Migrant detention centers are almost as invisible as the people they hold, their plans classified, photography prohibited. Toronto-based artist Tings Chak created a visual narrative through Canada’s centers that’s a mix of graphic novel and architectural design.
Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, published this fall by the Architecture Observer, is sourced from the bare information of interviews, first-hand reports, legal documents, and the universal mundane restrictions of incarceration. Chak focused on Canada as “the fastest growing incarceration sector in North America’s prison industrial complex.” As she writes, the buildings and their landscapes “are so banal, that they can go by unnoticed.”
Her goal was to make this seemingly passive architecture, as off-the-radar as the undocumented people it holds, into something that conveys its power over the contained lives. “In these spaces where those without status or identity are caged, the struggle is against the disappearance of one’s self,” she writes.
In pen and ink drawings, colored in just black and white, are the rows of beds, the doors opening between identical rooms, the locked gates topped with barbed wire shutting against the outside world. Below the stark drawings, quotes are peppered from an interview with the anonymous architect of a 4,000-person detention center in Israel.
The book is sectioned into areas that look at the intake and outtake, the living spaces, and the surrounding communities, as well as how people adapt to detained life, which for some can last years without trial. As she illustrates, in time a prisoner can walk the distance from Minnesota to Boston in his cell, and long for the horizon of the outside world hidden from her daily routine. Canada is far from the only country with these migrant detention centers, as people move in rapid numbers across borders. The regimented architecture of these spaces is a growing universal design of control, and one that is morphing to monolithic sizes almost completely out of sight.
Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention by Tings Chak is available from the Architecture Observer.