There is a general assumption that the purpose of architecture and design in public spaces is to make objects and places more convenient, practical and enjoyable. But the fact is that this rule doesn’t always apply: in some cases, the precise opposite is true. Perhaps the use of the term hostile architecture is quite recent and sounds unfamiliar to us. However, methods of designing and projecting cities and public spaces in certain ways that favour specific groups of people have been in practice for a surprisingly long time. In an article written for Slate magazine about the topic the author Ella Morton explains how, “historically, landowners and city planners have kept sections of the population at bay by incorporating defensive design features into the architecture: spiked fences, barbed wire, a castle moat (…)”. In contemporary times, castle moats have been replaced by more refined features, but are still aimed at exerting some kind of social control in public spaces.
There are many examples of this in our everyday lives, but let us examine the use of a simple public bench for instance. Although its primary function is to provide people with a place to sit, it could also be used for romantic affairs, resting, or skate tricks. But if these alternative uses are considered inappropriate, unpleasant design elements can be added to deter them. Journalist Coby McDonald gives the following examples “strategically placed armrests can make sleeping uncomfortable, skating dangerous, and love-making gymnastic, thereby forcing ‘proper’ use of the bench”. This design approach is examined extensively in the book ‘Unpleasant Design’ by Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, in which they analyse a range of examples that share a common denominator: all of them are persuasive behaviour shapers and have been designed to “target, frustrate and deter people, particularly those who fall within unwanted demographics”.
The perfect example that embodies this principle is the Camden Bench. Often referred to as the perfect anti-object, it was commissioned by the Camden Council and designed by the studio Factory Furniture. The reason why is often mentioned as the pinnacle of hostile architecture is that it has been designed, approved, funded and materialized with the specific aim of repealing various ‘bad’ behaviours such as skating, sleeping, drug dealing and so on. Savić says ‘it deters twenty-two things, and it allows only two’. So much for ergonomics.
Some case studies are, however, less visible or obvious than the Camden Bench. These include, for instance, the use of blue light in public bathrooms to inhibit drug users (blue light makes veins hard to spot) or reducing suicides in Tokyo’s subway stations (blue light may have relaxing effects), businesses playing classical music and/or high-pitch sound emitters (just audible for young people) to discourage the youth from hanging out in their stores or paint resistant surfaces that repel graffiti. Again these seemingly modern practices stem from more archaic origins. As Savić points out, “the use of lighting as means of public control may be much older than these color-specific interventions… when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia the government installed unpleasantly bright street lamps in Višegrad to deter night-time gatherings that could lead to resistance or rebellion. The locals, displeased with these lights, would break the lamps at night, and the government would reinstall them the next day”. Sounds like the aim of public lightning isn’t always to make us feel safer.
However, whether the strategies employed to prevent a specific use of the public spaces and objects are more or less explicit, more or less visible to the general public, the message is clear pertaining to the targeted group of people: you are not welcome here. Following this, the question remains the same; what is the inherent bureaucratic advantage with this kind of design approach? Savić answers this question providing a clever example: “the difference between a policeman prohibiting people from sleeping on a public bench versus the use of strategically placed armrests. Whereas the former leaves space for negotiation, the latter clearly doesn’t permit it, it is not possible to argue against this.” He continues to say, “when public space becomes not negotiable, its publicness also becomes questionable’. Moreover, hostile architecture implies a wider problem. That is, making it impossible for the dispossessed to rest at a bus shelter equals making it impossible for the elderly or the pregnant woman who needs to rest. In short, the appliance of more hostile and less human measures obviously creates a less welcoming environment; and when the environment is hostile, we became hostile within it.
Meanwhile, efforts have been made to subvert the phenomenon by artists such as Sarah Ross. Her project ‘Archisuits’ (pictured above), which she describes as ‘exercise suits for the exclusionary urban environment’, is an example of the push back against these kinds of public advances. These works consist of a collection of leisure jogging suits specifically designed to fit into the hard dividers of Los Angeles benches, making it possible for the user to lie down comfortably.
Others, such as the artist and architect Nils Norman, have been extensively documenting the barely noticeable reality of Defensive architecture since the 90s in order to bring it to light, and the archive is endless. Because, as Norman states; ‘As city spaces become cleaner and more symbolically ‘safe’, defensive design becomes more abundant and paranoid.” But that is not all: he has also been collecting and gathering what he calls ‘Playscapes’ that ‘represent an alternative paradigm and illustrate what an inclusive, playful and creative public space might look like’. This type of work is certainly a beacon hope in the face of the continued invasion of the private into the public sector and the exclusivity and elitism that it promotes.
So, whether you think that this kind of design approach is just offensive, or believe that it serves a greater good- because the solution to issues such as drug addiction and homelessness should depend on better reintegrating those targeted groups into society so that they shouldn’t have to sleep in public benches- one cannot deny that defensive architecture acts as a curtain that strives to keep poverty unseen in order to make the rest of us more comfortable in our privilege. It is indeed a revealing representation of our social attitude towards economic inequality in general and homelessness specifically.
As a society, we must recognize and begin to question the impact the public environment has on our everyday lives. To this effect, our interactions and experiences with public spaces are revealing on a number of levels, particularly when human interaction, nuance, and empathy are being replaced with hard, physical and non-negotiable solutions. It reminds me of a question posed by the artist and researcher Sarah Hendren: ‘whose bodies are welcome in cities, and why?’