Architectures of Control

For anthropologists interested in the intersection of place and power, I highly recommend the blog Architectures of Control, by Dan Lockton. Take, for instance, this great post about how airport cafés ensured that customers wouldn’t sit for too long by removing the flight monitors: “This made people worry about missing their flights, which led to them looking for monitors that worked, thus leaving empty tables.” Or this post about anti-user seating in Oxford. (Examples from NY City at the anti-sit archive.) And this one on architecture and security about buildings designed to prevent threats which no longer concern those who use the buildings.

(via BoingBoing)

12 thoughts on “Architectures of Control

  1. Fred,

    That’s actually an important point. If you look at the blog you’ll see that not all the examples are negative. For instance, he includes a water faucet that gives the user feedback on their water usage in order to reduce waste.

  2. BTW, FYI, cf.

    Clifford Shearing & Philip Stenning 1985 “From the Panopticon to Disney World: The development of discipline.” in Anthony N. Doob and Edward L. Greenspan, ‘Perspectives in Criminal Law: Essays in Honour of John Ll. J. Edwards.’ Toronto: Canada Law Book

    Which has been condensed into a classic undergraduate-level discussion-provoker:

    1987 “Say ‘Cheese’! – The Disney order that is not so Mickey Mouse.” Pp. 317-323 in Clifford D. Shearing and Philip C. Stenning (eds.). ‘Private Policing.’ Newbury Park: Sage.

    Big Mickey is Watching You!

  3. That’s correct. Not all designs are negative. The idea of control implies a reduction in the variance of behaviour. While I cannot generalize to all the designs presented on the blog you mention, there seems a focus on behaviouralism (as in Skinner) as a basis underlying the design. The designs account for user behaviour, a big advantage for the designer. This makes the designs universal to populations round the world. For instance, the bus bench design is as applicable in London as in New York or Hong Kong. I think that is a major appeal of these designs to city planners–one size fits all. Not to mention the designs control, not by punishment, but by restricted application of use.
    What I find interesting is where these designs are being applied, i.e. in what parts of the city, on whose desktops, in whose houses? Not everyone may have the smart faucet, but who does have it? Which bus stops carry the anti-user seating? Also how do people get around it? What if I ignore the smart faucet?

  4. One effect of these designs, to my mind, is to render public space less a place in which people assemble, and more a thoroughfare they go go through on the way to someplace else, someplace presumably ‘private.’ My gut tells me that this is much more the case in the U.S. than it is elsewhere. Public spaces in the US, these days, really suck. Correlatively, newer and more opulent malls seem to open on a weekly basis (for example, San Francisco’s new urban mall, owned by Westfield). The there is the fact that many public spaces are simply becoming malls. My impression of contemporary Manhattan accords with what the NY Times has written, that it is becoming “an outdoor mall for rich people.” Soon, Manhattan will be just another Stanford Shopping Center! (There is a reason the movie Rent was filmed in the Tenderloin.)

    Control of public spaces is really an issue, however, in places like San Francisco, a city that has an extremely large population of homeless people (I lived in SF for 10 years). The diminishment of the public in American social life I think crosses domains and creates feedback loops. Homelessness is an example, I think. Many/most of the people on the streets of SF suffer from serious health problems, including psychological ones. But because the US offers no universal (public) healthcare, those who need treatment not infrequently go without. They inhabit the street. Yet, in an effort to maintain reasonable access to public space for other folks, architectures of control limit the ways in which people might inhabit that space: anti-sitting designs torture those waiting at bus stops, for example. The idea of the simple bus stop bench is long gone! The effect is that diminishment of the public in one area (healthcare, housing) compounds the diminishment in another (urban space). Pathologies appear: MUNI bus shelters in SF that no one actually wants to use because they are designed to be uncomfortable. Or: widespread defacing of public surfaces through juvenile tagging (which is epidemic in SF). The later trend can be given critical spin, as a form of reclaiming urban space by those who do not feel welcome in it, by dint of various architectures of control. Etc.

    Nonetheless, I have my own complaints. SF’s main public library, for example, has had to lock off most of its bathrooms because homeless folks move into them. Most of the reading rooms are extremely unpleasant to be in because people station themselves there for entire days. This means that the library essentially operates as something like a daycare center for those who have nowhere else to go. And it obliterates the actual purpose of a public library.

  5. A popular principle in design has been so called ‘user centered design’- making designed objects ‘user friendly’. In contrast, slanty design recognizes that there may be other interested parties other than users to design, such as corporate and government entities. Examples of slanty design:

    – early Gmail did not have a delete button. The purpose of this was to prevent the destruction of the information Google uses to create targeted ads.

    – steep ramps surrounding baggage pickup terminals in airports to discourage travelers from crowding the terminal when picking up baggage.

    – roughened surfaces to discourage grafitti

    – bus stop benches made too small and uncomfortable to accommodate anyone wishing to lay down on them.

    – external architectural features slanted to discourage loitering on them.

    In object and intention slanty design is the antithesis of user centered design; certainly slanty design is amoral; while user centered design is intended to empower users, slanty design is intended to disempower them. Not all slanty design is bad (e.g. child proof lids on medicine bottles), but it is dangerous territory.

  6. Public places in SF don’t suck that bad. In fact, lots of them are hella cool. There are many many parks, hilltops and beaches (i.e. golden gate, dolores, precita, coit, bernal, turtle hill, glen canyon, twin peaks, plus the Randall Junior Museum) and then there is Yerba Buena Gardens, which is great even though it is stuck between a mall and a convention center. The main city library got a spanky new building some time back, which demonstrates good intentions towards having public space, and most of the neighborhood libraries are still good reading places with open bathrooms. The Museums have free days every week, not enough, but still that is a public service. (I lived in the city from birth to 18, 16 years in SF public schools, and go home a lot).

    Strong is right that these public spaces function as “day-care” (and night-care) for tens of thousands of people who are insane, homeless, and/or on drugs (the others are freeway underpasses, alleys, bus stations and the bus terminal). People who live in public spaces come to the Bay Area from all over the country, in part because of the generous General Assistance checks, in part because of the temperate weather, and in part because of the relative lenience of the cops.

    In these circumstance, changing all the benches so they can’t serve as beds is not a terribly controlling form of control, in comparison to what Beijing and many other cities do to solve these problems: putting walls around the parks and locking up people who are mentally ill or drug-addicted in asylums or jail (which happens in SF, but not nearly as much as it happens elsewhere–People shouting at imaginaries were not a common sight on the streets of SF in the days before Prop 13, when there were still mental asylums). Walls–now there’s an architecture of control!

    In SF at least, the goal of those benches is to make bus stops *more* public, by making them harder to privatize (turn into houses), in order to give people a chance to sit when waiting for the buses, which you have to wait for because they don’t come often enough. This is an architecture of amelioration, fixing little problems here and there in ways that create other problems rather than finding a total solution. It is the nature of public services in American-style democracy.

    By the way: destitute people are not the only ones who privatize spaces. Now that Bernal Heights is gentrified, the yuppies bring their giant show dogs (2 Gs on 4 legs) to the hill in such great numbers that the whole park is a dog toilet. If anybody can propose an architecture of control for that I’d be for it.

  7. Philomel, you’re right, and I think we mostly agree. I love SF’s beautiful parks (thank you for reminding me of them, I left my heart [wincing at my own cheese] in Alamo Square) and you are right that SF has many great public parks, including even recently built ones, like Crissy Field. However, to my mind Yerba Buena ‘Gardens,’ a tramped on little weed sandwiched between a mall owned by Sony (I think), a huge convention center, a Marriott hotel, the ultra-expensive St. Regis, and SFMOMA (a great institution), is an *excellent* example of failed or sucky public space. Yerba Buena was exactly what I pictured when I wrote that public space in the US sucks. The Mall which closes off the garden from the street in fact ‘greets’ the street with a huge grey curtain of a wall and forces entry through a little corner doorway. In the ‘park’ itself (which is a tiny piece of grass), you can lay back, and look up at the giant Sony mall looming over you through it’s glass curtain…

    In fact, the whole re-development of South of Market (Gayle Rubin works on this) I think proceeds in haphazard fashion creating all kinds of problems, many related to lack of consideration for the actual using public: the sidewalks are too narrow for example. The intersection at 4th and Mission is a nightmare for pedestrians as a result, although heavily trafficked because of the giant corporate developments that have been built all around it. And then north of market, you have the new Union Square, which I don’t really think is so bad, but most San Franciscans I know consider ugly.

    And I like the new main public library a lot, although most folks seem to think it is a failure architecturally, and who can forget the thrashing it received by Nicholson Baker in the pages of the New Yorker and elsewhere? My point about the library was precisely that it might benefit from more restricted access so that it could actually serve its purpose, which at present it manifestly fails to do because it is not a very nice place to be, let alone sit and read for hours on end. I ironize my own complaint about control by complaining about the library.

    [Have you ever been to Duboce Park? Talk about being over-run with dogs, and dog excrement! People actually call it ‘Shit Park.’ There was an little debate about the park a while back and about children’s playgrounds versus off-leash dog areas. I wanted to have a demonstration with signs that read, ‘Kids Versus Dogs.’ Maybe playgrounds are an architecture of control for dogs!]

    Thanks for the American-style democracy comment. I think I called those bus shelters pathological: attempts to retain public space through specifically anti-people measures, as you point out. It is an odd situation. The question for those of us reading SavageMinds is probably not whether SF has good public spaces. (I will admit my bias. I think San Francisco is an amazing, wonderful, magical city and one of the best places in the world, let alone America — the Strybing botanical gardens *alone*, free and open to the public, are a priceless gift and outclass those of any other city I have been in.) The question might be about different attitudes toward public space and how spaces where people can aggregate, interact, be social, etc. are nurtured in the context of the larger society and public. SF is unique and somewhat atypical among American cities in this regard (which in fact contributes to the homeless problem, as you note; it is as though SF itself has to bear the burden of the lack of public services in many many cities).

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