On the Frontline: The Architectural Policing of Social Boundaries

On the Frontline: The Architectural Policing of Social Boundaries

Michael Shea, UCL    


The bleak, concrete architecture of Euston station has become painfully familiar to me. As a commuter, I have spent countless hours at the station, passing through on my way in and out of London. I have noticed the subtle changes to the station layout that have taken place over the years. For example, when the public bins disappeared due to heightened fears of a possible terrorist attack, and when a number of new food and retail outlets appeared on the concourse. Most vividly of all, I remember when the toilets were no longer free to use.

These changes are not necessarily a problem in of themselves. It could legitimately be argued that to use a section of a large empty concourse to sell things that commuters might want to buy is nothing but a practical use of space. Indeed, the small square outside of the main entrance, which used to be populated solely by pigeons and smokers, has been greatly improved by the addition of a few restaurants and food stalls. However, alongside this increasing commercialization of public space, which has been widely documented in city centres up and down the UK, is a more concerning trend in the use of architecture to enforce social divisions.

Outside the entrance to Euston you will usually find large numbers of people sitting smoking, eating or enjoying the ‘fresh’ air outside while they wait for their train. There are a number of public benches, which are utilized by the nearby food stalls, but when they fill up it is not uncommon to see people perched on nearby walls. However, on a recent visit I found that some of these walls are now lined with spikes. An unwelcome nuisance to people with no other place to sit, but their purpose becomes clearer once we consider that the wall stands at a corner of the square usually frequented by a Big Issue seller and a few other homeless people. These are the ‘anti-homeless spikes’, which have recently been the source of widespread outrage and media attention.

The recent  public outcry  began after pictures were posted online of a set of inch-high studs that had been installed beside the entrance to a block of luxury apartments in Southwark Bridge Road in London. This led commentators to point to other similar examples of hostile architecture, with Tesco hastily removing a similar set of ground spikes, outside the entrance to their store in Regent Street, after it attracted condemnation and a petition by outraged members of the public. The Tesco spokesperson’s defence that the spikes were not in fact anti-homeless but rather intended to deter “anti-social behaviour” outside the store that might intimidate customers  – as if sheltering in a doorway was an act of vandalism rather than necessity.

In these cases, though it is far from charitable, arguably private landowners have the right to put what they want on their property, including taking measures to prevent homeless people from sheltering on the periphery of it. But what about in places that are at least notionally open to the public? Camden Borough Council was criticised for its decision to replace ordinary benches with what is known as the ‘Camden Bench.’ The bench is specifically designed to be unappealing to the homeless. The manufacturers website boasts that it “deters rough sleeping” and that its “ridged top and sloped surfaces make it difficult to lie on”, while also making dubious claims that the benches unusual shape might also deter theft and drug dealing.

Again, there is an anti-social behaviour prevention justification for the hostility of its design. With one of the other key features of the bench being that it is designed to be difficult to skateboard on, although its smoothed concrete edges demonstrate that the designers didn’t fully understand what makes for an unappealing surface for skate tricks!  Skateboarding is an interesting choice of behaviour to try and deter as it conjures up an archetypical image of young people up to no good. In practice skateboarding is rare in the capital and evidence of it being the cause of damage to property is even rarer. In spite of this, skateboarders are routinely marginalized and forced out of public spaces as can be seen in the recent plans to remove the unofficial Southbank Skate Park, which, far from being anti-social, had transformed a dingy under croft into something of an attraction.

The increasing prevalence of all manner of ‘hostile architecture’, though only recently becoming the focus of media attention, has been documented for at least three decades. Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) is a study of the architectural history of L.A., which is remarkably prescient in documenting a growing trend towards, what Davis astutely described as, ‘the architectural policing of social boundaries.’  In his chapter on ‘Fortress L.A.’ he gives the example of barrel-shaped bus stop benches, impossible to lie down on (or indeed sit on comfortably) which were a novelty at the time, but are now employed in various forms in cities all over the world, as we saw with the Camden Bench.

A public park with sprinklers that are set to come on in the night so that homeless people are discouraged from sleeping there, public libraries with prison-like exterior gates, and malls that are accessible only via their car park (and therefore impossible for a pedestrian to pass through) are all powerful examples of architectural features that exist purely to deter the destitute. In contrast to this, Davis invokes the planning logic behind many great public spaces, including Central Park in New York, which was intended in the words of its designer Frederick Law Olmsted to be a ‘social safety valve’ in which members of all classes are forced to intermingle. It is somewhat ironic in the light of this noble intention that for many decades crossing Central Park after dark was considered too dangerous for residents of the lavish buildings that surround it.

With the examples from Davis in mind, the removal of free to use public toilets at Euston -as in stations and town centres up and down the country- takes on a more sinister aspect, as public toilets are often a vital refuge where homeless people can shelter, wash or use the facilities. Along with privatisation, the usual justification given for making toilets pay to use is that it might deter drug dealing or even prostitution. This claim is dubious as any individual with money to indulge in either of these activities might well be willing to spend thirty pence for the privilege. Only a homeless or destitute person might reasonably be deterred by being charged a small amount to enter the toilet.

A frequent visitor to Euston might point out that there are various places where one can visit a toilet for free in and around the station, providing that you know where to look. An art gallery, a museum and a university are all within walking distance. However, these are precisely the sort of quasi-public spaces that a homeless person or even a casual pedestrian is unlikely to be aware of or to be admitted to.

The replacement of public space with commercial or pseudo-public spaces creates a stark division where a well-heeled person can easily have access to shelter, toilets and a comfortable place to sit simply by purchasing over-priced coffee, but where, in the same space, a rough sleeper will struggle to find even a flat surface on which to sit. The changes that have taken place in Euston station over the past few years should be a source of concern to us all, in so far as they represent an attempt to enshrine social divisions into its very architecture. If there is a silver lining, it is that the outcry against anti-homeless spikes and other attempts to make public space inhospitable demonstrates increasing public awareness regarding this trend. In the age of increasing quasi-public space we must be vigilant to preserve the right of free movement and basic access to facilities for all.


Michael Shea is a freelance writer and doctoral candidate in Digital and Material Culture at University College London. He studied Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies before going on to research at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. His work aims to address various issues relating to culture, design and public engagement.