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The architecture of cruelty


Architecture and the built environment frame almost every aspect of life in the city. We not only live and work in these buildings, streets, public spaces but create, raise families and engage in the social activities that give meaning to our lives. Yet most of us take the built form for granted, viewing it simply as the infrastructure that provides a place for these activities to occur.

However, architecture can and does manipulate our thoughts, feelings and even our movement. Monumental buildings are erected by rulers to inspire awe and devotion (two striking examples being the parliamentary houses of Bangladesh and Romania), while the winding layouts of supermarkets are designed to keep customers within their walls for as long as possible.

Our tendency to view our built environment as simply ‘being there’ means its ability to manipulate is something that we rarely notice, let alone challenge, which makes architectural design a uniquely powerful tool of governance and control. Unlike unpopular policies or violent police action, the way it acts on the public often draws little scrutiny.

As the process of building requires immense physical and capital resources and the authority to use them, the coercive, unmediated power of architecture rests almost solely in the hands of a wealthy minority and the state. With two-thirds of the world’s population set to live in cities and urban areas by 2050, it’s become more important than ever to question how they are using this power.

Over the past 75 years, this power has increasingly manifested in the form of ‘hostile architecture’, an urban planning trend that uses design to control human behaviour. By altering buildings and public spaces, those in control of urban environments ‘design out’ uses and users they deem illegitimate by making it physically impossible for them to exist in a given place.

Considered by many urbanists as the ‘classic’ example of hostile architecture, the mid-20th century redevelopment of New York City saw the exclusion of poor, majority black and Hispanic communities from civic life. Chief architect Robert Moses, a vocal racist, built low bridges over the Long Island Parkway to prevent people from poorer black neighbourhoods from travelling by bus to the newly built beaches. He also placed most public parks and swimming pools as far from black and Hispanic communities as possible, and redirected the city’s busiest roads through poorer areas, leaving rich neighbourhoods untouched by traffic.

In recent years, perhaps the best-known example of hostile design is the use of anti-homeless spikes on pavements and benches in public spaces, specifically designed to stop people bedding down. Visit any shopping or financial district around the world and you’ll see these devices in abundance. Elsewhere, water sprinklers were installed to douse rough sleepers at a San Francisco cathedral (hastily removed after media exposure), as well as in government buildings in China.

Advocates of these strategies speak of their ability to alleviate social problems through environmental design, pointing to crime and rough-sleeping reduction figures. They often use the term ‘defensive architecture’, which tells you everything about the way those in control of resources view the poorest and most vulnerable. But there is not one instance in which the designing out of social ailments actively solves a problem; it is instead content to rid the urban landscape of the ‘scourge of the impoverished’ by simply displacing them to another location.

The overall consequence of these manoeuvres is the rapid privatization of cities and urban areas. Not the kind of privatization that sees public assets transferred into private ownership (though this is happening to public spaces the world over), but of a social kind, by which the city becomes redefined as a realm that serves the demands of a specific substratum of society. When the rich and powerful claim the urban environment for themselves, it should come as no surprise that the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are forced out of the metropolis: those that don’t serve the interests of capital, wealth-accumulation and hyper-consumption.

Redefining the city

But these clandestine forces of urban exclusion can be combated. Across the world, vigilant communities have successfully fought for the removal of anti-homeless spikes and sprinkler systems by voicing their objections. So write to your local government representative, tweet, shout about it.

Beyond this, what is really needed is systemic change in the way we construct the urban environment that redefines the city for all. Though the power of private capital may seem insurmountable, urban initiatives are successfully doing this around the world.

In Barcelona, the so-called Superblock Model, which emphasizes bottom-up participation in the planning process, has been redistributing public space for pedestrians and reintroducing the public realm as a place for games, social interaction and community gardening.

In Kenya, a Public Space Project in Kibera, an informal settlement of around a million people in the capital Nairobi, is building community cohesion by creating ‘productive public spaces’, including small bridges, playgrounds and vegetable gardens. Locals can also attend free educational programmes covering land and tenancy rights.

Making waves just a few miles away from where I’m writing this article, the East London community regeneration group Clear Village has recently helped residents near the Down Lane Park development secure over £200,000 ($256,000) of funding to make local alleyways safer.

Architecture can be a catalyst for community cohesion and the alleviation of poverty. If we challenge the motives of urban design, we can and will ensure that the city becomes an inclusive place for all.

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