This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space and tourism
A crowd of tourists sit calmly on the top deck of the ferry like a flock of languid seagulls squatting on a rooftop. There are conversations here and there, but little movement as the ferry prepares to travel to Alcatraz. Yet at the instant the ferry’s engines roar to life, the tourists leap up and whip out their Nikons, Sonys and Canons as if they were clockwork toys that jerked to life with the flip of the “on” switch. Heads turn. Feet shuffle up and down the deck. Cameras click, click, click. As I witness the tourists’ almost mechanical reactions, I wonder if they actually have the emotional investment to immerse themselves in the stories Alcatraz. Or are their needs more superficial?
When we arrived at the island the first thing that caught our attention was the decaying state of the architecture: rusting stairwells, peeling paint, dilapidated buildings, crumbling walls. Once we stepped into the main prison we were immediately immersed in a somber atmosphere; the tourists’ disposition seemed to be a reflection of the decaying environment. The typically chattering tourists were quietly engrossed in the dark history of the prison that emanated from their audiotapes.
Ironically, the audiotapes tried to instill a sense of authenticity by introducing fake background sound effects that mimicked the actual sounds of the prison when it was in operation: banging on cell doors, ambient chatter, gunshots, plates clattering in the mess hall. The sound effects were emotionally poignant and made us feel as if we were reluctantly inching down Broadway (the main prison block).
Several cells had been “preserved.” Items we noticed in the cell included a Rules of Alcatraz book, towels, cups, paintings, a checkerboard, and a guitar, as if to make the prisoners seem more human. It was mentioned that prisoners often read works of literature and played bridge among other common pastimes; knowing this, the tourists could better identify with the prisoners themselves. However the colors of most props were too bright and colorful, contrasting with the pale hues of the jailhouse — as if a child had plastered an array of stickers onto a precious, old painting.
As we made our way up the slopes of Alcatraz, we were incredulous to spot a fake plastic seagull peeking through the barred jailhouse window. The jailhouse props were there for a reason, the architecture helped establish the mood, the audiotape served its purpose – but why the seagull?
– Emily Cheng, Nic Dahlquist, Ronald Tang (Stanford University) PWR Session 1