A clean, well-lit... prison cell

Dawn arrives with light in the window. There is no curtain. Out, through the prison bars, I see a row of rooftops. The TV aerials sit sideways, as if blown drunk by the wind. Like all prison cells, it seems, there are birds outside the window, and moving shadows, and distant traffic, which sounds faintly like a river. I can hear movement in the corridor outside my cell. The ceiling is inches from my eyes. Jumping to the cold floor, one is immediately reminded of what it might mean to be incarcerated. No toilet. No sink. I step to the barred door but there is no need to call for a prison guard, or to rattle a tin cup against the steel cage.

I step out into the bright corridor and into a morning in the Hostel Celica in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The hostel – which was built in the old military barracks of the old Austro-Hungarian empire – is one of the most interesting places to stay in eastern Europe. Home to some spectacular human crimes under the fascists and the communists alike, the prison was converted into a youth hostel in the summer of 2003, and the visionaries behind the venture decided to turn it into a work of art while maintaining the sense of being locked inside.

What results is an incisive artwork which manages to marry history and idea, suffering and vision. The doors are still barred. The windows too, though they open out five centimetres, enough to fit a hand through. The floors are still sloped to accommodate drains. The dungeon is kept as it once was, although a camera obscura has been placed in the wall so that the shadows of passers-by are turned upside-down in a chilling artistic statement that we are all shadows of shadows.

The rooms have been transformed by guest artists. Beds hang in mid-air. Poems are scrawled on the walls. Artwork is made from cupboards. Doorways are turned into sundials. Two cafes on the ground floor accommodate east and west and a summer garden sits between them.

"Perspective can be our inside jail," says one of the architects, Janko RoÏiã. "We need to think from the other side. Too many things have a rational beginning. We need more mystery."

To stay in the hostel is to stay in the prison, and yet, it's also to dwell momentarily inside a work of art. You can almost hear the beatings, the sprayings, the torture drills, the dialogue of prisoners with the birds outside the window. There is certainly nothing wrong – and perhaps there is even something necessary – about turning even the darkest places into works of the imagination. We do it with themes, so why not do it with landscapes?

Milan Kundera says the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

What Hotel Celica manages to do successfully is to have you wake up in a room – a clean, well-lit room – with the absolute knowledge that, down through history, other men and women have woken up in the same room, amid rivers of piss and misery, assaulted by the ideology of ownership. The "guest" is behind bars, but is also brought in – as a living, breathing being – into a work of creativity.

As the most prosperous republic of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia emerged from its brief ten-day war of secession in 1991 as an independent nation. All of a sudden, the Metelkova Barracks were empty. In 1993, there was a hurried attempt to demolish the area, but a group of young activists began a non-violent occupation of the barracks. Exhibitions, rock concerts, readings and spontaneous theatre took place and the whole area was taken over with the idea that the past is not the only thing we have to look forward to.

That the area came through, and actually triumphed, without being co-opted – without a McDonalds, or a billboard, or a mainstream government theme – is extraordinary. It is certainly something we could learn from in Ireland.

Given the fact that Dublin's Mountjoy Prison has been in the news in recent months, there could be a lesson to learn from our European neighbours. There have been calls from the families of prisoners for the Minister for Justice to spend a couple of nights in the 'Joy. It would take a brave man to step inside that prison for anything other than to immediately step out again. But it's hardly beyond the realms of possibility that McDowell and others might have the imagination to be able to turn a little tide of history and transform Mountjoy into something along the lines of the Celica (which, incidentally includes Room 101, a cell inspired by the 1981 Hunger Strikers).

The Celica is not a luxury, by any means, and it is mostly inhabited by young backpackers, but the architecture, and the consciousness of history, are a treat in this day and age of white walls and tepid hotel artwork.

Our usual instinct is to tear down our places of terror. Up go the condos and out goes the past. Perhaps there is a lesson in transforming the past rather than attempting to destroy or forget it.