On Defensive Architecture

In every major city I’ve lived in (New York City, San Francisco, and Boston), there has always been a large contingent of homeless people. I’ve noticed that depending on the personality of the city, the treatment of the homeless varies significantly and can be worsened by Defensive Architecture.

Defensive Architecture, also known as Disciplinary Architecture, is a calculated way of designing urban spaces to make them inaccessible to an undesired external element, most commonly poor and homeless people. The goal of Defensive Architecture is to “aggressively reject, soft human bodies” by adding hard, metal barriers that prevent human use. It can take the form of single-seat benches, water sprinklers, or metal separators. In London, Defensive Architecture has taken the form of metal spikes, placed on the ground to repel homeless people who want to sleep in outdoor shopping spaces.  of the Guardian, wrote a great article on the ethical implications of Defensive Architecture and how it’s growth across major cities signals a decline in our sense of morality.

“Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations, especially in retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of private and public, of necessity and property.”

– Alex Andreou

Defensive Architecture, or as I would call it Designing Against Humanity hurts our society and sense of civility. Those who are the most vulnerable- the poor, the homeless, the immobile- are the ones who suffer from the insensitive architecture of public spaces that purposefully aims to hide the social ills that plague our society. Instead off spending money investing in projects that aim to create exclusionary public spaces, we should be thinking about how to promote the livability of such spots.

Luckily, designers around the world have come to the rescue. James Furzer, a designer from Great Britain, recently won the  FAKRO- Space for New Visions competition where he created a new design concept for housing the homeless in London. These “parasitic sleeping pods” attach to the side of any building and are designed to be modular and lightweight.

Other designers have also explored new ways of challenging Defensive Architecture. Sarah Ross, an artist who works in sculpture, designed The Archisuit, which provides a whole new way of understanding how people relate to space and class. Probably not something I’d wear on the day to day but it does make an important statement.

My biggest fear is that these designs stay only within the realm of design, never making their way to the actual committees and governments that decide urban landscape and policy. How can we make solutions like Furzer’s widely accepted and profitable? Something to ponder.


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