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Verbal Energy

'Hostile' architecture on the defensive

What do we call these building elements meant to keep certain kinds of people out?

It’s been a lovely summer, but, oh, so many conflicts to keep track of: Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ukraine and Gaza – well, there’s been a cease-fire there. Oh, and Syria. One might say that what’s needed is one of those picture-in-picture television sets that sports fans use to follow multiple games at once.

But one really doesn’t want to make jokes about it.

And now the Macmillan Dictionary has identified another kind of hostility. Mercifully, this one doesn’t involve actual shooting. Rather, it’s a new term in its online “BuzzWord” feature: hostile architecture.

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What’s meant is not those massive hulking concrete buildings that seem to glower out at the world. Instead, hostile architecture refers to building elements that are designed to keep people away, especially certain kinds of people: young people, street people, and skateboarders. Examples abound, such as metal spikes set into the ground to keep people from sleeping in the doorways of apartment buildings, or bus-shelter “seats” set at such an angle that one can’t actually sit there very comfortably.

Does anyone remember the flap a few weeks ago about the “poor door” in New York City – what Newsweek called “a developer’s Dickensian plan” to have the occupants of the “affordable” units in a luxury apartment complex on the Upper West Side enter through a separate door?

Macmillan defined the new BuzzWord as “the design of buildings or public spaces in a way which discourages people from touching, climbing or sitting on them, with the intention of avoiding damage or use for a different purpose.”

The Guardian was all over this one in June with an article on “the Camden bench,” a gray concrete thing named for the borough whose local council commissioned it, but with only a tenuous relationship to a traditional park bench. “The bench’s graffiti-resistant sloping surface is designed to deter both sleeping and skateboarding,” the newspaper reported. “While not as obvious as the stainless steel ‘anti-homeless’ spikes that appeared outside a London apartment block recently, the benches are part of a recent generation of urban architecture designed to influence public behaviour, known as ‘hostile architecture.’ ”

The online version of the piece included a video clip of some young skateboarders demonstrating that the Camden bench is indeed eminently skateboardable. Take that, Camden Council!

But the Macmillan writer made the astute observation that the expression hostile architecture “has pejorative overtones, and is therefore mainly used by people who are sceptical about, if not completely opposed to, the idea.” She went on to say that those who think this kind of thing is a good idea (“valuable in discouraging criminal or anti-social behaviour”) often use the term defensive architecture or defensible architecture instead.

Ah, yes. One might argue that buzzword itself is something of a pejorative. But one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. 

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