Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Beyond Bladerunner

Continuing with Mike Davis’ “Ecology of Fear” I turn my attention to the future. There is something to be said for the realistic approach. In fact this is exactly what Davis’ calls for in his vision of the future. He takes aim at the “cyber punk” image of the Los Angeles of Bladerunner (no one will concede that this was an attempt at an accurate portrayal but there was an underlying basis for its reality) and uses it to illustrate his point of a real future image.

Davis’ image of the future, he argues, should be constructed through projecting “…exisiting trends along their current downward sloping trajectories…”p362. Sounds encouraging. What he points out are a couple of interesting things which might apply to this study. To begin his extrapolation of our swirl down the toilet of life he notes firstly that “With no hope of further public investment in the remediation if underlying social conditions, we are forced instead to make increasing investments in physical security” p364. So it would seem that we are caught chasing our own tail. Our increased built security measures are responses to problems, not proactive moves for safety and therefore we are always a step behind the problem. Therefore it seems that we need to step sideways instead of running in the same circle, and do something different. Architecture of fear only perpetuates more architecture of fear.

This isn’t helped by a new trend of allowing increased involvement of Police and security consultants in town and architectural planning. Davis’ points this out as its been a common occurrence in Los Angeles since the 80’s and 90’s and its even more prevalent nationwide in the post 9/11 epoch. Handing over too much power to the security “experts’ and taking it away from the architects has created an inequality in the balance of security versus all other aspects of design, the challenge for the architect is now how to hide or disguise the newly required fortification demanded by these experts that screams of paranoia, inhospitality and poor design. Just look around at any government building and you’ll notice this attempt, whether it’s the 2 foot thick concrete planters outside the front, or the 4 story high solid concrete base of the new Freedom Tower proposal.

The question one could ask then is whose hands are these kinds of security choices better left to, the designer, the government or the hands of the people themselves? Davis highlights the increasing vigilantism and the occurrence of bulletproof caged liquor and convenience stores, burglar bars on homes and in general what he refers to as the “Brinks” aesthetic. Depending on your perspective, we’ve become very good at either shutting the world out, or shutting ourselves in.

Lastly, I wanted to call attention to a practice coined “Social Control Districts” as illustrated by Davis. He describes these as the cunning act of combining sanctions of the criminal code with land use planning. The result is four “judicial modes”; Abatement, Enhancement, Containment and Exclusion. You might have heard these being touted by politicians and city officials mostly, the most common, “Our neighborhood is a drug free zone” an example of an “enhancement” mode. Unfortunately what this more often than not accomplishes is pushing the problem to an adjacent neighborhood which promptly does the same thing and so on.

In the end I think this points at two main things. First, that we are treating the problems and not their causes (yes I know, a common refrain) and that architecture of fear only perpetuates more architecture of fear. Secondly, that as architects, much of our power to shape a new alternative to the architecture of fear has been taken out of our hands by “specialists” whose primary concern is far from an overall well designed solution. Perhaps in order to do something different and take back some power of control, architecture as profession needs to be taught some new tricks.


Jeannie said...

Well, as you already know, I think it is precisely the “Brinks” aesthetic that is interesting. As you note, it is precisely the domain of security and the infrastructure/architecture associated with it that falls outside the realm of our expertise (or interest). If you speak to specialists, however, they are assertive in their belief that what they do decidedly falls into the realm of ‘design’. So do we need new tricks? Better social skills? Less apathy? There have occasionally been attempts (in both ‘high’ fashion and ‘high’ architecture, oddly enough) to make proposals directed at our nomadic global state of orange alert, but there is really only so much you can do with prohibitively expensive materials and a thing for beauty. Would we be better off with security gates designed by the Bouroullec brothers, or a lofted security camera, courtesy of Karim Rashid? Maybe. It’s a small step, but Michael Graves, Inc., designed a pretty nice paper shredder for Target… Another way to ask the question of you,perhaps, would Architecture (invariably a slow and often compromised process) really help? But, to return to the topic at hand. The remarkable (if obvious) thing about the category of “enhancement” is that the equivalent of building a physical wall is accomplished by blue and white signage. It doesn’t matter if it is true that the zones demarcated by those signs are actually drug free or not. Similarly, having ADT stickers on the windows of your suburban home is often as effective as actually having a security system. A bit of Jakobson’s shifter is at play here, but my impulse is suggest that it is time to be simultaneously more generic (move away from Davis and into Virilio, et.al.) but also more specific (How did Toronto react to SARS? How did Paducah, KY respond to the high school shootings? Architecturally speaking, of course…). Lastly, added because of (despite previous ramblings) my hope that a catalogue of “bad” design related to the architecture of fear will thereby engender “good” design… an image of the shed for the truck scanner installed by Homeland Security for the Super Bowl, lest someone hide a bomb among the kegs of Bud.


F said...

This is where I ask a question of you guys, those who are actually in architecture. There is a sense (although this may very well be a media bias) that the general public doesn’t really think that much about the negative impacts of increased security measures, or how they feel about being in “judicial modes.” I don’t believe many people think about whether a fortress makes them more fearful; they appreciate the service that fortress is providing, or they just don’t care because it doesn’t impact their lives that much.

Is it your job to make them care? If so, maybe you do need to redesign those security gates.

g+a said...

The “Brinks” aesthetic I also find interesting. I’ve had a personal appreciation for the brutality of “Brinks” looking buildings whether as seen during the Brutalist period of the 70’s or as actual bunkers (see Virilio’s Bunker Archeology). One thing about that form of architectural language I’ve always been fascinated by is whether or not its possible to reconcile the architecture with human interaction. Fortified architecture I think is designed to be intimidating and dehumanizing. This leads me to your question of designer bollards. Can something meant to function as an anti-human object be interpreted by the general public if it’s beautiful despite the fact that they still know what its for? That is to say, what is more important for the integration of invasive security measures, that they appear beautiful or interesting or that their purposes are hidden? I come back to the example of the heavy planters outside some governmental building targets. I doubt very much that most people pay any attention to them not because they are beautiful but because their true function is camouflaged (and therefore arguably well designed). I wonder if that is the new trick that architects need to learn. We already know how to make things beautiful, how do we make things invisible?

g+a said...

I don’t think it’s about whether or not they consciously notice it or not. It reminds me of the effects of the weather. When it’s cloudy, grey and dreary it alters people’s moods despite whether they actually notice that they haven’t seen the sun for a week. With the architecture of security and fear it acts as an overall subconscious weight that comes from seeing, but not noticing, daily instances of surveillance or fortification or isolation. I think that there are certain extreme situations where one’s eyes are opened to noticing the effects of these measures though, whether it’s as someone who benefits from them or as someone who is on the negative end.

I don’t think its architecture’s role to make people care, that’s a rather difficult thing to do I imagine. I do think it’s within the realm of architecture to be a) aware that there is a subconscious effect of our surroundings and b) shape that landscape positively.

Bill said...

I would argue against invisibiliy. Realizing that as architects we are required to serve the ideology in power, there are margins we can work within to raise questions. "Art makes the political landscape visible" is something Natalie Jeremijenco (sp?) once said at a lecture, and it resonated with me. I'd say architecture can also function this way.

After we live with the fortified WTC and other measures, perhaps more and more of us will start asking the important question, "Do we REALLY want to live this way?"

If it remains invisible, or glossed over by visual beauty, it remains insidious, unquestionable, and in my view, extremely dangerous when we consider how much of our political landscape is already hidden from view.

g+a said...

See this related article about the Freedom Tower proposal:


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