What is defensive architecture?

Defensive architecture provides a cheap alternative solution to the very real problems of homelessness and poverty in society. Image by SM Dipali.

Written by Sal Bhakuni

Architecture reveals alot about a society: its aesthetics, its values and how it interacts with the environment. While reflecting a society, architecture can be beautiful and accessible. It also has the power to be exclusionary and harmful.

Defensive architecture has proven to be ubiquitous and problematic. Seemingly a method to preserve the architectural integrity of certain buildings and spaces, this harmful practice targets society’s working poor and homeless in particular. Spikes on staircases, corners, or ledges prevent people from sitting or taking a rest. Bench dividers keep people from sleeping on them. Pavement sprinklers soak people (and their belongings) when sitting or lying close to a building’s ground floor. Vertical cement posts prohibit people from taking shelter and forming camps under overpasses.

Professor Ocean Howell, who teaches architectural history at the University of Oregon, said, “When you’re designed against you know it. Other people might not see it, but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here.”

Defensive architecture allows the “legitimate” users to enjoy these public spaces and to easily remain ignorant of the true reasons for these designs. To most of the public, these stainless steel pieces are edgy and aesthetically pleasing in our “age of austerity.” They provide “cool” backdrops for Instagram photos, and they don’t really require thought about why they are even there in the first place. Defensive architecture is supposed to look pretty; it’s supposed to have sharp clean lines; and it’s supposed to look artsy.

The fact of the matter is, these alterations to public spaces and increasingly institutionalized pieces of street furniture are designed for deception. Often approved and funded by local governments, they are made to exclude the unwanted. And certain measures, like spikes on ledges, would also seem to exclude those who likely would be perceived as acceptable: the elderly, disabled or pregnant simply looking for a place to take a quick break.

Defensive architecture provides a cheap alternative solution to the very real problems of homelessness and poverty in society. There’s no need to confront our own subliminal biases and our role within problematic frameworks, which could lead to uncomfortable conversations. By calling the homeless “dirty” and “unclean”, we ignore the inaccessibility of public showers and toilets. By complaining about their public presence, we overlook the fact that adequate homeless shelters are far and few in between.

Perhaps, instead of putting spikes on ledges and slanting benches, it would be better to try and implement institutional change to provide agency and resources to the homeless, so that they wouldn’t need to sleep on benches in the first place.

Sadly, defensive architecture is a necessary evil in a consumerist economy like ours. It’s hard for us to buy clothes, food, or toys when there’s a homeless man sitting right outside the store window. It’s hard for us to get work done when we see a homeless woman sleeping on a ledge right behind Bobst. It’s hard for us to read books right outside of Strand when the homeless are begging us for spare change or food.

When the effects of a society’s economic infrastructures lead to poverty, it is easier for people to consume when we do not have to see others living in a destitute state. And when we don’t have to see these harmful effects, we don’t have to feel guilty about the classist structures that perhaps we are all complicit in.

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