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hostile architecture

noun [uncountable]

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

'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 Guardian 13th June 2014

Have you ever stood at a bus shelter and longed to take the weight off your feet, only to be presented with the unpleasant prospect of some kind of metal contraption for leaning on? If you've then wondered how anyone could possibly get comfortable using it, then the answer is simply this – they're not supposed to. In a new wave of design, dubbed hostile architecture, aesthetics are not the only motivating factor when making choices about the form and fabric of particular constructions.

there's also the view that urban design has moved on from crude deterrents like metal spikes, and that more subtle design elements can be valuable in discouraging criminal or anti-social behaviour

The expression hostile architecture hit the headlines recently when a set of metal spikes was installed outside a block of luxury flats in London, not as a deterrent to criminals, but in an attempt to prevent homeless people from sleeping in a sheltered alcove around the doorway. The action provoked an outrage, with people comparing the spikes to the sort of devices used to prevent pigeons and other birds from soiling buildings. Controversy grew after pictures of the spikes were posted online, resulting in a petition for their removal, and complaints to the local council.

Whilst a situation like this inevitably provokes strong opinion, it also highlights a wider architectural trend in which constructions in public spaces are incorporating design elements deliberately intended to stop people impacting on them. Examples include narrow, slanted bus shelter seats that are barely suitable for sitting on (and would be impossible for a homeless person to sleep on), benches with bulky armrests or protrusions which prevent people from reclining or sitting for long periods, jagged, irregular paved areas in order to deter skateboarders, bollards under bridges and flyovers to prevent skateboarding and sheltering, and studded window ledges which discourage people from sitting or lying down. This is what's now being described as hostile architecture – architecture which in its very early design stages has asked definite questions about who would or wouldn't be welcome in a particular public space.

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. On the other hand, there's also the view that urban design has moved on from crude deterrents like metal spikes, and that more subtle design elements can be valuable in discouraging criminal or anti-social behaviour. In these contexts, the same concept is often described as defensive or defensible architecture.

Background – hostile architecture

The expression hostile architecture is of course the sum of its parts, with the adjective hostile chosen because, to some people, this kind of architecture deliberately threatens and isolates certain members of society.

Another term which is underpinned by the same principle is a new sense of the noun mosquito, referring to an electronic device which emits an irritating, high-pitched sound that can only be heard by people under a certain age, and is intended to deter teenagers from hanging around in particular places. On the same theme, the expression pig('s) ear is also now used to refer to a raised metal strip fixed to a bench or wall in order to prevent skateboarding.

From a slightly different perspective, at the intersection of architecture and social status is the new expression poor door, referring to a separate entrance for residents living in cheaper homes in a residential complex, often in a city location, which combines cheaper and more expensive accommodation.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 26th August 2014.

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