Hostile Architecture: ‘Sleeping rough opened my eyes to London’s barbed cruelty’

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Jun 13 13:15:38 BST 2015

Anti-homeless spikes: ‘Sleeping rough opened my 
eyes to the city’s barbed cruelty’
The spikes installed outside Selfridges in 
Manchester are the latest front in the spread of 
‘defensive architecture’. Is such open hostility 
towards the destitute making all our lives uglier?
Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark Bridge Road, Lon
Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark Bridge Road, Lon

  Metal studs outside private flats on Southwark 
Bridge Road, London. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis


Wednesday 18 February 2015 18.30 GMTLast modified 
on Thursday 19 February 201500.05 GMT

More than 100 homeless people are “living” in the 
terminals of Heathrow airport this winter, 
to official figures – a new and shameful record. 
Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have 
that homelessness in London is rising 
significantly faster than the nationwide average, 
and faster than official estimates. And yet, we 
don’t see as many people sleeping rough as in 
previous economic downturns. Have our cities 
become better at hiding poverty, or have we become more adept at not seeing it?

Last year, there was great public outcry against 
the use of 
spikesoutside a London residential complex, not 
far from where I live. Social media was set 
momentarily ablaze with indignation, a petition 
was signed, a sleep-in protest undertaken, Boris 
Johnson was incensed and within a few days they 
were removed. This week, however, 
emerged that Selfridges had installed metal 
spikes outside one of its Manchester stores – 
apparently to “reduce litter and smoking 
following customer complaints”. The phenomenon of 
“defensive” or “disciplinary” architecture, as it is known, remains pervasive.

 From ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges to 
bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from water 
sprinklers and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, 
from metal park benches with solid dividers to 
forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges, 
urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.

We see these measures all the time within our 
urban environments, whether in London or Tokyo, 
but we fail to process their true intent. I 
hardly noticed them before 
became homeless in 2009. An economic crisis, a 
death in the family, a sudden breakup and an even 
more sudden breakdown were all it took to go from 
a six-figure income to sleeping rough in the 
space of a year. It was only then that I started 
scanning my surroundings with the distinct 
purpose of finding shelter and the city’s barbed cruelty became clear.

I learned to love London Underground’s Circle 
line back then. To others it was just the rather 
inefficient yellow line on the tube network. To 
me – and many homeless people – it was a safe, 
dry, warm container, continually travelling 
sometimes above the surface, sometimes below, 
like a giant needle stitching London’s centre 
into place. Nobody harassed you or moved you on. 
You were allowed to take your poverty on tour. 
But engineering work put a stop to that.

Next was a bench in a smallish park just off 
Pentonville Road. An old, wooden bench, made 
concave and smooth by thousands of buttocks, 
underneath a sycamore with foliage so thick that 
only the most persistent rain could penetrate it. 
Sheltered and warm, perched as it was against a 
wall behind which a generator of some sort 
radiated heat, this was prime property. Then, one 
morning, it was gone. In its place stood a convex 
metal perch, with three solid armrests. I felt such loss that day.
Hostile architecture on the former Coutts Bank, Fleet Stree, Lo

Hostile architecture on the former Coutts Bank, Fleet Stree, Lo

  Hostile architecture on the former Coutts Bank, 
Fleet Stree, London. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

“When you’re designed against, you know it,” says 
Ocean Howell, who teaches architectural history 
at the University of Oregon, 
about anti-skateboarding designs. “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.” 
The same is true of all defensive architecture. 
The psychological effect is devastating.

There is a wider problem, too. These measures do 
not and cannot distinguish the “vagrant” 
posterior from others considered more deserving. 
When we make it impossible for the dispossessed 
to rest their weary bodies at a bus shelter, we 
also make it impossible for the elderly, for the 
infirm, for the pregnant woman who has had a 
dizzy spell. By making the city less accepting of 
the human frame, we make it less welcoming to all 
humans. By making our environment more hostile, 
we become more hostile within it.

Defensive architecture is revealing on a number 
of levels, because it is not the product of 
accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought 
process. It is a sort of unkindness that is 
considered, designed, approved, funded and made 
real with the explicit motive to exclude and 
harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has 
overridden human considerations, especially in 
retail districts. It is a symptom of the clash of 
private and public, of necessity and property.

Pavement sprinklers have been installed by 
buildings as diverse as the 
book store in New York, a 
chain in Hamburg and 
offices in Guangzhou. They spray the homeless 
intermittently, soaking them and their 
possessions. The assertion is clear: the public 
thoroughfare in front of a building, belongs to 
the building’s occupant, even when it is not being used.

Setha Low, a professor in environmental 
psychology, and urban geographer Neil Smith, in 
their book 
Politics of Public Space, describe the phenomenon 
as a creeping encroachment that has “culminated 
in the multiple closures, erasures, inundations 
and transfigurations of public space at the 
behest of state and corporate strategies”. They 
contend that the very economic and political 
revolutions that freed people from autocratic 
monarchies also enshrined principles of private 
property at the expense of a long tradition of common land.

Brunsing brought a satirical eye to the issue by 
creating the “pay bench”, an art installation of 
a park bench that retracts its metal spikes for a 
limited time when the prospective sitter feeds it 
a coin. Chinese officials, completely missing the 
joke, thought that this was a great idea and 
installed similar 
in Yantai Park of the Shangdong province.
Concrete spikes under a road bridge in Guangzhou city, Guangdon

  Concrete spikes under a road bridge in 
Guangzhou city, Guangdong, China. Photograph: Imaginechina/REX

The architecture of our cities is a powerful 
guide to behaviour, both directly and in its 
symbolism. One of the very first acts of the 
newly elected Syriza government in Greece was to 
the metal barriers between the Hellenic 
parliament and Syntagma Square. The effect on the 
centre of Athens of the removal of this barricade 
– which represented the strife of the last few 
years – was almost magical, as if an entire city 
breathed a sigh of relief. The symbolism of a 
government saying that they were a part of the 
people, rather than apart from the people, was understood by all.

Artist Nils Norman has been documenting the 
phenomenon of defensive architecture since the 
late 90s 
thousands of photographs. This “vernacular of 
terror”, as he calls it, has its roots in 
leftover space or “gap sites”: plots that are too 
small to develop but large enough to encourage 
loitering. He sees the loss of public space as 
directly related to a loss of public life. “City 
space is quietly altered to maximimise its 
control and circulation,” he says. “Benches 
become bum-free, which in turn become ‘perches’, 
which are in turn removed. As city spaces become 
cleaner and more symbolically ‘safe’, defensive 
design becomes more abundant and paranoid.”

Recently, as I walked into my local bakery, a 
homeless man (whom I had seen a few times before) 
asked whether I could get him something to eat. 
When I asked Ruth – one of the young women who 
work behind the counter – to put a couple of 
pasties in a separate bag and explained why, her 
censure was severe: “He probably makes more money 
than you from begging, you know,” she said, bluntly.

He probably didn’t. Half his face was covered 
with sores. A blackened, gangrenous-looking toe 
protruded from a hole in his ancient shoe. His 
left hand looked mangled and was covered in dry 
blood from some recent accident or fight. I 
pointed this out. Ruth was unmoved by my 
protestations. “I don’t care,” she said. “They 
foul in the green opposite. They’re a menace. Animals.”

It’s precisely this viewpoint that defensive 
architecture upholds. That the destitute are a 
different species altogether; inferior and 
responsible for their demise. Like pigeons to be 
shooed away; urban foxes disturbing our slumber 
with their screams. “Shame on you,” jumped in 
Libby, the older lady who works at the bakery. 
“That is someone’s son you’re talking about.”

We curse the destitute for urinating in public 
spaces with no thought about how far the nearest 
free public toilet might be. We blame them for 
their poor hygiene without questioning the lack 
of public facilities for washing. It costs £5 to 
take a shower at King’s Cross station. Wilful 
misconceptions about homelessness abound. For 
instance, that shelters are plentiful and 
sleeping rough is a lifestyle choice. Free 
shelters, unless one belongs to a particularly 
vulnerable group, are actually extremely rare. 
Getting a bed often depends on a referral from a 
local agency, which, in turn, depends on being 
able to prove a local connection. For the 
majority of homeless people, who have usually 
graduated from a life as itinerant sofa-surfers, it is impossible to prove.

This tripartite pressure of an increasingly 
hostile built environment, huge reduction in 
state budgets, and a hardening attitude to 
poverty can be disastrous for people sleeping 
rough, both physically and psychologically. 
Fundamental misunderstanding of destitution is 
designed to exonerate the rest from 
responsibility and insulate them from perceiving 
risk. All of us are encouraged to spend future 
earnings through credit. For the spell to be 
effective, it is essential to be in a sort of 
denial about the possibility that such future 
earnings could dry up. Most of us are a couple of 
pay packets from being insolvent. We despise 
homeless people for bringing us face to face with that fact.

Poverty exists as a parallel, but separate, 
reality. City planners work very hard to keep it 
outside our field of vision. It is too miserable, 
too dispiriting, too painful to look at someone 
defecating in a park or sleeping in a doorway and 
think of him as “someone’s son”. It is easier to 
see him and ask only the unfathomably 
self-centred question: “How does his homelessness 
affect me?” So we cooperate with urban design and 
work very hard at not seeing, because we do not 
want to see. We tacitly agree to this apartheid.

A homeless man, Pawel Koseda, was found dead last 
year; bled out, 
on the six-inch spikes of the metal fence that 
surrounds St Mary Abbots in Kensington, the 
Camerons’ chosen place of worship. He had high 
levels of alcohol in his blood and was wearing 
hospital pyjamas under his clothes. Koseda used 
to be a university lecturer in Poland. Ed Boord, 
who found the body, said that several people 
walked by and didn’t even notice. “It upset me 
that someone like that spends their life not 
being noticed,” he said, “and even in their last 
moments people still walk past.”

Crisis and the 
Rowntree Foundation’s research says that UK 
homeless numbers have increased by a third in the 
last five years. Benefit sanctions are cited as 
the main reason. In this context of depressed 
wages and soaring living costs, reduced services 
and lack of housing, we are facing a humanitarian 
Red Cross is involved in food aid in the UK for 
the first time since the second world war. Can 
our response as a civilised society really be 
limited to moving people on from our doorsteps?

This, more than anything else, will determine our 
future as a species. Our ability to share will be 
key to our survival. The rough sleeper’s bad 
fortune is intricately connected to someone 
else’s good fortune. The person sleeping outside 
the expensive Bond Street boutique is part of the 
same nexus as the person inside spending 
on a pair of socks.

Resources are scarce. Infinite wealth creation is 
a fairytale. Real wealth – land, food, water, 
fuel – has physical limitations. If some take 
more than they need, others go without. We 
obsessively focus on the external: carbon 
emissions, recycling, charity work, social 
security, saving the snow leopard – all of them 
excellent goals – while doggedly refusing to look 
inwards and make the adjustments that might allow us to coexist more equitably.

A ray of hope from Vancouver – 
that unfold into shelters and read “This is a 
bench” during the day, but light up to reveal 
“This is a bedroom” at night. Perhaps a small 
step on what David Harvey, author of 
Justice and the City, calls the “path from an 
urbanism based on exploitation to an urbanism 
appropriate for the human species”.

Defensive architecture acts as the airplane 
curtain that separates economy from business and 
business from first class, protecting those 
further forward from the envious eyes of those 
behind. It keeps poverty unseen and sanitises our 
shopping centres, concealing any guilt for 
over-consuming. It speaks volumes about our 
collective attitude to poverty in general and 
homelessness in particular. It is the aggregated, 
concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit.

Ironically, it doesn’t even achieve its basic 
goal of making us feel safer. There is no way of 
locking others out that doesn’t also lock us in. 
The narrower the arrow-slit, the larger outside 
dangers appear. Making our urban environment 
hostile breeds hardness and isolation. It makes 
life a little uglier for all of us.
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