Hostile Architecture

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Hostile Architecture

Have you ever been out and about searching for a place to sit, only to come across benches that are rounded, slanted, squiggly, separated by armrests, or otherwise impractically uncomfortable to rest on? That’s not just bad design. It’s, on purpose, an integral piece of the puzzle that is the divisive concept of “hostile architecture.”

_Camden bench_, 2015, The wub, CC BY-SA 4.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by-sa_4.0_, via Wikimedia Commons
Camden bench, 2015, The wub, CC BY-SA 4.0 https.creativecommons.org licenses by sa 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hostile architecture is an urban design strategy meant to “purposefully guide behavior” through pieces of architecture you might not expect to have an ulterior function — like the benches above.


Learn what precisely this controversial form of social engineering is, see examples of hostile architecture from around the world, and understand the arguments for and against its use in public space in this exploration of the polarizing topic.

What is hostile architecture?

Also known as defensive architecture, hostile design, unpleasant design, exclusionary design, anti-homeless architecture, or defensive urban design, hostile architecture is a form of civil/social engineering that uses standard, everyday pieces of public architecture to guide behavior, typically with the express aim of deterring unwanted behaviors from occurring.

Bench in a Bus Shelter; Brooklyn. By Tdorante10. Via Wikicommons
Bench in a Bus Shelter; Brooklyn. By Tdorante10 via Wikicommons

It’s meant to target those who heavily rely on public spaces, like the homeless population, youths, the impoverished, and even office workers who spend the majority of their day in urban centers. Elements of hostile architecture are often “hidden in plain sight” and designed to seem inconspicuous to the public. Thus, what laypeople may perceive as poorly planned, nonsensical, or abstract design elements are also forms of hostile architecture beyond their intended or perceived function.

Although the term “hostile architecture” is recent, architects have used design to exclude since the 19th century, particularly for segregation during the Jim Crow era. Hostile architecture also derives from the design philosophy “crime prevention through environmental design,” which aims to prevent crime through three distinct strategies: natural surveillance, natural access control, and territorial enforcement.

Examples of hostile architecture

Benches

Benches are some of the most easily identifiable elements of hostile architecture. The most common way benches are forms of hostile architecture is by adding an armrest. These armrests divide the bench, preventing it from being used for anything other than seating. As a result, homeless individuals are unable to sleep or rest on it.

Spikes to Prevent people sitting in Stockholm, by Frankie Fouganthin. Via Wikicommons.
Spikes to Prevent people sitting in Stockholm, by Frankie Fouganthin via Wikicommons

Benches can also be sloped or otherwise oddly shaped to prevent people experiencing homelessness from sleeping and discourage people looking for a place to sit from sitting on them for an extended period, limiting the usefulness of the public space. One example includes the “Camden bench,” a sloped concrete bench first installed in the Camden neighborhood of London in 2012. The Camden bench has been called “the perfect anti-object,” as it prevents people from sitting or sleeping and is designed to prevent drug stashing, public displays of affection, and skateboarding. The benches are so heavy that they can only be moved by crane and can additionally be used as a roadblock.

Another way benches can be a form of hostile architecture is the lack of them. In 2020, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City received backlash for admitting that the recent removal of benches in the subway systems was to “prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.”

Spikes

Sometimes, specifically called “anti-homeless spikes,” hostile architecture spikes can come in various styles. Some are more abstract than others, but all of these spikes are meant to prevent someone from sitting, sleeping, or leaning on a certain area. At Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Japan, an underpass is dotted with colorful, small pillars that look more like public art you’re meant to admire. Conversely, in Marseille, France, small bolts are installed on the steps within the doorway of a building, overtly conveying that anyone looking to sit there is not welcome.

Anti-homless object in Shinjuku Station, 2007, sari, CC BY-SA 2.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by-sa_2.0_, via Wikimedia Commons
Hostile architecture in Marseille, France, DC, CC BY-SA 3.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by-sa_3.0_, via Wikimedia Commons
_Odot boulder_, 2020, Graywalls, CC BY-SA 4.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by-sa_4.0_, via Wikimedia Commons

Spikes are not the only way sleeping and camping are discouraged in public spaces. Large rocks and boulders can also be installed in locations used by transients to prevent or make it harder for them to set up shelter there. Disguising this form of hostile architecture as part of nature can make it even more difficult for laypeople to spot where they are being excluded.

Urine deflectors

One of the oldest forms of hostile architecture, urine deflectors can be installed at the side or in the corners of buildings. They redirect the stream of urine to block attempts to use the area as a urinal. Common in Europe, urine deflectors are often designed to blend in with the building’s original façade. Security cameras may also be placed about the urine deflector to further deter and identify potential offenders.

Urine deflector, 2013, Bob Embleton _ Victorian urine deflector, Priory Gatehouse, Malvern
Urine deflector, 2013, Bob Embleton, Victorian urine deflector, Priory Gatehouse, Malvern

Fences and grates

Fences and grates are used to block access to areas of shelter or vents, which unhoused people use to sleep under and seek protection from the elements or find warmth. Fences used for exclusionary design purposes seemingly do not block anything else other than the area that is frequented by homeless people.

_Exclusionary design in Stockholm_, 2015, Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0 _https_creativecommons.org_licenses_by-sa_4.0_, via Wikimedia Commons
Exclusionary design in Stockholm, 2015, Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https.creativecommons.org licenses_by sa 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Noise and other miscellaneous hostile architecture examples

Music and loud noise can also be forms of hostile architecture when used in public spaces. One example is “The Mosquito,” an anti-loitering device that emits a high-pitched noise that only young people can hear. The Mosquito, used by stores like Aldi, is meant to “prevent antisocial [behavior] taking place near the store, prevent damage to the building and promote a safe shopping and working environment for customers and staff,” according to an article from The Guardian.

In 2019, officials for Florida’s West Palm Beach took to playing “annoying” songs like “Baby Shark” on a loop throughout the night to prevent homeless people from using the beach.


Awning gaps are also a form of hostile architecture, and although it may at first seem like a design choice to accentuate the building the awning is a part of, gaps in the awning or its shape allow rain and the elements to get through to people seeking shelter underneath the awning.

Benches or other seating might also be placed outside the awning’s coverage, defeating the purpose of accessible outdoor seating. Sydney, Australia, is an example of this.

Under-road spikes, Guangzhou, China, ©China Hush via Arch 20
Under-road spikes, Guangzhou, China, ©China Hush via Arch 20

The case for and against hostile architecture

Although some may consider hostile architecture impossible to justify, it provides several positives. Hostile architecture is meant to seamlessly guide behavior without the public even realizing it, allowing for the prevention of petty crimes like loitering, public urination, and skateboarding without the intervention of law enforcement. Implementing hostile architecture is often meant to be a single-use, temporary fix to an individual problem, like a homeless person sleeping on a bench outside a specific building or private residence. When deployed in these situations, hostile architecture can provide peace of mind and safety for the individual and their affected property.

However, as hostile architecture is used as a solution to more and more individual problems, it starts to take over the entirety of public spaces, creating an environment that is unwelcoming to everyone and leaving those who are in favor of hostile architecture unable to deal with both the consequences of hostile architecture and the root problems hostile architecture was created to address: homelessness, poverty, and the lack of third places. “The original goal was much more pro-public,” said Dan Lockton of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design for The Guardian . “But these new features are part of a range of strategies that perceive the public as a threat and treat everyone as a criminal.”

©mobilpribadi.com via Arch 20
©mobilpribadi.com via Arch 20

As such, criticisms against hostile architecture are widespread, with many noting that targeting homeless and young people infringes upon human rights and ultimately affects everyone who frequents the public space or urban area where hostile architecture is. The addition of hostile architectural elements, which can sometimes take up prime sidewalk space, also makes it more difficult for those who walk as their primary mode of transportation to traverse their environment efficiently. Wheelchair users, guide dog users, and others with mobility issues or disabilities are also heavily affected by hostile architecture, with hostile architecture elements being unexpected obstacles in a world that is already not designed with them in mind. Hostile architecture not only harms the usability of public spaces but also can harm the environment by taking up valuable space that could be used to plant more trees, flowers, and other areas suitable for wildlife to coexist in.

Artists and designers themselves have been vocal about their criticisms of hostile architecture. UK artist Stuart Semple created Hostile Design, a website where visitors are encouraged to identify and mark pieces of hostile architecture as “designs against humanity.” Semple claims that hostile architecture attempts to restrict freedoms and enact unjustified control over a person’s behavior.

“The danger of hostile design is it’s so insidious. It’s so quiet, so camouflaged that unless you know what it is, you accept it. And that blind acceptance makes things grow and spread.”

Semple told Hyperallergic in an interview. “I

A space for everyone?

Hostile architecture remains a divisive practice for local governments that fund it and those that use the public spaces in which it exists. While there are apparent uses for hostile architecture, perhaps with increased awareness of what it looks like, artists, architects, and laypeople alike can work towards a future where the “hostility” of this form of social engineering isn’t so outwardly apparent - and public spaces can become a welcoming, open place for all to use fairly and equitably, without fear of being excluded. 


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