In the neighbourhood of Parque Patricios in the south of Buenos Aires is an imposing building. It could be a multi-storey car park, or a disused tower block. The 22 storeys of the 1960’s modernist architecture take over an entire block and much of the skyline.
From anywhere in the neighbourhood, from the parks that are opposite either end of the block, to the children’s hospital a stone’s throw away, to the café on the corner, the building is unavoidable. The entire neighbourhood seems to live in its shadow.
It is in fact not a car park, nor some cheap social housing- it is the infamous Cárcel de Caseros, or Caseros prison.
Conceived under the government of Frondizi in 1958 as a new ideal in detaining suspects, it was supposed to be the first part of a new judicial village in the south of the city, a remand centre to the house prisoners awaiting trial for a maximum of 180 days.
The building is ‘H’ shaped and has over 1,500 cells and designed to hold around 2,000 prisoners. The cells measure 1.2×2.3m, and the prison was designed so no direct sunlight would ever reach the detainees. This design was critised by the human rights groups even before the prison was opened for not meeting basic standards of human treatment.
The rest of the ‘village’ never came into fruition, but the prison was constructed over the next 20 years and finally opened during the last military dictatorship in 1979 by Alberto Rodriquez Varela, then Minister of Justice. He gave a speech at the inauguration ceremony comparing the prison to five star hotel, praising the design features.
Yet rather than being used as a remand centre, during the dictatorship it was used to hold around 1,500 political prisoners – most of them left-wing militants arrested during the governments of Juan Perón and his wife Isabel in the mid-1970s. These prisoners were thus already ‘on the books’ when the military coup happened in 1976, making it difficult for the junta to kill or ‘disappear’ them, as was happening to thousands of people outside the prison. Some might say they were the lucky ones.
However, prisoners were kept well beyond the intended 180 days the design intended; some for many years. Former prisoners talk of their skin turning green due to lack of sunlight, and their teeth rotting. They were kept in their cells for at least 23 hours a day, although it was quite normal to be confined there for days and weeks at a time. The bright lights were only turned off for one hour at night and guards would frequently blast music at all hours.
After the return of democracy in 1983, Caseros prison was used to hold everyday criminals, but the population frequently exceeded the intended capacity, as there were sometimes up to five inmates in one cell.
Human rights groups continued lobbying the government and eventually were victorious in having the bars taken off the cells, thus giving prisoners more freedom to move around the cell block.
Then, during a prison riot in 1984, prisoners knocked holes in the outer walls to give them access to direct sunlight, and removed the glass in the visitor’s booths so they could have direct contact with their loved ones. Conditions in the prison improved, but there was still talk of human rights abuses, and other incredible tales, including that of two prisoners who were let out by guards to go on a robbing spree in the neighbourhood in the 1990s.
In 2001 the prison was officially shut down and slated for demolition, but after years of legal wrangling it was decided the prison could not be imploded due to its close proximity to the children’s hospital, and the age and the weakness of the foundations of several houses in the neighbourhood. It is instead being taken down floor by floor by the military.
It is in this state of abandonment and semi-demolition that Seth Wulsin, an artist from New York, discovered the prison in January when wandering around the neighbourhood in Parque Patricios.
Wulsin was inspired by the building and the way the light reflected on the blue glass bricks of the recreation area at the north end of the prison. It reminded him of a factory that he used to pass in Philadelphia when working there.
He had been looking for a building to work with, and upon seeing the prison the idea of doing something with the building grew. He had been working with grids of a much smaller scale in the US, and was used to working with mirror and glass, but not on the scale of a 22-storey building. However, the inspiration became almost an obsession and after months of investigations and countless meetings with officials to gain access to the building and authorisation to work with it, he finally got inside at the end of June.
The project called ‘The Caseros Prison Demolition Project’, took five weeks to complete, and involved Wulsin going to the prison on a daily basis, assessing the light and deciding what shape his faces would take. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting.
When asked why he chose faces rather than anything else, Wulsin says it was just an obvious development, but one that works on many levels: the irony of the face being the most identifiably human thing in amongst such stark architecture, and the concept of the human contrasting well with the story of the prison.
The project works so well on so many levels it is almost a shame the building is being torn down. But Wulsin assures me that that’s all part of the beauty of it, and he has even calculated the demolition will be completed when the sun is lowest in the sky – next winter – so the art can be enjoyed up until the last brick falls.