From spikes installed on window ledges to bars that divide benches into a set number of seats, examples of disciplinary architecture — otherwise known as hostile urban architecture — are all around us. Such designs deliberately restrict certain behaviors in public spaces, and while they affect everyone, they especially target homeless individuals, who cannot rest on these surfaces.
The UK-based artist Stuart Semple has created a campaign to try and raise awareness about these often subtle forms of social control. Today, he launched a website, Hostile Design, as a platform where people can easily and quickly spread word about these designs. It simply calls for anyone to photograph examples anywhere in the world, and share them on Instagram with the hashtag #hostiledesign. The website then aggregates these in a “design crime gallery.”
“Hostile design is design that intends to restrict freedom or somehow control a human being — be that homeless people, a skater or everyday humans congregating to enjoy themselves,” Semple told Hyperallergic. “The danger of hostile design is it’s so insidious. It’s so quiet, so camouflaged, that unless you know what it is, you accept it. And that blind acceptance makes things grow and spread.”
To further inform people beyond the digital sphere, he is also distributing stickers he created, which are available on the website. These “design crime” stickers are intended for pasting on offending surfaces and are available through pay-what-you-can pricing.
While he may be best known for creating the world’s “pinkest pink” in response to Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack controversy, Semple often creates artwork that engages with public spaces. His ongoing, longterm collaboration with the city of Denver has particularly pushed him to consider friendly urban design and think about the intentions behind the shaping of public space, he said. Titled “Happy City” and forthcoming in May, the citywide project will feature a number of interventions that alter busy sites such as train stations, in attempts to break down social barriers.
It was his recent encounter with benches in his hometown of Bournemouth, though, that provoked him to launch a public campaign against hostile designs. Semple posted a photograph to Facebook of benches with metal bars, recently installed by the city, noting that they were “being retrofitted on all the benches to prevent homeless sleepers” and describing them as “horrendous designs against humanity.” The public backlash was swift, and UK publications quickly picked up the story. Semple, witnessing the speed at which the information spread and amplified, decided to broaden his agenda and encourage others to join him in calling out hostile public designs.
“The hope is that town planners, people who design these things, fabricate them, install them, might actually start asking questions, like, Is this a morally and ethically right thing to do? Or, If we do this, will there be an uproar?” Semple said. “If we want them to question their attitude and behaviors, we have to create a mass sentiment that it is the wrong thing to do. Social media is a very powerful, very affordable, accessible way to do this.”
Semple’s project is not the first to address and spread awareness of hostile designs. Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić have coedited Unpleasant Design, a title first published in 2013 that covers international urban architecture and other strategies — such as lighting and music — that deter “undesirable” behaviors. Last year, researcher Cara Chellew created #defensiveTO, a website that documents hostile architecture in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.
In a sense, Semple’s campaign merges the efforts of these two predecessors, with its worldwide focus and reliance on social media. While he acknowledges that this might not be the most immediate solution to spur change, he argues that exposing everyday designs that people might take for granted is a key step towards doing so.
“The way change happens is that people need to be aware that that’s a problem,” Semple said. “And I think shifting attitudes around public design can happen quite easily.”