Welcome To The Terrordome

Willem van der Sluis’ Sportdomes DJI  are prison recreation spaces created from a Boolean Union of Bucky Domes. Not only are they elegant crystalline skinned structures but also open up new options in the games themselves. Below are more poetic musings on creating spaces for detention.


How does one design a space for a user who does not really want to be there? This is one of the fundamental questions that Willem van der Sluis asked himself when commissioned to create an art application for the enclosed exercise yards of detention ships (floating prisons). A design process arose that led to a completely new form for the enclosed yards and an essentially different experience for the users. The carefully considered design not only produced exquisite results, but also illustrated how the designer-artist’s freedom and an extensive list of requirements can merge together, even in specific circumstances as with this commission, which at first glance appear to leave little room for artistic expression. Finding a balance elevates it to art or design application at its ultimate.

Significantly, Willem van de Sluis calls them sport domes, not enclosed exercise yards. They stand ashore – outside – one beside each of the two detention ships moored here in Zaandam. Several times a week, the prison ship ‘residents’ – minor criminals and aliens who have exhausted all legal procedures – can exercise or play games here for an hour or two: volleyball, badminton, soccer or running on the dirt track. Before they arrive at the sport domes, they have already travelled a fair distance, down the stairs, through the gates, over the bridge, ashore in the open air enclosed with Heras fencing, into the lock and out of the lock. They suddenly find themselves in the middle of a playing field that has no vertical fences, but is spanned by two domes joined together, covered with a decorative, finely-woven pattern, which make this space both indoors and outdoors. The outside light is different here than elsewhere, grey skies acquire a glittering brilliance. In addition to the bright, blue-green of the domes, the pattern of the roof sets an intriguing play of light and darkness in motion, as if a magical filter is directing the light. At the bottom, the pattern is closed. Moving upwards, it swirls over the dome towards an increasingly open form. The domes wrap the playing fields in an atmosphere, even evenings and nights with the light filtering in, in which they do not disguise their presence, but rather claim it and form a landmark.

Van der Sluis was particularly inspired by the unique spatial experience of a dome. A dome causes one to experience the space inside as imposing and overwhelming, an experience that people from many cultures all over the world have already explored and applied to places of worship and other buildings that want to express a feeling of heavenly greatness: ancient temples such as the Pantheon in Rome, churches such as the Saint Peter’s in Rome and mosques (built like a cathedral) such as the Aya Sophia in Istanbul. All of these make use of the same principle that utilizes a dome to represent the celestial and the divine.

Van der Sluis also makes ironic reference to the domed prisons such as in Haarlem and Breda, which are based on the panoptical principle by British lawyer and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Where Van der Sluis uses the spatial experience of the dome to provide a positive experience for the user, the spatial effect in the panopticons works to serve the guards. The essence of the panoptical principle enables the guards to continuously keep an eye on the prisoners from the middle of the circular complex.

Van der Sluis gives the fields’ users, who deep in their hearts would rather be elsewhere, a space with a friendly ambience where it feels good to be, a place that has been worked on diligently, a place that, in that sense, provides a bit of freedom because associations can be evoked through their form and use of light. The attention is evidenced in many details. Between the lines on the ground that indicate the boundaries of the playing fields, arrows point in the four directions of the compass. This is one of the few orientation points in and around the detention ships.

Besides wanting to offer a positive experience, the shape of the dome and design of the recreational yards in Zaandam, remarkably, also result for a large part from the restrictions given with the commission: the nature of detention housing. Detention ships can be set up in a relatively short time and, thus, can quickly relieve the cell shortage in the Netherlands. The ships lie temporarily in a certain spot for a period of about five years, and afterwards are moved somewhere else. In order to be able to easily remove the enclosures from shore and carry them back onto the ships, they needed to be easily disassembled and, not insignificantly, one had to be able to screw everything back together again, so that it remained solid.

This quick approach, however, brought criticism at both local and national levels. Surrounding businesses in the Zaandam industrial zone suddenly had to deal with extraordinary neighbors. The design and its implementation touched on deeper social sensitivities because of the controversial policy concerning aliens who may or may not have exhausted all legal possibilities. Their residence on prison ships is one of their last accommodations in the Netherlands, and their stay there is, in fact, the physical embodiment of the policy that holds huge consequences for the people concerned.

What does a commission like this add? Not another world, an escape from the given circumstances, not an eighteen-carat gold stone, nor the prospect of a fairytale that has no future for the persons involved. In Willem van der Sluis’ hands, the commission for the enclosed exercise yards has not only initiated an elementary thought process on spaces for prisoners, recreational or otherwise. It illustrates wonderfully how art in the (semi)public space, which has received a good deal of deserved and undeserved criticism, can generate multi layered meanings. Nicoline Wijnja

Date of completion: 2007
Artwork: Sport domes
Artist: Willem van der Sluis (b. 1972)
Location: Detention boats – 103, Zaandam: Isaak Baarthaven, Rijshoutweg 14, 1505 HL Zaandam
Budget: € 365,000.
Visual arts advisor: Hans van den Ban (Atelier Rijksbouwmeester)Project manager: A.M.J. Bruggeling, S. Stabij, EGM architecten

PRESENT. Percentage for Art in the Netherlands 2004-2006 (Rotterdam: episode publishers 2007) 440 – 442, ISBN 978-90-5973-060-1, www.episode-publishers.nl

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