t a critical moment in Joon Ho Bong’s Parasite (2019), father, son, and daughter escape the home of their wealthy patrons in a torrential rainstorm to descend into the squalor of their working class neighborhood. The downward journey through a series of seemingly endless staircases to their basement level apartment plunges them into a flood. As raw sewage spews from the toilet, they wade through muck attempting to collect their personal effects. An aerial shot shows the devastation of their neighborhood as they trudge through the watery wreckage.

The scene cuts to a wide interior of what appears to be a gymnasium with an expanse of sleeping bodies laid out on the floor. In contrast with the chaos of the flooded city, the quite of the gym offers a sense of peace and security, paired with vulnerability. We find our protagonists among these bodies, as the son asks his father what his plan is, and his father responds: “Do you know what kind of a plan never fails: no plan at all. No plan. You know why? If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us. Did these people think, ‘let’s all spend the night in a gym’? But look now. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included. That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong.”

Figure 1. Film still, refugees sleeping in gym. Parasite (2019).
Figure 2. Film still, refugees sleeping in gym. Parasite (2019).

The intimacy and exposure of this scene speaks to a sense of resignation about the present moment in which the unpredictability of social-ecological life and its contingencies leads to a sudden confrontation with unimaginable conditions: “But look now. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included.” This scene, like the entire film, serves as an allegory for the class stratification and precarity of neoliberal capitalism and its violences. What I want to focus on, however, are the spaces of the film, and what becomes a “shelter of last resort” — a sports arena. Straddling the wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods, while belonging to neither, the gym seemingly stands apart from the two domestic spaces where most the film takes place as a transitional site of refuge, while simultaneously operating as a space of confinement and ignominy.  

Evident from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the significance of such sites — arenas, gyms, and stadiums — for the management of crisis within the contemporary historical juncture has become increasingly visible as these spaces have been transformed into makeshift hospitals, testing and vaccination sites, and even morgues. Though many of the field hospitals constructed at the onset went unused due to personnel shortages and the uneven spread of Covid-19, what is notable is the haste with countless state officials around the world made announcements about their intentions to use such spaces to manage the pandemic, to somehow control the contagion of the virus and the excess of bodies rendered incapacitated by it.

How might we come to understand these events if we take seriously George Batialle’s assertion that “architecture is the expression of the very being of societies” (1997: 21)? Starting with contention that the stadium and its analogous architectural forms are indispensable to the management of urban life on an increasingly volatile planet, this essay is a part of a larger, multi-media project that constructs a genealogy of the use of stadiums in times of war and other “natural” and manmade crises. What is of interest to me is not simply this history of what we might characterize as the biopolitical uses of these sites, but the manner in which the stadium comes to embody the spatial contradictions of capitalist modernity in ways that are both endemic and ever-changing. The material conditions that produced the stadium and its and design and placement within urban centers lay the groundwork for which it becomes ready-at-hand to contain, discipline, and house bodies that have become otherwise unmanageable. This latent potential of the stadium’s architectural form becomes manifest when the typical circulation of bodies between public and private spaces is disrupted, when the capacity for social reproduction breaks down. 

Figure 3. Field Hospital in Wuhan, China, February 2020 (source here).

An Alternate History of the Stadium

Léopold Lambert argues that the capacity for stadiums to be transformed into carceral sites is inscribed within their very design:

a stadium constitutes a cohesive architectural assemblage designed by agreeing deciders (architects, engineers, politicians, etc.). Architecture, in its capacity to structure space constitutes a particularly effective discipline to organize bodies in space, even when it does not correspond to an explicit politics of control — we should not forget nevertheless that stadiums are usually only accessible through the presentation of paid tickets and that the control of this economy has strong architectural repercussions.

Indeed, to trace the history of the modern stadium is to trace the massification of culture first decades of the twentieth century. Once sites for the amusement of the nobility, the proliferation of stadiums at the turn of the twentieth century, and then again in the in the inter-war period, corresponds to urbanization of the working class and the discipline of leisure time through consumption. Though crowds can, and often do, become unruly, stadium design itself is inherently one that seeks to manage and discipline bodies: with regulated sites of entry and exit, designated seat assignments in sections based on price. Significantly, in large stadiums and arenas, the organization of space channels attention and affect toward spectatorship rather than more participatory or horizontal modes of social engagement. Rather than simply carrying on the tradition of the Roman Colosseum, I would argue that the resurrection of the stadium as a prominent architectural feature of urban landscapes in the early twentieth century was precipitated by the need to manage an increasingly militant urban working class. 

As the twentieth century progressed, stadium architecture became more grandiose, complex, and international. In the extreme, Hitler started test construction for his plan for the world’s largest stadium in 1937, which was to seat 400,000 spectators — a testament to the confluence of stadium architecture and fascist spectacle. But, of course, stadiums were not only the domain of fascism; liberal democracies erected stadiums as monuments to freedom and democracy, with the Olympics spurring the intensive construction of stadiums across the world, often clearing whole neighborhoods and displacing thousands (Iverster, 2017; Greene, 2003). Starting with the Astrodome in Houston, declared the “Eighth Wonder of the World” the evangelist Billy Graham when it opened in 1965, the sprawling domed stadium became a prominent feature of the US urban and suburban landscape in the second half of the twentieth century. Publicly funded, yet privately owned, these imposing structures came to be understood as essential social infrastructure in US cities and elsewhere. If the Astrodome is the template and exemplar of this architectural and planning paradigm, then we must also understand its transformation into a holding site for refugees of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as a consequence of, rather than deviation from, its original design. 

Figure 4. Huston Astrodome (source here).
Figure 5. Huston Astrodome as shelter after Hurricane Katrina (source here).

The proliferation of stadiums in the twentieth century speaks to their centrality as sites for channeling bodies and affective flows in capitalist urbanism; yet, to fully come to terms with their function as tools of control, we must look to their colonial and imperial histories. The implementation the stadium as a site of confinement was developed in relay between centers of capitalist accumulation and colonial laboratories. The first modern use of a sports facility as a site of confinement was South Africa during the Boer War, when the British used the Green Point Commons, a cycle track, as a prisoner of war camp in 1899 at a time when the British had begun to develop the concentration camp as a tool of colonial conquest (along with the Spanish who were simultaneously implementing them in Cuba). Today, the Cape Town Stadium, the “jewel” of South Africa built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, sits on the site. 

By the mid-twentieth century, the seizure of the stadium during war time occurred again in Paris, during the second world war, when the Velodrome d’Hiver and the Japy Gymnasium became internment sites Jewish Parisians rounded up by the French police under the direction of German occupying forces. In June 1942, nearly 13,000 Jewish Parisians were held in the Velodrome D’hiver for five days with limited access to food, water, and basic sanitation, the prisoners were transported to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. Only 400 would survive. The “Vel d’hive round-ups,” as they would come to be called, would be a stain on French history, with remembrances and a plaque erected outside that declared “never again.” However, in March 1958 both stadiums were once more employed as concentration camps in during the Algerian war for independence, as mass roundups of Algerians in Paris under Maurice Papon became a strategy of containing the growing power of the FLN in France. The continuity between the Nazi’s conquest and program of genocide and Europe’s colonial legacy is crystalized in these two events [1]. As colonial and imperial violence is redeployed at the center of empire, the stadium increasingly became a technology of control. The map of urban confinement in sports stadiums was then expanded in France during the October 17, 1961 massacre of Algerians in which the French police carried out the mass arrest, torture, and murder of Algerians peacefully protesting a curfew. Many protesters were transferred to newly constructed facilities in the outskirts of Paris, the Palace de Sportes and the Pierre Corbin stadium where they were held for days and weeks before eventual deportation. Unlike the Holocaust victims, no such public memorials were dedicated the victims of the 1958 and 1961 massacres, speaking to the minimization of colonial violence in cultural memory. 

These examples from South Africa and France speak to the ways that the stadium’s potential as a carceral site is activated, in early part of the twentieth century, in the context of violence along the colonial continuum. This tendency was perpetuated in one of the most brutal transfers of power in the latter half of the century, Chile, 1973, in which the stadium played a vital role in the execution of imperialist terror. Pinochet’s military coup used the National Stadium and a smaller gym across town as holding cells for as many as 20,000 of people deemed enemies of the state, many of whom were tortured, murdered, and disappeared. To the horror of the world, Pinochet invited the press to witness this open-air prison, where the incarcerated stood in the spectator stands and military and the press surveilled them from the field. Two months after the coup, Chile was to play a soccer match against the USSR, who boycotted the game amidst rumors that the site was being used as a torture chamber. In one of the few instances where a stadiums’ recreational and carceral functions overlapping, the Chilean national team when on to play what became known as the “Phantom Game,” scoring a goal in an empty stadium with no opposition.

Figure 6. Chile's Estadio National in the aftermath of Pinoche't Coup (1973, source here).

The iconic images of survivors of Hurricane Katrina at the New Orleans Superdome, and later the Houston Astrodome, visualize the ways the stadium’s history is entwined with racial capitalism, but also colonial and imperial legacies. Images from Katrina are redolent of a complex history of violence to and containment of racialized bodies marked by a series of atrocities: In 1917 Warren Ballpark in Bisbee, Arizona, the oldest standing baseball stadium in the US, was used as a holding cell for 1,300 striking copper miners, largely of Mexican descent, who were later loaded on cattle trains and transported to the middle of the New Mexican desert; In the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, displaced Black residents were rounded up and detained in McNulty Park, a minor league baseball stadium; and again in 1942, Japanese Americans were held in at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds for several months before being transported to internment camps during WWII. These few examples point to the ubiquity of the stadium as a site of architectural control in the maintenance of white supremacy in the US during these violent episodes. Examining the stadium’s alternate history in the US, what emerges is a picture of control of what some have argued are internally colonized populations [2]. This trajectory was underscored last summer when the LAPD used Jackie Robinson baseball stadium as a holding site for arrestees from the protests against police brutality in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The fact that the LAPD chose a stadium named after the iconic Black baseball star and civil rights activist is not paradoxical, but what we might think of as the rupture of the stadium’s latent violence into plain sight. Black athletes are expected to perform within the stadium, but protest against state violence directed toward Black bodies is only allowed to manifest in its inverse — as the suppression of that protest [3].

Figure 7. Superdome in the aftermath of Hurrican eKatrina, New Orleans (2005, source here).
Figure 8. Striking miners confined in ballpark stands and patrolled by armed vigilantes in Bisbee, Arizona (1917, source here).

The Stadium’s Inside and Outside

These few examples point to the ways that the stadium has functioned as a tool of colonial and imperial control and the maintenance of white supremacy in times of war and peace. However, how are we to theorize the political implications of the stadium as a space of confinement and containment ready at hand? In his essay “What is a Camp?”, Giorgio Agamben (2000: 45) points to instances of these stadium conversions as prime examples of the logic of the camp taking hold of political space and eventually becoming the “nomos of the planet.” To rehearse a familiar argument, Agamben (2000: 39, 40) sees the camp as what materializes when “the state of exception has become the rule,” and swaths of the population are stripped of “every political status” and exists in a “zone of indistinction between outside and inside.” This explanation of stadium as one manifestation of a camp — a juridical space opened up by sovereign power — is attractive in its all-encompassing explanatory power. However, relying on this figuration of the camp as the product of a juridical operation, Agamben’s explanation does little to help us interrogate the spatial materiality of the stadium and its place within the larger context of capitalist urbanism, nor does it help to think through the colonial origins of the practice of housing people in stadiums beyond the question of citizenship. Put differently, the camp, for Agamben, is an amorphous space — the stadium could become a camp, but the camp is not necessarily a stadium. 

To think more concretely about the materiality of the stadium as an architectural typology, I turn again to Léopold Lambert who proposes that a stadium is a “the construction of a void — the void is not an anterior condition, it needs to be constructed.” For Lambert the void that the stadium opens up within the urban fabric is unique in that, unlike a town square or plaza, its architectural coherence and limited points of entry and exit tend to bar democratic social engagement with the space. If the stadium is the construction of a void, a void that deliberately, and sometimes violently, opened within urban space, then we can easily imagine how this void could be filled with bodies in different ways depending on what the sociopolitical context demands. In the case of colonial and imperial wars, this void is a space to contain rebellious bodies whose very existence is a threat to the social order.  

A void as metaphor for stadium imagines it as an empty container waiting to be filled, the outside of the stadium is pregnant with social relations, while the inside lacks them. Rather than a vessel devoid of matter, however, I would like to propose that the stadium and the space it opens up is something more like a fold, in Gilles Deleuze’s sense of the term. In complicating the relationship between interiority and exteriority, inside and outside, Deleuze (1988: 96-7) writes that “the outside is not a fixed limit but a moving matter animated by peristaltic movements, folds and foldings that together make up an inside: they are not something other than the outside, but precisely the inside of the outside.” Interiority is not separate from the outside, but a redoubling if it. If we imagine the stadium as a fold, then this fold produces an interiority that contains within it the contradictions of the social order that exists beyond its walls, its function mutating alongside that social order. Thus, interrogating the political consequences of the stadium as an architectural form, Deleuze’s (1988: 97) proposition that “the inside is an operation of the outside” helps us begin to work through complex tangle of material relationships that open up within it. The stadium is a vast interiority opened up within urban space that is not simply a void, but a site that embodies key elements of the social tensions and conflicts that surround it. In particular, these spaces give us insight into the acute crises of social reproduction —compounded by racial capitalism — that are ever intensified in our present. 

Crises of Social Reproduction and the Global Refugee

Parasite, I argue, is a film that visualizes the class contradictions and the crises of social reproduction are folded into the space of the stadium. A scene from the day after the storm uses parallel editing to cut between the home of the wealthy patrons and the gym where the father and his children have spent the night. As she put on her makeup, the wealthy patron calls her employee in the stadium, who sits within a sea of humanity, as people with trays in line to get food or slouch on the floor with listless agitation. With clothes strewn over the railings, a basketball net behind her head, we hear her employer tell her to “please come by 1 PM,” as they have decided to throw an “impromptu” party.

Figure 9. Film still, Parasite (2019).

The scene cuts between shots of her employers lounging in their master bedroom wearing matching pajamas, perusing clothes in their walk-in closet, and shots of refugees digging through piles of clothes in the gym as police/emergency workers look on. 

Figure 10. Film still, Parasite (2019).

The sharp contrast drawn between the space of the gym and the home of the wealthy patrons materializes the divergent ways the two families experience the storm. For the working family, the storm and its devastation of their home crystalize their incapacity to plan and the sheer contingency of their daily existence. Winding up in the gym is the moment in which their crisis is externalized and becomes newly visible and collective, as they spend their time there preparing to return to work.

Figure 11. Film still, Parasite (2019).

The wealthy family, protected in the enclave of their home, experiences the storm as a minor disruption, spurring them to throw an “impromptu” party with the vast resources at their disposal, including the labor of the displaced. As the father/chauffeur drives his employer around the city preparing for the party she comments, as if to no one, “today the sky is so blue, no pollution. Thanks to the rain yesterday.” The father continues driving, expressionless. “Rain is a blessing,” she says.

Figure 12. Film still, Parasite (2019).

Parasite’s visualization of the spatial dimensions of class stratification and its compounding of the crises of social reproduction are not simply metaphorical, but reflect the lived violence of everyday life in late liberalism, accelerated by the realities of climate change. The 2020 monsoon season in South Korea was particularly harsh, when forty-six days of constant rain led to the death of thirty people and the displacement of thousands who were housed, primarily, in gyms. In the past decade, the stadium has served, more than ever, as a holding cell for the global refugee. In some of the most notable instances, populations displaced by the geopolitical crises, often intimately tied to climate change, have been held in Olympic stadiums around the world, like Syrian refugees in Athens in 2018, Central American migrants in Mexico City in 2018, and Hattians fleeing the Trump administration in Montreal in 2017. Rather than a carceral site for political dissidents, the stadium is cast, in these instances, as a space of humanitarian refuge in the face of diverse socio-ecological crises. In its juxtaposition of the stadium and domestic space, Parasite illuminates the ways that these two interiorities are imbedded within one another, and the ways that each has the contradictions of social reproduction folded within it. As the wealthy build enclaves in which to escape a collapsing climate and the concomitant political catastrophes, the global poor find themselves enclosed within stadiums. In other words, the stadium is increasingly the default, impromptu space for managing populations rendered defenseless by climate change and related crises on a planet without a plan for mitigating the inevitable catastrophes to come.  

Figure 13. Syrian refugee camp in former Olympic stadium, Athens, Greece (2015, source here).

The Stadium’s Future

In popular culture, the stadium’s latent architectural potential serves as a space of imagination for future dystopian scenarios. Take, for example, the video game Grand Theft Auto V, for which a popular “mod” (user-designed modification) that depicts a stadium turned refugee camp has been designed. With great detail, the game builds a world in which a stadium on a fictional college campus in Southern California has been taken over by the military. Greyhound buses that have transported the refugees line the perimeter of the buildings, while people queue at numerous check-points as they wait to be processed. Tanks, extra ammunition, and soldiers holding semi-automatic rifles keep guard over the refugees. On the field, temporary housing, portable toilets, and even an exercise area have been constructed for the refugees, who are, at the same time, prisoners. The precision with which this virtual space has been constructed mirrors the status of the stadium in our collective cultural imaginary: neutral gathering spaces that can be transformed, at a moment’s notice, into loci of containment and control. As a player, one is positioned as neither refugee nor soldier, but can freely move through the space as a detached onlooker. The stadium allows us to spectate on its inhabitants, to cast our gaze on them at the moment of their vulnerability. No one expects to live in a stadium, yet somehow, we have come to accept that it is inevitable that there will be people inhabiting stadiums in the social-ecological conflicts ahead. 

Figure 14. Still of vlogger exploring the “Stadium Refugee Camp” MOD for Grand Theft Auto V (source here).

In the Twin Cities where I live, five massive stadiums have already been constructed this century. While reshaping urban space, accelerating gentrification, and intensifying policing and security in parts of the city, I am arguing that one must also look at the latent potential of these structures given a set of possible futures. The urgency with which state and civic entities turned to these sites when faced with the Covid-19 pandemic perhaps anticipates the oversized the role they will continue to play in a planetary system under immense strain. As prominent structures in nearly every urban center, their future is a matter of concern for any attempt to imagine a more just city. As I have argued here, these architectural forms constructed for the management of social reproduction in “normal” times expose the myriad crises of social reproduction in their “atypical” uses. These crises and are compounded by ongoing legacies of colonization and racial capitalism, disproportionately casting racialized subjects as bodies in excess that must be contained within the stadium’s walls. While it is easy to imagine the dystopian scenarios in which the stadium will be employed to contain and confine, is there a possibility to imagine an alternative, perhaps post-capitalist future of the stadium? Might we imagine other configurations and uses for stadiums in aid of social reproduction? Could the stadium become a gathering site, a real place of refuge and creative expression? Or should we accept Lambert’s assertion that the stadium’s architecture is inherently antagonistic to horizontal forms of sociality? Whatever conclusion we draw, the problem remains of the looming presence of these architectural forms and the ways the material dynamics beyond their walls are continuously folded into them.

[1] For more context on the history and debates surrounding what has been called the “continuity thesis” see, for example: Volker Langbehn and Mohammad Salama, eds., German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust, and Postwar Germany (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) and Michelle Gordon, “Colonial Violence and Holocaust Studies.” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History 21 (4): 272-291. 
[2] For more on the concept of internally colonized populations in the US see, among other texts: Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1969). 
[3] Controversy over kneeling athletes, started by NFL star Colin Kaepernick in 2016, make clear this dynamic.

Reference List

Agamben G (2000) Means without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Cesare Casarino and Vincenzo Binetti. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
Bataille G (1997) “Architecture.” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. London: Routledge. 
Bong JH (2019) Parasite. DVD. 
Deleuze G (1988) Foucault. Trans. Seán Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Greene S (2003) Staged Cities: Mega-events, Slum Clearance and Global Capital. Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 6 (1) 161-187.
Ivester S (2017) Removal, resistance and the right to the Olympic city: The case of Vila Autodromo in Rio de Janeiro. Journal of Urban Affairs 39(7): 1-16. 

Morgan Adamson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at Macalester College and is a scholar-practitioner who works at the intersections of film, digital media, and cultural studies. She is the author Enduring Images: A Future History of New Left Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), and is currently working on an essay film that addresses the promise and pitfalls of architectural utopianism and an interactive documentary on the use of stadiums in times of crisis.