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Why Toronto Should Care About Unpleasant Design

Last week, the Toronto General Hospital was put on blast for an anti-homeless grate. It showed how design can be used for social control – something architect Selena Savic calls unpleasant design. We catch up with her to talk about hostile architecture.

By Mark Teo

In conversation at AZURE Talks last month, DTAH’s Megan Torza suggested that buildings with good bones could, over the years, withstand a number of different uses. It is a cornerstone of DTAH’s work: in Toronto, the firm’s transformations include the Evergreen Brick Works, Artscape Wychwood Barns and the new Queens Quay. Torza’s concept of designing with “light touch, loose fit” envisions flexible urban environments, aimed at bringing people together, encouraging interaction and place-making (even if, on Queens Quay, that means the occasional car stuck in a streetcar tunnel).

But inclusivity isn’t the goal of all urban designs. Not even close.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like the Camden bench.
The Camden bench’s design prevents people from sleeping or skateboarding.

Rather, many cities purposefully incorporate features that achieve the opposite effect. And architect / designer Selena Savic is fascinated with such designs, which she explores in her book, Unpleasant Design. So, what is unpleasant design? Simply put, it’s objects aimed at social control – often targeting marginalized demographics – that restricts uses through pain or discomfort. And like it or not, such designs can be found in Toronto. And they can occasionally make headlines.

Last week, for example, the Toronto General Hospital (of all places!) were shamed over an anti-homeless grate it placed outside its emergency department. After the story went viral on Twitter, the University Health Network apologized, vowing to remove the grate.  “Given our responsibility to provide compassionate care, it has indeed been seen as hostile and not something a hospital should be doing, given the care we provide to everyone who comes through our doors,” UHN’s interim president and CEO Dr. Charlie Chan said.

Oops. But we’re not the only city with unpleasant design. You’ve likely seen it everywhere: it’s in urban furniture, like the Camden bench, designed to prevent people from sleeping. It’s visible in spiked trees, like the ones used on private properties in Bristol, meant to deter birds. Concrete blocks have been used to prevent crowds from gathering.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like bird spikes (that inspired a tongue-in-cheek fashion line).
Selena Savic wears a pair of glasses inspired by unpleasant design, mimicking anti-bird spikes commonly used in cities.

This isn’t bad design; it’s discriminatory design, conceived specifically to be uninclusive. The two sides to these design, Savic says, is “being pleasant to the ones that deploy it, and being unpleasant to the behaviour or group of people it is used against.”

Savic, a postdoc fellow at the department of Architecture Theory and Philosophy of Technics, TU Vienna, recently visited Calgary and Vancouver for a series of talks about hostile architecture, coercive design and how they impact cities. We asked her about how unpleasant design is evolving, what it says about cities and her impressions of Canada.

What drew you to the topic of unpleasant design?

We identified a certain trend to outsource management and maintenance of public space to objects, which we will call silent agents. These silent agents are specifically designed to prevent certain uses of urban space, to prevent behaviours and discourage certain social groups. While first thinking of this, we were living in Rotterdam, a city known for its migrant population and a certain harshness of its public space.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like these anti-homeless studs found in Marseilles, France.
Anti-homeless studs in Marseilles, France.

In The Netherlands in general, not much takes place in the public space, as the weather does not facilitate comfortable stays outdoors for long hours. Distribution of common space there is also very particular – most buildings do not have a central, common staircase. In a typical urban layout, you enter your apartment directly from the street and each apartment has its own flight of stairs leading to the second or third floor of the building. This kind of privatism is reflected in the way public space is managed – there should be as little reasons for conflict, and even interaction, between people that inhabit it.

We then started digging deeper into this phenomenon of silent agents, we found some interesting historical examples (notably Georges-Eugene Hausmann’s reconstruction of Paris, where boulevards play the silent role) as well as contemporary trends in Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Lausanne, Belgrade – cities we visited and heard from from our friends.

We often talk about how architecture serves its users. What is the social cost of hostile design, which does the opposite?

The social cost is rarely measured. What is at the centre of the unpleasant design is reduced maintenance costs, due to prevention of harmful behaviour or increases in value of property. The social cost is a certain kind of segregation, which is observable on other levels of social organization, beyond design of urban spaces.

What does hostile design say about the designers behind it?

We could say that people who honestly employ unpleasant design principles are interested in a certain kind of utopia. There is a certain belief that reducing opportunity for mischief and misconduct would lead to the reduction of mischief and misconduct. In this logic, when there are no benches to sleep on, homeless people would have to resort to more sustainable measures – going to a shelter, improving their lives, et cetera.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like these anti-homeless spikes in New York.
Spikes prevent people from resting in New York.

We, of course, know that we cannot apply such game-theory thinking to the urban: people are irrational and not always acting in their self-interest. Homeless people are not homeless simply because they choose to be so. Rich people are not rich simply because they worked hard. Thus, there is a certain kind of spatial injustice that arises from the reduction of access to space based on income or some biological determinant – race, gender, age. Unpleasant design reinforces this injustice.

You were recently in Calgary to discuss hostile architecture. What examples of unpleasant design did you notice there?

I could not say so much about Calgary becoming unwelcoming, as I spent only three days in the city. I am not familiar with the way the city was before or after certain interventions. I did observe some very typical unpleasant designs, such as benches with armrests and spikes against sitting. I came across some inventive designs that I did not see elsewhere, such as metal silhouettes soldered on top of warm ventilation exhausts at a CTrain station (Calgary’s light-rail transit system, seen below), a place where you could consider camping for the night. In general, a lot of unpleasant design can be found around the CTrain – because of its transit value and the necessary security around this infrastructure.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like these metal silhouettes from one of Calgary's CTrain stations.
Metal silhouettes prevent homeless people from sleeping over these CTrain grates in Calgary.

I also did a tour around Vancouver, where, for example Granville street’s redesign for the 2010 Winter Olympics features a lot of unpleasant classics – separate sitting chairs, anti-sleeping benches, anti-terrorist bins. I wouldn’t say, however, that Calgary or Vancouver are particularly unwelcoming. The use of unpleasant designs to discourage sleeping and loitering is so widely spread around the globe that it becomes almost necessary wherever homelessness appears. It is not typical of Canadian cities, especially given that the climate does not favour homelessness very much.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like these partitioned benches from Vancouver.
A partitioned bench in Vancouver, from Savic’s recent trip to the city.

What examples of hostile designs have you noticed from around the world? Are there classic and emerging types of unpleasant design that you’re noticing?

Yes, there are classics, some of which I mentioned above. Then there are “pearls” or rarities we found in each city we visited – everywhere people come up with something different, something new, something particular to address a problem that is specific to that location. Benches against sleeping were a classic, but now it becomes even more pervasive to install anti-skateboarding rings or other obstacles. It is interesting because in this way, unpleasant design spreads like fashion.

Selena Savic's Unpleasant Design explores hostile architecture, like this anti-skateboarding benches found in Vancouver.
A Vancouver bench outfitted with studs aimed at deterring skateboarders.

When your neighbour has anti-pigeon spikes – the tiny spikes you put on window seals, rooftops etc, to prevent pigeons form landing – you have to install them too, otherwise all pigeons will land on your property. This is the logic of unpleasant spreading.


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