“Benches in parks, train stations, bus shelters and other public places are meant to offer seating, but only for a limited duration. Many elements of such seats are subtly or overtly restrictive. Arm rests, for instance, indeed provide spaces to rest arms, but they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in anything but a prescribed position. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as “hostile architecture,” or simply: “unpleasant design.” (Mars, 2016)
It may be that you have never noticed any examples of this kind before – they are in fact intended to target those in particular unwanted demographics, such as youngsters or homeless people; nevertheless, unpleasant designs can be found almost everywhere these days, work as a strategy to restrain undesirable behaviours and are an active form of social control.
Although uncomfortable benches and other hostile architectural interventions (such as metal spikes, used to keep people from urinating or sleeping in street corners) are quite physical and even somewhat agressive, not all unpleasant designs are as visible and tangible.
Some of the most intriguing strategies are aimed at loitering teenagers and use sounds and lighting – some businesses play classical music to prevent young people from concentrating in front of their property; others put up pink lighting that is meant to highlight skin blemishes and drive teenagers away.
The interesting aspect about using lights to affect people is that different colours will stimulate different effects and behaviours. Similarly to the pink lighting strategy, blue lighting has been used in public bathrooms in the UK to discourage the use of intravenous drugs; the colour makes it more difficult for people to find their veins. It also creates a calming atmosphere that may prevent enraged reactions and make people uncomfortable when acting out.
Another great example of unpleasant design is the Camden Bench, a “highly refined work (…), impervious to essentially anything but sitting.” (Mars, 2016) Designed by Factory Furniture, the Camden Bench is a curious, angular, sculpted, solid piece of concrete with rounded edges and tilts in unexpected places; the “perfect anti-object.” (Swain, 2013)
Due to the slopes, it is practically impossible to sleep on the Camden Bench. The recesses near the ground allow people to store their posessions behind their legs, making it anti-theft as well. It is anti-dealer and anti-litter, as it features no gaps in which to stash drugs or trash. It is anti-skateboarding because the edges on the bench vary in height and a special coating created to repel paint makes this piece anti-graffiti too.
However, even though the Camden Bench is very successful as a design piece, it does not solve homelessness or criminal behaviours.
In reality, unpleasant designs focus on the manifestations of social problems rather than their causes, meaning that these problems will ultimately be just pushed to a different area of the city. It’s a “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” sort of philosophy, that aims to redirect people in undesirable demographics to somewhere they can’t be seen, making it look like the problem no longer exists.
It is, in my opinion, a rather cruel “solution” that becomes even more hostile and offensive if we remind ourselves that this design strategy first began by trageting animals (e. g. pigeon deterrents). It is one thing to try to make streets more safe and clean; it is quite another to limit the shelter options for those who aren’t lucky enough to have a place to call ‘home’.
“Designs that are unpleasant to some are put into place to make things more pleasant for others, and that latter category might just include you.” (Mars, 2016)
- Mars, R. (2016). Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture. [podcast] 99% Invisible. Available at: http://bit.ly/29xwpJZ [Accessed 25 Jan. 2017].
- Savičić, G. and Savić, S. (2013). Unpleasant Design. 1st ed. G.L.O.R.I.A.
- Swain, F. (2013). Designing the Perfect Anti-Object. [online] Medium. Available at: http://bit.ly/2lXPMUu [Accessed 25 Jan. 2017].