Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Tucked away in the centre of town and opening directly to the main shopping street of Dubbo at the end of a narrow alley, is the Old Dubbo Gaol. There is something strange in this juxtaposition. The casual, everyday business of the shopping street is interrupted by the haunting presence of the past. The gap defined by the void facade is almost ghost-like. The main street frontage is marked clearly with two buff-coloured, rendered piers that formally define gaol-place, its location, approach and entrance, as if the prison had a civic role beyond detention. The street structures reminded one of the entrance into the churchyard on Union Street in Aberdeen. Doric columns form a classical, grand gateway opening into the graveyard surrounding the granite-grey cathedral. The cemetery fills with workers at lunchtime. They feel comfortable enough to use the table graves as seats. Such is life that transforms this grave-green area into a civic retreat. There is no one pausing or eating lunch here in this Dubbo lane, for the place has little joy. It is grim.

At the end of this dumpy Dubbo alleyway is the entrance into the gaol with its big, brown doors fitting into a bold, flat-arched opening in a brick wall, all formally fringed with heavy quoins. These bulky wooden barriers - they are more than doors - are emboldened with large bolts and locks, as if to declare their purpose: to separate the outside from the inside, and vice versa. Through the open leaf one can see yet another enclosure that adds a further layer of separation. A pair of steel gates with cliché vertical bars and more large bolts and locks define the purpose of this place clearly – prison security. This is the lobby of the old gaol that has now been transformed into a tourist attraction. The change in use gives a different sense to the markers on the shopping street frontage, creating a less intimidating gesture, almost a point of welcome. The previous message must have been much more foreboding, forming the preamble to the threshold of a fearful future. These pillars are now ceremonial markers for tourists who choose to seek this place out as though it might have been a palace. The place is signed by these masonry columns and confirm the arrival of those with maps and tourist brochures in their hands. Large numbers of visitors stream into this lockup to envisage its horrors and experience its trauma as theatre. There is a sense of voyeurism in this visit. On this occasion we were a part of the crowd milling along the narrow thoroughfare that must have seen much foreboding and sadness.

It certainly was no palace. After moving over the old wooden setts and through what felt like a guard’s gatehouse, the first glimpse of the interior space and its buildings was disappointing. The place was small; the buildings were mere modest sheds and shacks surrounded by paths and green, well-kept lawns that had the ‘KEEP OFF THE GRASS’ feel. The high brick perimeter wall made it possible for the shelters to be simple weatherboard and brick enclosures with light, lean-to roof approaches and covered way links. Chris, who confidently introduced himself as the ‘Experience Manager,’ recreated the inner world of the gaol in expressive and emotive words that poured out forcefully and continuously with grand flourishes. He had stories for everything, grim tales of a horrendous existence. A little well-rehearsed exaggeration seemed to add some flavour to the message hype, that stimulated much intrigue and shivering hair-raising chills. After over fifteen minutes of introducing the group to the gaol, as if it was a warm-up for the real event, the ‘Experience Manager’ ushered the visitors across to the Male Quarters and into the ‘black hole,’ the dark room that was isolated for solitary confinement.# It was with much enthusiasm that the group was told that the space was pitch black and acoustically isolated so that the prisoner who had been put in the room for twenty-one days, would see no light and hear no sounds or voices over this period. He would be totally disorientated, truly alone. One wondered how this confinement might improve things for this unfortunate, recalcitrant individual. It seemed to be close to torture, a circumstance that might only aggravate behavioural problems. Little wonder that there was a need for a large padded cell in this complex.

Guests were invited to experience the room under the guide’s guidance, illuminated by his torchlight and continuous spiel. The chosen number moved in through the dark light lock and turned into the abyss. The torchlight went out and everyone was invited to not see their own hand directly in front of their own eyes. A great urge of concern surged up and created personal panic, heightening an immediate desire to get out of this space even after just a few minutes. Chris’s continuous calamitous chatter did not help calm matters. What torment had prisoners gone through here? Were there phantom spirits in this black place? Which person had stood here before? We visited the gaol on a warm day in spring. The room was nearly stifling. Imagine what it must have been like in the black of nothingness in the mid-summer heat of the western plains. In his never-ending chatter, Chris told the small group in the cell about the inmate’s game of flicking a button off a coat in the room, listening, and then searching for it. The diversion helped pass the time; but it was time that the gaolers played with. They would deliver breakfasts within a couple of hours of each other, and dinner some twelve hours later, just to befuddle the mind of the prisoner. It must have been a living hell. Was this toying with lived experience seen as an amusement by those in control? Chris seemed to take pleasure in telling the story. Sadly, he seemed almost proud of it.

Other stories told of whippings, of head covers that revealed only the eyes so that no relationships could be developed. The prisoners had to remain silent too. There was no conversation allowed or aloud. Only screams could be heard, those of the insane in the padded cell and those being flogged, or other protesters wishing to make their abusive thoughts known. Stories continued with gruesome details of the hangings. Chris seemed to enjoy his job. Did he have nightmares? Could he sleep? Might he have liked being a gaoler?

Architecturally the gaol was mediocre; ordinary. This is not to say anything about the place other than one’s expectations of it. It held a temporary, bush-hut character that jarred; that looked out of context; temporary, casual, when it was not. The buildings appeared more suited to a sprawling homestead complex than a lock-up. Other old gaols like those at Southwest Rocks and Port Arthur held a unique quality of built space and place. Was it the romance of the ruin that embellished these remnant structures? There was something civic about them, their form and organisation, that did not seem to be here; but Dubbo was never a high security prison. Perhaps it was the sense of meanness, callousness, that made Old Dubbo Gaol difficult to enjoy - no, appreciate - without a reciprocal feeling arising to pervert ordinary, unbiased seeing? There was a solid meanness here, something spiteful. The enclosure had been built on this site and the town had grown around it. This history explained the unusual location of the gaol today - in the main street of Dubbo. In its latter days, shortly before it was closed, the prison held only minor offenders. In one way it looked more suited for this use, apart from the awful punishment cells and the grim gallows. One wondered if the black hole, the isolation rooms and the padded cells continued to be used during these later years: surely not.

As one exited the gaol buildings into the bright light of the centre court after completing Chris’s chosen lecture circuit, the group filed out past the gallows. The flight of thirteen, open wooden stairs looked like any other but for its terminus. Behind this structure that stood centrally in the yard as if to declare its presence as a constant threatening reminder to all inmates, was a small toilet shed - a typical dunny. It said everything about this lack-lustre place that lacked the compassion to stimulate even the depth of ordinary care and interest. There was something ‘flat’ about it. It was one dimensional, shallow; no doubt a perception heightened by the horrors of its past. This situation was not helped by the fact that the gaol had been tarted up for tourists, with one section converted into a slick video presentation area with an adjacent display of models of prisoners on show in an smart, newly decorated exhibition room, complete with photos, crimes, sentences and life history. It was macabre. Children were being paraded past this array of figures as though it might be useful for them to see. Was this part of the: “If you are not a good boy/girl, you will end up like this” story? One felt uncomfortable. There was a gross insensitivity here that seemed like a reverberation of earlier attitudes. The video room displayed all the details of a hanging while children rolled around on the floor nearby, being told by parents to sit still and listen. The rope noose and its associated paraphernalia were displayed in the hangman’s box at the rear of this space. Sadly, it all looked like exotic entertainment. It was time to go.

Later in the afternoon after lunch, the group visited the Dubbo Zoo. This was a zoo with a great reputation. We had visited it some years ago, so it would be good to see it again. Returning to places previously visited is always of interest as it says something about yourself as well as the place. The zoo’s reputation was that it held animals humanely in open countryside without cages, making it sound ‘compassionate,’ if a zoo can ever be this.

The first stop led us to a caged off area that had been closed. There is little worse than seeing empty enclosures at zoos. A stench of departure, of failure, hangs there. What has gone where? So we strolled on despondently to the rhino nearby. Numerous signs repeatedly told us what was where. One lonely rhino stood in a fenced area on the side most distant from the people gawking at it, in a well-worn, dusty zone. This fellow did not look too delighted or too ‘free.’ It was a dismal sight to see a proud animal so demeaned; so obviously disheartened, lonely. The next stop was the wild dogs. There was a clear sequence to this place. The dogs had a lovely, light, prancing gait that oddly took the dogs along a well-worn trail. The contrast made one ponder: was there happiness in the gait, or was it just native habit layered over boredom?

Nearby the giraffes could be seen standing in the far distance. Surprisingly they slowly sauntered over towards the visitors, led by the huge male. The rangers were setting up. It was feeding time. Those who had purchased a ticket could give a giraffe a carrot. Zoos cater for all experiences as if on demand. The giraffes knew this too, so they all came over, young and old, as if trained to perform. But the older animals left soon after arrival and a supercilious surveillance of the crowd, to chew on fodder strung up high in a tree some distance away. They seemed to leave the feeding re-enactment to the inexperienced younger ones with some arrogant contempt that looked promising. These animals had style and attitude. They were indeed marvellous creatures. Of all the enclosures observed this day, it was this one that appeared the most ‘unenclosed.’ A log barrier wall and a deep ditch were sufficient to keep the giraffes in their defined zone.

We drove on to look at: the hippo, two; the cheetah, one; the elephants, two; the tigers, two; the otters, two; zebra, five; the Galapagos tortoise, one; ostriches, three; and sundry other deer and the like. On reflection there was no great quantity of animals here, nor was there great happiness. All the creatures looked jaded and gloomy. One was reminded of the prisoner in the dark room. The poor tortoise stood close to the barrier and had to tolerate the indignity of the poking and prodding of both children and adults who should have known better; but perhaps this was the only excitement it had in life?

One tiger kept walking up and down a well-worn track along a wired fence, growling manically to a colleague nearby, but out of sight. What experience were these animals going through? The poor cheetah had no space for pace, unable to get any speed up in his run. It was left to stroll along the water edge of the island that fenced it in: back and forth; forth and back. Even the otters that seemed lively and brisk were undertaking a repetitive routine, a cycle of: run to the glass; race to the hutch; race out of the water; sit on the rock; swim to the glass; get out and run to the glass; race to the hutch; etc. – forever and ever. They might as well have been flicking a button and looking for it in the dark.

Then it occurred to one that Dubbo was a gaol town, chosen for its remoteness not only for men and women, but also for the zoo animals. Is there really such a thing as a humane zoo? – indeed, a humane gaol? Can any zoo hold animals in a way different to the way the Old Dubbo Gaol once held men and women? No matter how we might feel about things, the animals are always enclosed, hindered, controlled. This visit emphasized the captivity of these creatures, not their promoted wandering in hundreds of acres. Come to think of it, if the animals had the option, they would be kilometres away from visitors, so they had to be controlled for their public exhibition. It is only to our eyes that they might seem to be ‘free’ of bars. There were no bars, but there were barriers that must have meant the same to the animals inside. Only we have the luxury of reading glee or satisfaction into the existence of these creatures as a part of our entertainment experience: visit; look; see; move on for more excitement; go home and seek yet more diversions in any manner possible.

One can recall Lebutkin’s penguin pool at London zoo and admire its sweeping interlocking ramps as a beautiful design. But what did the penguins think of it? They made a marvellous spectacle, but this seemed to please only the observer who saw cheeky little birds quaintly waddling along slick, new, ‘designed’ concrete paths in smart dinner suits. I now recall the very sad sight of beautiful king parrots at Mudgee held in a cage about two metres by one metre, two metres high, along with several other smaller parrot species. We are holding our fauna with the same disregard that we once showed to ourselves, and managing our flora similarly.

What should occur? If man was not so spiteful and greedy, he might consider giving some space to other species in this world, to acknowledge that they too have a role to play in this place. Diversity needs to be enhanced rather than curtailed. We need to be much more responsive and careful with our environment, not only for matters ‘green,’ but also for the well-being of everything and everyone - men, women, flora, fauna. There is a wholeness that needs our attention now, for without such care, the zoos that boast that they are saving species will only be participating in their destruction, perhaps more slowly and differently, but destruction it will be. And if we lose this fauna and flora, then we lose a part ourselves too. Only last week, (mid-February 2014), a zoo in Holland self-righteously killed a giraffe and fed it publicly to the lions because of inbreeding. Why? The spectacle? Why not let those who wanted it take it. One did not have to breed from this animal that seemingly came into existence just because of zoos. It was a sad farewell for this animal as it was for us. Dubbo Zoo was not the exhilarating place one had hoped for. It was not the place remembered. Maybe the memories had been made more chirpy and pleasant because of our children who had bounced around excitedly on seeing all of these variations of nature many years ago. The zoo really was a gaol.

At the end of the gaol tour, Chris bid everyone a good morning and offered his best wishes to the group for the remainder of the day. Then, after ten strides, he started his spiel yet again with a new group that was going to have its ‘experience’ of the gaol managed too. There was something cold and calculating here that reverberated through Dubbo Zoo too. Experience was being redirected, manipulated, when true feelings, less managed, might have stimulated other responses.

Architecturally one has to ask: who designed the gaol; the zoo? Who envisaged the experiences of torture, punishment, frustration and enclosure? What is an architect’s role in all of this? Those who have designed gaols argue that they use the opportunity to better the souls that become involved in these places. Can this really be so? Can design change people in such a manner in such a place? There is the enjoyment of having good design fit a circumstance of body, its size, sensing, touch, and purpose, functionally and emotionally, positively; but is this life-changing or merely enhancing? What is there to enhance in a prison? What ambitions might one have for any design? Indeed, what is design? – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/what-is-design.html

For more on design, see:

 # Louis Kahn: 'A room is not a room without natural light.'

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