Anti Personnel Architecture, should this become a thing of the past?

By Eleanor Worthington: Arts Columnist

When we imagine our favourite public spaces, whether it be our favourite park, the street that we live or spectacular urban settings such as Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, we associate them with a sense of invitation, wholesomeness and engagement. As public spaces you would assume this would be the case for everyone, areas that are inclusive and safe. But the harsh reality is that the subtle urban design details hidden in plain sight, provide dangerous and unwelcoming microaggressions towards those of a typically lower socio-economical caliber. Homelessness is a very apparent issue with 280,000 people recorded as homeless in the UK in 2019 – that is 1 in every 200. Many of the homeless individuals unfortunately face the brunt of the socially demeaning stigma daily from people alone, now with the added danger and exclusionary effect of design, architecture too is contributing towards the projected hostility.

280,000 people recorded as homeless in the UK in 2019 – that is 1 in every 200.

Colloquially known as hostile architecture or defensive design, the primary objective is to strategise the cunning urban design motifs to intentionally manage and hinder behaviour to maintain order and forestall crime. Although vagrancy is not a crime, it can undoubtedly be considered ‘undesirable’ and a ‘burden’. You may not have a personal disharmony when engaging with homeless people and it is reassuring to acknowledge the many charities and good willed individuals who attempt to help, but it is unfortunately too ‘undesirable’ to some, like councils, small and large businesses, and residential areas.

This results in passive aggressive features such as awkward and abstract art looking benches with unnecessary arm rests and ‘leaning posts’ posing as severely slanting seats. Both make sleeping and resting uncomfortable or impossible. Rocky pavements discourage using the area as a space for refuge and clusters of rows of spikes look like medieval torturing devises. People who are fortunate enough to only have to imagine the dehumanising effects of homelessness my not even recognise these small details that further distance certain individuals from society, particularly the ‘spikes’, also known as caps or pig ears. Initially used as a method of deterring birds away from buildings and urban spaces, the spikes located on windows, walls and now even on the floors of areas that can be used as shelter, force the homeless elsewhere and dehumanises them further by ultimately categorising them as common pests.

The addition of certain features is one characteristic of the pervasive design but another is to subtract amenities from an area. This includes, public toilets, water fountains, litter bins and seating. Not only is this cheaper as less is required to be constructed but it creates a ghostly atmosphere and eventually leads to a less welcoming space.

This rigorous detail in this architecture is to some degree very smart and achieves its purpose but it also presents an illness in architecture and its socio-political association. The term ‘homeless’ is extremely misleading and prepossess that the only issue is the lack of a home, when in fact it is much larger than that and the homeless will tend to need personal help, therapy and encouragement to integrate into a society that typically sees through them. It is easy to question ‘why don’t architects and urban-designers spend the money they use on hostile architecture, for positive projects such as homeless shelters and better social housing?’ and the austere reality is that there is no grand economic benefit for large practices who are typically the sole ones who can afford to.

Though not great enough to surpass the negative effects of hostile architecture, some components achieve their objective in a positive way. For example anti-climb paint is added to posts and walls to reduce criminals scaling and defacing properties, blue lighting is used, particularly in communal bathrooms, so that drug users feel disorientated and cannot find veins. It’s also valuable to note that hostile architecture dates to the late 1800’s when there were not many public bathrooms which resulted in many people urinating on the streets. To combat this, buildings were designed with slopes at the ground to wall junction, resulting in the urine splashing back on the defacer!

Though there are positives and a slightly humorous history background, we as the public and designers must remember the consequences of our actions through daily interaction and long term design ramifications.

Meet Eleanor on the Team page. See the Department.