Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Designed to Fail

By Stephen Tutka

A recent trend in my research has also been a recent trend in my news feed on social media. My thesis has to do with housing those who do not have a home and focuses on a place where they can go in their time of need. This is just a natural thought to me. You need a home? You should be able to find one. However, there is a way of thinking that I had not thought of… designing a place that people cannot lay their head.
This trend of uncomfortable ‘defensive architecture’ is a burden to everyone that uses a space, in my opinion. Rather than using design and creating a solution people are thinking in the other direction… an anti-design. They are identifying a problem and just moving it somewhere else rather than solving it. They make it someone else’s problem, the problem of the people they are designing against.
What is it that I am referring to? In this particular instance it is the so called “homeless spikes” which are like the spikes set on perches to keep birds from roosting. Many people that I have seen post about this have taken a stance of “this is inhumane” and complained of how cruel the ideas behind these spikes are to the homeless. However, I would like to take another, less obvious look at this…. It is not design… it is not comfortable for anyone. Why would you ‘design’ something for a purpose that it cannot be used for? A bench that doesn’t work as a bench? What is the point in the ‘bench’ even existing? I can’t say it any better than Dan Lockton did in this article, “One of the problems with architectures of control is that they don’t discriminate. An uncomfortable bench is as uncomfortable for a homeless person as it is for a tired passerby or for someone looking for a place to read.”
I have been aware of defensive architecture in the past. I have seen benches in cities across the US that are made for only sitting, from Chicago to Miami, Denver to DC, and even in my home city of St. Louis. As an aggressive skater I have encountered objects with ‘skate caps’ that prevent sliding on ledges and rails and doing tricks. You even see defensive architecture in things as simple as the arm that comes down to prevent you from going onto the tracks when a train is coming. But at what point do functional things become just things to prevent a certain behavior? When does over designing something as a precaution override the purpose of the item all together? Why not make public spaces functional for everyone? Design a park bench that a tired business man can take a nap on during his break after pulling long hours at the office the night before. Or design a bench that is relaxing in any way… not just a hard confined surface that is designed to prevent certain actions. Come to think of it, that sounds like I just described a prison cell. Are we designing prison cells or public spaces?  To quote Ocean Howell from the same article, “When you’re designed against, you know it,” he says. “Other people might not see it but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here.”
Let’s remember to design, to problem solve, to think of that quote we all heard early on… “Form follows function”. If you design something to not function for one person then it won’t function for anyone.


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