Defensive Architecture: A Crossroads of Space, Social Power and Law

“A space without social (and legal) meaning is simply a location…much of social space represents a materialization of power, and much of law consists in highly significant and specialized descriptions and prescriptions of the same power.” (Blomley, xix)

It’s becoming more and more apparent in cities of today that spaces, both natural and built, are being re-imagined to serve purposes other than encouraging the social gathering of people. What is even more striking is that city officials and hired architects and planners are then taking these revised ideas of social places and actually creating them. As I read the stories popping up over the internet of places where ‘defensive architecture’ is utilized as a way to discourage loitering and homeless inhabitants, I can’t help but think about the inherent injustice within this ideology and construction. Not to mention that these places which once were used by humans for a multitude of purposes, along with the many unintended uses that arose, will now significantly be lessened. The most popular example right now is the latest installation of metal spikes on the grounds in front of a flat in London, where homeless dwellers would typically take up residence for resting and sleeping.

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

This is happening all over the world- everyday there are spaces in our cities that are being redesigned with the intention to make some sort of statement. That’s the key point here- What statement? Because we’re being exposed to so much on a daily basis, we experience a sense of numbing to the issues that seem more routine, almost normalized (this is the environmental psychology). We all know that what may sound and look great on paper does not always work to our best intentions in reality. Building up a downtown center with high-rises, parking lots, and no public spaces sounded great for business but not-so-much for the people that make those businesses run. So where is the consideration for the fellow human when it’s time to develop an idea to reduce the presence of homeless people or loiterers? Homeless people, loitering teens and adults, these are still people. Why is the idea to remove them, extinguish them, make them appear less as if they aren’t even there? The quote at the beginning of the post has stuck with me since I read it over a month ago, and I thought fit with this issue of environmental psychology and defensive architecture. Spaces are not just empty, and how they are designed is not done blindly but with intention and have deeper meanings and implications than what may seem apparent. Every space and place, rich and lush or struggling and dicrepit, has inherent social, political and legal meaning. How that space is managed and utilized, how it’s perceived, establishes and reinforces its value- both in monetary but also in socio-political. The law and the policies that are often validated by law, are all wrapped up by the enveloping blanket of power, which can then choose to share warmth with those of certain social powers while leaving the less socially valuable out in the cold.

Alex Andreou shares:

“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.”

As a mindful planner, my first thought is that instead of repeating our past when it comes to the redesigning of cities and public spaces within them, we must instead approach the situation from a place of compassion and try to see the many problems that are intertwined so tight. When we think of a city and choose to see it as dirty and nearly dead, we’re only seeing it through a myopic lens, and we’re choosing to refuse the good qualities and value that are also present. Sometimes you have to think a bit harder or look from a different angle. Rather than seeing a bus stop as just a place where bums sleep, we need to see the bigger picture and consider the other uses and roles that this bus stop serves. For instance, it’s a bus stop, so it’s useful to those people that take the bus. Since often times people arrive earlier to wait for the bus, there is usually a lag period of time where other people will walk by or stop to rest and/or wait at the stop, and can often be a time where conversations and news are exchanged. Also, if the bus stop has a roof, it serves as a weather shelter for not just bus-users but also those who are homeless. Some bus stops are revitalized to display art, offer Wi-Fi, or just share information. There are many purposes that a bus stop serves and if we only choose to look at one problem with the stop, which is a place but also has significant effects on the many humans that use this stop, than we are being selectively ignorant to the social and political implications. If instead we approach the “homelessness issue” from a place of compassion- instead of attempting to oust the problem as our first reaction, we can instead think of the many possible approaches and attempt to offer solutions that are not only realistic but also more just. Planners, architects, designers, officials, anyone in a position of social power, needs to consider the repercussions and actual human lives that are affected by these less-than-mindful designs. It’s not about the place, it’s about the people. I believe that when we begin to lose the real meaning of why we build and create the places we do, then we lose our connections and our ability to empathize with other humans lessens.

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Passive Homes- Sustainable Architecture at a Cost

A passive house like the one seen above, a project from Parsons the New School for Design in 2011, is so well insulated that it needs little or no energy for heating and cooling. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT MCCLAIN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/ GETTY

On National Geographic News, Wendy Koch writes an article piece with video included of new Habitat for Humanity D.C. homes: “Thermos-Like Passive Homes Aggressively Save Energy.” Intrigued, I read the article and watched the video to get a glimpse of the higher cost, certified PassivHaus windows needed for the homes. Morally, I think Habitat for Humanity does overall great work. I also love finding new materials and designs for sustainable and energy efficient architecture. Do I think this is a neat undertaking by the organization? Yes. Do I think it needs more testing in the appropriate environment/weather conditions similar to D.C.? Yes. Should it have been implemented yet? Not sure. Wendy Koch writes:

They stand out in other ways: 12-inch-thick exterior walls and triple-pane, imported-from-Ireland windows offer more than double the insulation required of new homes. In lieu of a furnace, tiny, wall-mounted Mitsubishi units provide heating and cooling. 

After watching the video, Dan Hines (construction superintendent) left me not quite sold that these are the most appropriate approach for D.C. homes. Though he explained that the upfront cost would outweigh the further costs on heating/cooling energy bills, I’m concerned if the building design will be able to stand up to the weather of D.C. and if they will in fact live up to what they promise. What if the humidity of D.C. summers is too much for the tightly constructed homes and thus the owners need to run air conditioning? What if we continue to have extreme cold-blasts? The article then explained:

Set to house low-income families, the rowhouses are on track to do something the president’s place nearby has not—meet perhaps the world’s strictest energy rubric: Passive House, popularized in uber-efficient Germany and now gaining ground in the United States.

I set out to find more information about Passive House and after a quick google search found PassivHaus, the company that originally started the movement in Germany. After thoroughly reading their materials and services, I’m convinced that their architecture is sound for Germany and similar climates.  Maybe this is the skeptic in me but I’m still wondering how these standards and certifications will hold up in the various climates and climate changes experienced in the U.S. and other parts of the world? The U.S. has its own Passive House Institute (PHIUS), started by the German architect Katrin Klingenberg.

They’ve generated their share of controversy. In August 2011, Germany’s Passivhaus leader Wolfgang Feist severed ties to PHIUS, saying it was not requiring enough documentation to certify projects. Feist has also criticized PHIUS’s push to adjust the standard to varying climates.

Apparently in late 2014, Climate Specific Passive Building Standards were reviewed in order to be implemented this year, but I did not see updated standards yet on the PHIUS Technical Committee Overview page.  Thus this leaves me uncertain if these homes are such a great idea to already be built, without definite standards that relate to different U.S. environments. I mean, especially if you’re giving these homes to low-to-zero income families, whom do not have extra money lying around to buy a space heater or air conditioner if necessary, or need to make repairs to the home. Should Passive Home-owners be given tutorials on how to manage their home and make appropriate repairs in order to still be compliant with the strict standards? What if a window breaks, how will these home-owners pay for such expensive, imported constructions? (Yes I know that is such a big what-if, but I still think it’s a legitimate question that needs answering)

Furthermore, I wonder if PHIUS is working with any U.S. companies to design their own windows and insulation products that mimc the materials ordered from Europe? If these designs are really going to work in the U.S. and take off, then there should be building contractors and companies that can work together to support the U.S. economy, as well as make the projects as cost-efficient as possible so that the model is sustainable and continued. Not to mention the “new” technology which could add to the growing sustainable design market.  Apparently the PHIUS consultants cost more for projects to make sure the homes are built certified, but how long will this continue? Also, will architects all eventually have to be some sort of energy-efficient or sustainable-design certified at some point in the future? That last question could spark an entirely new post for another date. 

Habitat for Humanity, keep rocking out. PassivHaus, nice learning about you and keep progressing. PHIUS, some advice. 1) You should probably formalize your slides before posting them to your public site and 2) figure out standards for the U.S. sometime soon if you want to make it big and truly change sustainable architecture.