fraction of executions in China; those of dissenters are carried out more discreetly and in secret locations. The Black Stadium in Raqqa, Syria, was converted by ISIS into a torture camp complete with interrogation rooms with electrocution beds and gym torture machines.
The hunting down of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by USA was announced in an American stadium during a baseball game to cheering and celebrating crowds, uniting opposing teams into chants of U-S-A. Befitting, as the war that preceded this was itself a ruse to appease the people by attacking a perceived common enemy after 9/11.
What does celebrating death– be it of a tyrant, terrorist or activist– say about the collective conscience of a people who are individually common, maybe even kind or docile? Is it gestalt at play, bringing out in a group something that lies dormant in discrete individuals?
Thomas Denby wrote in the New Yorker, “Despite the relief, and even joy, I felt upon hearing of bin Laden’s demise, I couldn’t help but find it strange to witness forty thousand people expressing jubilation and patriotic glee over someone’s death.”
Recently, in light of new information related to the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament– the arrest of DSP Davinder Singh caught in his car with militants— revealed that perhaps the case created to result in the hanging of terror-accused Afzal Guru may be even weaker than before, his confession a result of coercion, and that he was possibly a scapegoat sacrificed at the altar of the country’s “collective conscience.”
The spectacle of torture and punishment of others is enjoyable as a sport, which is evidenced by the fact that so many spectators turn up to these executions. Why is it that the same acts of violence and barbarism that we cringe at and condemn individually make us more comfortable when carried out collectively as a society? Why is it so easy to rejoice at the pain of others when we have company? Does it diminish, in our minds, our role in the heinous act?
The stadium scene in the Handmaid’s Tale in which women are tortured, restrained and threatened with hanging as a mind game to scare them into obedience, though fictional, is close enough to reality to send shivers down your spine. More disturbing are scenes in which women are forced to witness and participate in public punishments of some of their own. Author Margaret Atwood has said that her fiction is speculative, and is based on true events that have occurred somewhere sometime. Whenever there is tyranny, she advises that we ask, “Who profits by it?”
Stadiums are not designed to contain and restrict people, they are not places of fear, they are designed for sport, (mostly unrestrained) entertainment and camaraderie. If they are being proposed to be turned into detention centers, we must ask, “Who profits by it?” What will happen in the future? When (not if) these protesters are proven right? Will this stadium in Delhi become the Kala Pani of our times? To serve as a monument of torture tourism? Architects have historically had a big role to play in the design of monuments to fascism with autocratic patronage. This time will be no different, and it is time to take an informed stance before the wave of nationalism in the guise of development engulfs the profession before we even realize it.
Any plan of converting stadiums into makeshift detention centers isn’t to turn them into temporary prisons. It’s much more sinister than that. It’s to make a spectacle of dissenters for Schadenfreude to an obedient and fearful audience, as a deterrent to dissent.
The enjoyment of others’ suffering is justified to the conscience if it is done collectively.
We are going back to the days of the gladiators, when as lions tore into the flesh of fellow humans, other humans rejoiced. We are becoming a dystopian society, and dystopia is a pandemic not easily cured.