Architecture should never weaponise space against people, writes Nile Bridgeman
Anti-homeless spikes affect each of us, regardless of where we sit on the spectrum between home-owning and rough sleeping. For those without a home, they are downright dehumanising. For those with one, they are the physical affirmation of our collective apathy towards an escalating social crisis. They are expensive and unsightly. They make cities malicious. And, worse still, they force homelessness out of sight.
Spiked seating, sills and surfaces represent the most troubling and hostile part of a wider problem in our cities. ‘Defensive architecture’ describes antisocial and cynical modifications to the built environment designed to discourage targeted individuals from being there, and which weaponise public space against the vulnerable. Upturned bullets embedded in window sills, aluminium spears outside fire exits or scythes sunk into granite ledges, form a wholly disproportionate response to the ‘threat’ of someone sleeping.
Their form is varied and usage widespread, but their message is clear and consistent. If you’re engaged in permitted forms of economic activity, you’re accepted; otherwise you are not. Spikes were once reactionary: always added to buildings as a hasty afterthought. But it is increasingly apparent that developers are defining earlier who they want to include and who they do not. Developments are now guarded by a perimeter of spikes from the moment they are unveiled, as if under siege.
For most people who aren’t searching for a place to sleep, these structures linger out of sight and out of mind – most of the time. But spikes are not intelligent devices and invariably make themselves apparent to people most in need – those sheltering from a shower of rain or carrying heavy shopping, those who are unable to walk far or are looking after children. Architecture cannot possibly be regarded as a success if it makes the city deliberately less welcoming and accessible.
There is hope, however. Owners and operators of these developments fear public embarrassment more than they do the occasional rough sleeper. Countless examples of defensive architecture have already been removed as a direct result of activists bringing them into the public eye through petitions and social media campaigns. In addition, certain DIY place-hackers have begun to transform them into seating, bedrooms and libraries. Space, Not Spikes, a group of east London artists, transformed a spiked window sill on a Shoreditch street into a cosy nook, complete with a sofa and shelving stocked with books about architecture. We need to continue to highlight the problem in order to tackle it.