Defensive architecture, a hostile form of alienating the already marginalized

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, November 4th, 2015 at 10:19 PM
Defensive architecture, a hostile form of alienating the already marginalized  by The Spectator
Seemingly harmless, this bench is strategically designed to prevent overnight sleeping.

Walking through many cities and perhaps even small towns, you may have noticed small spikes protruding from certain buildings, or Lego-like cement protrusions on ledges surrounding the outside of buildings. Sometimes, benches are even broken into segments through arm rests, which make lying down on the bench all but impossible. What are these unbecoming designs, and why are they cropping up around our hometowns?

These designs, as it turns out, belong to a movement called defensive architecture. With the activists of rising civil unrest and protests in our country bringing their plights to the streets of America, businesses and city officials, who must maintain the status-quo, have relied on this new form of architecture to discourage public social gatherings and, most notably, the loitering of homeless people. There is an inherent injustice within this ideology, which permeates the thought patterns of some of today’s architects and city planners.

The most recent issue of defensive architecture came from the installation of metal spikes on the grounds in front of a square in London, which was once a notorious place where homeless dwellers would typically rest.

London is just one instance where this inhumane form of further alienating the already disenfranchised is taking place. Every day, in many industrialized nations, nations which are members of global committees dedicated to preserving human rights and human dignity, spaces are being redesigned with the intention of making a statement, and it’s not a statement any citizen of the nations who utilize this infrastructure should condone.

The statement being made by these structures is that those who are restricted and cast into our streets, due most prominently to an inequitable socioeconomic system or mental disorder, are somehow inherently lesser than those who work in the buildings behind these unseemly architectural “advancements.” And it’s cringe worthy in this day and age.

These spikes and rails are reminiscent of Dickensian English factory villages, where the poor were so often cast out of the prosperous factions of the city, that many of the well-off citizens were able to practice cognitive dissonance since their fellow Englishmen were relegated to the grime and squalor of other parts of the city. Building up high-rises, shopping centers, and parking lots seems like a fantastic idea until the people who had made those businesses initially thrive are cast aside.

These city developments are not designed blindly. They are designed with malicious deeper meanings and have more social implications than what appear immediately apparent. In worldwide communities, every setting, whether it’s prosperous, or economically depressed, has inherent social and political relevance. How the setting is managed and utilized, paired with how it’s perceived by the larger community surrounding it, establishes and reinforces that property’s value. The more a property is held in regard, the more power it acquires, especially when it comes to buying and monopolizing surrounding estates. Those endowed with power can choose to share the social clout with those around them by giving back to the community, or they can leave the less socially esteemed out in the cold, no longer even able to huddle under the warmth radiating from the Wells-Fargo marquee. 

What makes defensive architecture so repulsive to those of our society still left with a semblance of empathy is that it’s not a product of thoughtlessness. It is a cool and calculated design engineered by architects who make, on average, $75,000 a year. It is a design rooted in unkindness and grows into a majority-approved campaign to exclude and harass not only the homeless, but those who feel they have suffered for too long by allowing their voice to be silenced. (i.e. the We Are the 99% Movement, Black Lives Matter and Anonymous).

Defensive architecture is but another newly emerging clash of the short-sighted private sector with the public. This new phenomena is showcasing how “corporate hygiene,” as Alex Andreou of The Guardian puts it, has overridden human considerations. This especially seems to be symptomatic of retail industries, because what decent human being doesn’t feel some twinge of remorse when buying a $60 shirt from Nordstrom while a homeless woman sits against the window wrapped in a worn Salvation Army coat outside?

The problem with defensive architecture is it’s a solution to a myopic view of the problem. If the purpose of property was revitalized, we just might be able to come up with solutions that don’t reveal themselves with a total lack of compassion.

For example, consider a bus station. Bus stations are notorious for being places where the homeless sleep because they provide shelter from the elements and are marginally insulated from harm that they would otherwise have to confront. This view of the function of a bus station is flawed though, because in this assigned value it is serving only one function. Instead, we should view the bus stop and appreciate it for its larger function of serving the public’s transportation needs. There are bus stops that are redesigned to provide Wi-Fi and display artwork and on rare occasions they foster discussions between strangers who are forced under close proximity to one another. There are many purposes that a bus stop serves and if we only choose to look at one “problem” with the stop, then we are being selectively ignorant to the social and political implications of public spaces.

If we address the homeless issue from a place of compassion instead of a nuisance that needs to be eradicated, perhaps we can offer realistic solutions that are just, and make our nations seem like they’re not reverting to past city plans where the marginalization of the poor was a facet to making a city illustrious. Ignoring a problem is not the same as solving the problem. Perhaps it is better for our corporations who are implementing this defensive architecture to reevaluate the message they are sending by contracting engineers to build medieval deterrents outside of their places of business.

The executives, city planners, architects and even the consumer are in a position of social power that those like the homeless and those who are protesting for their civil rights are not privileged enough to have. Therefore, the more fortunate half needs to be aware of how these less-than-mindful designs create an unfortunate cultural narrative that will surely be a blemish in our future history books.

Sculptor Fabian Brunsing has satirized the ludicrous nature of having the public prohibited from certain ledges, benches, and seating. Brunsing’s art instillation is of a park bench where the metal spikes retract themselves for a limited time when the prospective sitter inserts a coin. What’s ironic is that officials of the Shangdong province in China actually implemented this idea in one of their parks.

We can’t keep mistaking jokes for reality. Our society is so desensitized to the income disparity in our country that our satirical art is being converted into insensitive reality. We can’t keep pushing poverty out of sight to sanitize our super malls and swanky neighborhoods in order to conceal our collective guilt for overconsuming. There is no way to lock others out without locking ourselves in. 

Our Viewpoint is voted on and discussed by the staff of The Spectator.

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