What is hostile architecture?

The phrase “hostile architecture” has been passed around online a lot of late, but what does it mean?

Hostile architecture or hostile design is when public spaces are intentionally designed to exclude humans or hinder human use. Whether this is aimed at loitering teenagers, skateboarders or the homeless population.

Hostile architecture is more commonly found in cities or more densely populated areas but more rural locations are not exempt. Examples include, spikes installed on external window ledges and in doorways to prevent people sitting down, benches with arm rests that may prohibit sleeping or broadcasting unpleasant sounds to deter loitering.

Hostile Architecture

UK based artist Stuart Semple, founder of the “Design Crime” campaign, said: “Hostile design is design that intends to restrict freedom or somehow control a human being—be that homeless people, a skater or everyday humans congregating to enjoy themselves,”

He also comments: “It often attacks the most vulnerable people in our community, regularly the homeless.
It sends out a very clear signal, that certain people aren’t wanted.“

Sociologist Robert Park once wrote that in making the city we make ourselves and wondered what kind of collective self-conception lead us to design cities covered in metal spikes, illuminated by blue lights and buzzing with high-frequencies. One that is paranoid, anxious and hostile, by design.

Urban designer Malcom MacKay says: “Historically, defensive architecture was used to deal with the enemy without” and now he says that anxiety has been turned inwards.

Naturally councils and designers wish to discourage the anti-social behaviour that is often associated with these groups and believe that design measures such as this will help keep public spaces safe for the general public.

Hostile Architecture

Speaking to CNN, co-founder of street furniture manufacturers Factory Furniture (who have been accused of contributing to hostile design), Dean Harvey, said that hostile architecture is “where architectural elements and the public realm are used to control human behaviour.”

Also saying that, “It can provide a solution: prevent drug drops, minimize the amount of time people spend in an area.

“When we design a piece of furniture, we're not thinking about it being antisocial -- we're thinking about that piece being used as a piece of furniture in the public realm, rather than as a skating pit, or for grinding an object, or as a hangout (area).”

He went on to mention that: “When we designed the Serpentine bench in the 1990s, one of the things people mentioned was that it couldn't be slept on. We then used that as one of our marketing points -- that it could deter rough sleepers, and skaters.”

A series of benches installed in Camden in 2009 by Factory Furniture came under fire as being an example of hostile design. Dean explains that the company received the brief from Camden council to design a bench that would deter loitering, sleeping, skating and prevent drug drops.

The solution was a cast concrete bench with uncomfortable sloping surfaces.

In response to this, architect James Furzer, whose work attempts to combat hostile design, said: “I'm not saying that the Camden bench is evil ... because it is successful in what it does. (The client wanted them) to use design to force out antisocial behaviour.

“But then antisocial behaviour is actually people congregating. We are designing people out of space.”

Hostile Architecture

As a solution to combat anti-social behaviour and encourage public integration he suggests: “I feel we need to design spaces that encourage good behaviour -- and turn antisocial behaviour into welcoming behaviour. Ultimately, architecture isn't the cure of homelessness.”

The fundamental issue, he says, is that councils wish to discourage rough sleeping but offer no practical solution, only hostile prevention methods. If councils wish to implement anti-homeless design measures they need to provide a safe solution for the homeless.

That being said, is it possible to design a public space to both discourage anti-social behaviour and encourage good behaviour?

London based landscape architects, The Edible Bus Stop, worked with the local community in Brixton, South London, to develop a public space for the community at the iconic Southwyck House.

Due to the estate’s murky history the community were initially sceptical in regards to adding seating to the site, not wanting to encourage anti-social behaviour.

The Edible Bus Stop were able to overcome this with the power of good design and greenery. By developing the site using volunteers from the local community they were able to develop a sense of pride around the newly developed space. A sense of ownership, it was theirs to look after.

Working with the community allowed The Edible Bus Stop to create a space in collaboration with the people that would actually use the space, making it feel more inclusive right from the start. In all of their designs The Edible Bus Stop also include an edible garden for the community to look after, grow and use.

Hostile Architecture

After an initial trial period the benches stayed. The site has remained clean and vandalism free, it has succeed in creating social behaviour and the estates’ residence are said to be very happy with the result.

However, there are some that argue that to accuse a piece of furniture or an area of a city as being a piece of hostile architecture is reading too far in to the motivations of local councils and designers. That handles and sloped seating are just design features and don’t mean to exclude anybody.

What do you think? Are people being designed out of public spaces or is defensive design crucial for public safety? Join the debate on LinkedIn.

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