"Why I Am Basically Hostile Towards Hostile Architecture"

By Ben Smithies Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 27 March 2023

"Why I Am Basically Hostile Towards Hostile Architecture"
A man studies papers, silhouetted against the glass arches ceiling of St Pancras station
Tour guide Ben Smithies leads us through some of London's hostile architecture. Image: Londonist

It is difficult to sit on the fence when it comes to the issue of hostile architecture, especially when the top of that fence has sharp metal teeth.

Nobody really seems to like hostile architecture — sometimes referred to as 'defensive design' — except perhaps the people who pay for it.

We are all familiar with the general pushback against the use of spikes outside or on buildings, as a way of deterring homeless people from bedding down in certain spaces. Even ex-mayor Boris Johnson said the spikes appearing in central London were not a good look, though his emphasis, of course, was from the aesthetic perspective.

Fake buses in front of a shop window
Hostile architecture can appear innocuous enough, such as these planters in Southampton Row.

"The picturesque plants have been deliberately placed to block spaces where homeless people used to bed down"

Criminologist James Petty has suggested that in a sense, the chief significance of the spikes is that they, as it were, burst the balloon of 'our' habitual comfort zone, which had allowed us who are housed, to forget the way homeless people are made to feel unwelcome. And if the spikes prick our conscience, do we all not bleed?

('The Spike', ironically, was a slang term for a type of workhouse or temporary shelter for 'tramps' in the early 1800s.)

But there are other forms of defensive design which are more subtle, more devious.

One example. A couple of planters have been placed alongside formerly empty window spaces in Southampton Row, central London. What's not to like? The wooden boxes, at around waist height, are filled with attractive plants, complementing the vertical wall of plants in the nearby atrium of an office. (They're real plants, not plastic; the security guard allowed me to check). But in reality, the picturesque plants have been, I would suggest, deliberately placed to block spaces, where homeless people used to bed down. Unhoused people simply cannot any longer lie down in these areas, because the planters are in the way.

Plants in a wooden box suspended, mark the spot where a sleeping-place ended.

A sign: 'Together We Camp'Yeah, sure, but just not on our premises.

"I have a particularly visceral response to such hostile architecture, perhaps because I was once homeless myself"

This is not the first time plants have become more important than human beings, as I reveal on my walking tour with Unseen Tours. It seems to give the lie to the bold slogan currently emblazoned in the windows : "Together we camp". Yeah, sure, but just not on our premises.

I have a particularly visceral response to such hostile architecture, perhaps because I was once homeless myself. I have a certain sensitivity to these kind of 'excluding devices'; I also happened to know some of the people who used to bed down in Southampton Row, before the enforced foliage was put in place.

I met them during the lockdown when I was walking the streets with Matt and Jess from the magnificent Museum Of Homelessness, and we were distributing hot drinks and crisps to people on the streets. This was the depths of winter. At that time, London seemed to consist exclusively of a pile of historical buildings, and then principally two human groups: the security guards — conspicuous and brightly coloured in their uniforms and with loud walkie-talkies — and the unhoused, bedding down in as discreet a way as possible, almost trying to make themselves invisible.

Studs in a concrete bench
Hostile architecture on the waterfront at Greenwich.

Middle-class people were actually entirely invisible because they were confined to their homes. At one point it was alleged that some of the security guards had taken to hosing down some of the stacks of cardboard which people used as bedding so that it was no longer usable. Now, I have heard it said that the security guards were only trying to do their job, but — if those rumours are true — it's disgusting behaviour.

It is sobering to think about the way particular phrases have become associated with something 'that applies to other people, not me'. Take the ending of 'freedom of movement', or a phrase which is very hot at the moment — the so-called 'hostile environment' for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK. It is disconcerting to reflect that the lack of freedom of movement and the hostile environment is now coercing all of us.

None of us are unaffected by the intrusion of the 'hostile' philosophy into our urban built environment. I think a key feature of the way our movement in the city is controlled and manipulated (and how I hate to be controlled!), is secret, implicit. As L. Sandercock, distinguished urban planner, claims: "This idealised urban environment is highly controlled and regulated, yet, importantly, the mechanisms of control remain largely hidden."

Anna Minton— author of Big Capital: Who is London for? —  has also pointed out how not making all the rules and regulations available to the public is a symptom of the crisis of accountability in our political culture at the present time. I think we would all agree that those plastic red 'leaning posts' (Transport for London refuses even to call them benches), are quite literally a pain in the arse: less comfortable and useful than benches we could sit down on properly. This affects us ALL. Every single time we try to take a bus.

Studs in a metal bench
Hostile architecture at Bank DLR.

"There is a creepy feeling, a feeling of ambiguity, a feeling that you have to be just ever-so slightly alert..."

It is this concealment, this dishonesty, this ambiguity, which I find offensive. I take people on walking tours around King's Cross, and there's been some earnest discussion of the function of those metal fins placed on flat walls at knee height which would provide suitable areas for lying down. Some of my visitors claimed I was wrong to assume that they were designed to prevent people lying down — that in fact they were placed there to deter skateboarders. Who knows?

We have seen the rise of what Rowan Moore in the Guardian has referred to as "publoid spaces" — areas and zones in the city which are publicly accessible yet privately owned. In a sense there's nothing wrong with the notion of curating, and even exerting some control over upmarket areas. Spaces, such as that in the immediate area in front of the current Google headquarters, are not unattractive. One could convincingly argue the area as a whole is better than it used to be, in the days when seedy, rundown King's Cross mainly consisted of gated-off and inaccessible areas. But isn't there also something a little bit sterile about such zones? Many of my guests have pointed out that it would be easy to come in and go out from King's Cross for specific purposes, or to visit a restaurant, or to be a consumer — yet it's not the kind of area where you would want to linger or should I say loiter. It's as though, as nomadic artist Maura James McNamara says "my only purpose [here in the city] is to go into a shop and spend some money."

There is a creepy feeling, a feeling of ambiguity, a feeling that you have to be just ever-so slightly alert. That you're being watched. In this way, I'm constantly reminded of Ewan McColl's Moving On Song: "Move along, get along. Go! Move! Shift!"

"You can be anything you like, just as long as you are a consumer"

Perhaps the problem with the way publoid spaces feel is partly that the private bodies that are in the land are not obliged to make public what the rules and regulations are. You can see that it is permitted for toddlers to wade in the water fountains on a hot day: yet instinctively you somehow know that it is against the rules to lie down fully on a bench and try to get forty winks, or perhaps to start singing a militant political anthem.

There is a sense that these areas have been scrubbed up or subjected to a kind of postproduction manipulation: there is no litter, no rubbish, and you can see no homeless people or people begging.

It's as though the entire area has been designed so to speak as an ideal 'zone to be photographed'. I would like to gently suggest that the adoption of fierce spikes and metal knobs and otherwise coercive aspects in our street furniture and in our city is alarming partly because it represents an ever-so-elusive but creeping militarisation of our shared space. But above all, it feels like a 'do as I say, not as I do' kind of approach. On the one hand, we trumpet the idea of diversity, but we are only prepared to tolerate diversity in our streets and squares and our shared spaces, so long as that doesn't also include 'undesirable elements' such as homeless people.

You can be anything you like, just as long as you are a consumer.

Such an approach may be possibly understandable, certainly human: but not at all humane. It seems to give the lie to the motto which looms in pseudo stained-glass-window capital letters high up in the sky at Coal Drops Yard: "Not for self but for all". I sometimes think it would be more honest to put up the slogan: "Not for all, but for self."

Hostile design has taken surreal turns in its more extreme forms. In San Francisco for a time there was a trial of anti-homeless robots which looked a little bit like a cross between R2-D2 and the Gherkin, which were designed to move around filming and intimidating homeless people (yet stopping short of barking commands or physically knocking them about).

A bench with an armrest in the middle, making it impossible to lie down
Outside a church in the City of London.

"What is called for, surely, is not spikes but empathy"

We have also seen the use of sound; loud music being played in Bournemouth railway station, while previously, loud classical music was formerly being pumped out at Clapham Common Underground station. When I came up the escalator and heard Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, presumably being played to deter loitering or lingering, it felt to me like a gross abuse of the old Ludwig Van. It didn't work on me anyway: I sat down and listened to the entire second movement, before Moving On.

Robert Rosenberger has made an intriguing, detailed study of the philosophical and sociopolitical implications of hostile design, and its weirdest manifestations, in his book Callous Objects: designs against the Homeless (which you can borrow, by the way, from the John Harvard/Southwark public library near Borough Station).

A sign: 'Sleeping on the church steps is not permitted at any time
Not very Christian.

Even the work of artists designed to protest and make us think anew about hostile design, sometimes would seem to yield ambiguous results; for example, Fabian Brunsing designed an installation which was effectively a 'pay to sit bench' ; in other words, the bench was designed so that you had to insert coins to make a series of spikes go down, on the base of the bench: an alarm would warn you when your time for sitting was up, and you could either insert more coins or… move on.

Rosenberger also talks in his work about perceptions: indeed, the second observation I would make is not simply that most people evince hostility towards hostile design once you describe it to them, but most people are not aware of it in the first place. "What does it mean to go through our day without noticing things?… There are tons of things we don't see… Because we are on autopilot…" Moreover: "People didn't want us to notice them." Thus Rosenberger argues, in a revealing dialogue with M J McNamara:

It is difficult to categorise one of Rosenberger's conclusions as anything other than an uncomfortable truth: "[The] combination of law and design can sometimes be so effective that it renders the entire problem of homelessness — and also the unhoused people themselves — invisible to others. This invisibility has the potential to leave the larger community to grow unaware of the problem or even to mistakenly assume that the problem is less severe than it actually is. If the problem of homelessness is never encountered in daily life, and nor are the mechanisms that drive away the unhoused, then it becomes easier never to think about the issue."

Surely such an approach must be amended, avoided. What is called for, surely, is not spikes, or the abuse of water, authority, Beethoven: but empathy.

To quote Shakespeare: unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art.