Skate stoppers clearly suck enough on their own – this we know. However, skate stoppers are just one part of an emerging trend in architecture that's being used to change how we interact with spaces in our day-to-day lives. Daryl Mersom talked to Nils Norman of Dismal Garden, an art and research practice focused on prohibitive architecture about what this trend means for urban spaces across the globe.
How did Dismal Garden begin?
Dismal Garden started as a comic that critiqued the art world in the 90's and then became a website. It’s an idea that is inspired, amongst other things, by Stephan Dillemuth’s website Society of Control–a kind of umbrella site that can house many things: research strands, projects, and teaching activities.
The name Dismal Garden is meant to invoke Thomas Carlyle’s derogatory phrase 'Dismal Science', which is used to describe economics, but with a broader environmental angle.
And how did you become interested in defensive architecture in particular?
I was always aware of defensive architecture in London during the early 90's because of various security measures made to protect the public from IRA bombings that occurred in London around that time – like the Ring of Steel – a security and surveillance cordon consisting of road barriers, checkpoints and several hundred CCTV cameras erected around the financial district in central London, which has since quietly expanded in size. It’s also present in more ancient parts of the city, for instance, really old stuff, like Roman city walls, medieval bollards and Victorian military style gates.
I moved to NYC in 1993 and witnessed a similar but less sophisticated system being setup after the Oklahoma City Bombing in '95. Immediately after this event, jersey barriers were set up around most civic buildings – some all still there today or have been replaced with anti-truck bollards, collapsible concrete, no-gos, check-points and so on.
How are people fighting back against defensive architecture?
It varies from place to place – in the US the use of CCTV and park closures have been legally contested by the public, especially in cities like NY. The Occupy movement did its best to subvert and reinvent these designs. But in cities across the UK surveillance cameras are omnipresent to a point where it’s strange not to have a camera somewhere recording your every move. The journalist Anna Minton writes about how public spaces in the UK are quietly changing and being privatized with little coverage in the press or public awareness of what’s going on.
The “temporary” security around Trump Tower and less well-known locations downtown like Park Row in NYC are interesting in that they are a movements towards enclosure - where once public spaces are made private. The street outside the stock exchange on Wall Street has been temporarily occupied by security forces since 9/11, but they allow it to be used it for companies to promote their products – Delta Airlines being just one example.
It’s similar to the neoliberal argument that has finance as its focus – when if something is unaffordable it has to go, no matter what the social cost or social benefit. There are of course immense benefits to making people secure from terrorist attacks but these are quite rare occurrences, you are more likely to be hit by a car. But wrapped up within the 'security' argument is an authoritarian agenda that has become enabled and legitimized and will eventually control people and cities more and more.
Other interesting writers on the subject of security and urban control are Mike Davis in his seminal book City of Quartz, Rosalyn Deutsche in her book Evictions and also Martin Pawley’s book Terminal Architecture. More recently this article in the Gothamist about Trump Tower was great.
What are some of the most interesting types of defensive architecture?
There are some pretty crazy looking designs in Tokyo but the most interesting ones I have seen are in Manhattan. There is one that is a huge turntable built into the street. A large circle of the streets surface rotates and acts as a gate to control vehicles entering Wall Street. It must have cost a fortune to make and unfortunately it doesn’t work, I think it has always been broken!
I’m interested in how some designs reflect the designs that were implemented during the time of land enclosure during the 18th Century in Britain and parts of northern Europe, where common land or smaller landholdings were enclosed to create one large farm. This made what was once communal land private. During this period the Picturesque movement formulated ideas and designs in order to beautify these new properties.
Ironically, these designs are being used today as part of the kind of security enclosure I have described happening in our cities. So you get 200 year old designs like 'ha-ha's', water features, gated zones and planting updated as new security devices.
Collapsible concrete is also interesting, it is invisible as it is below ground. You only know if it is there when you drive a truck over it and it collapses into a hole.
Do you have some examples of where ‘ha-has’’, water features, gated zones and planting have been updated into a modern context?
The collapsible concrete is a type of ‘ha-ha’, an invisible ditch and attached is a design put forward by Rogers Marvel who make a lot of these things for the barrier that now stands in front of Wall Street. I think though this design may have been too expensive to realize.
Do you think we will see an increase in this type of architecture over the next decade?
Yes definitely, as the rhetoric of terror and all the scaffolding that comes with it becomes a kind of ideology that permeates our everyday lives you will see it more and more – the rapid fortification of Trump Tower and the streets around it without any discussion or argument is just one recent example. Armed security guards and soldiers on the streets is now normal, airport style bag checks to get into shops and museums – this combined with the privatization of everything and the enclosure of public space makes for quite a depressing picture of what our future cities will look like. In a way it is like regressing back to how some city centers were in the 18th Century.