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‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out

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Strips of sharp metal teeth run alongside a low garden wall on East 96th Street.

Metal bars divide a public bench on East 47th Street.

Ugly bolts line the ledges at a public plaza on East 56th Street.

These are all ways of saying “don’t make yourself at home” in public. This so-called hostile architecture has flourished in New York, even as the city has significantly added more public space in the last decade, including new plazas and parkland, pedestrian areas once used for cars and reclaimed industrial waterfront.

Proponents say this type of urban design is necessary to help maintain order, ensure safety and curb unwanted behavior such as loitering, sleeping or skateboarding.

But hostile architecture, in New York and other cities, has increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call “anti-homeless spikes” for targeting those who have nowhere else to go at a time when many cities are grappling with a homelessness crisis.

In New York, about 79,000 people are homeless, of which about 5 percent are believed to live on the street, according to federal estimates.

Hostile architecture can be as subtle as simply not providing a place to sit, as obvious as a wall or fence to keep people or animals out or as aggressive as metal studs embedded in pavement. These designs often go unnoticed in the busy cityscape.

“We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” said Jon Ritter, an architectural historian and a clinical associate professor at New York University.

Cities have long built walls and other defensive fortifications for protection. Even today, metal and concrete barriers are strategically placed around public buildings and plazas in Lower Manhattan and elsewhere to deter stray vehicles and guard against possible terror attacks. “What is hostile to some is defensive to others,” Mr. Ritter said.

Hostile architecture has also been an issue in some of New York’s more than 550 privately owned public spaces, which are required to be open to the public by their owners in return for the right to build larger towers.

The city has specifically prohibited “devices that inhibit seating” in privately owned public spaces since 2007, though armrests are allowed. But a 2017 audit by Scott M. Stringer, the city comptroller, found that more than half of the spaces at that time had violated various city requirements and failed to provide mandated amenities that could encourage public use.

Since then, the city has required regular inspections of privately owned public spaces to ensure more public access. They have visited 333 properties, of which, 193 were cited for violations, including spikes in seating areas, missing signs and other amenities.

Jerold S. Kayden, a Harvard University professor of urban planning and design who co-authored a 2000 book, “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience,” has documented an array of spikes, bars, railings and other obstructions on benches and ledges in these spaces on a website.

He has also found issues such as doormen who shooed people away and public spaces that are sealed off behind fences and gates, some of which are kept locked.

In a public atrium in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, a required marble bench had been removed and replaced with a kiosk selling Trump memorabilia. Mr. Kayden led the effort to get the bench returned.

“The irony that some public spaces actively discourage public use should not be lost on anyone,” Mr. Kayden said.

One lush public space with fountains, lawns and benches can be glimpsed behind a metal fence with a gate on East 70th Street. The Rudin Management Company, which owns the property, said the fence and gate, which is kept unlocked, were intended to keep playing children in so they do not run out in front of cars.

“The park is loved and appreciated by the community, and we have through the years made many improvements to make it even more accessible and welcoming,” said William C. Rudin, the chief executive and co-chairman of the company.

One especially ironic example can be found at a sprawling public plaza on East 56th Street and Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Not a single table or chair was in sight (seating is not required at most privately owned public spaces created before 1975). Office workers had to lean against a wall for a quick break.

“The message is ‘Don’t hang out here,’” said Sean Orlando, 44, who sat on the steps with his lunch. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a public space. It seems like they’re trying to keep people from using it.”

SL Green, which owns the plaza, declined to comment.

A couple blocks away, at East 47th Street, another plaza offered seating on gleaming wooden benches. But until recently, “no loitering” signs were prominently displayed on them. Mia Wagner, an actress, paused when she saw the sign.

“At what point am I loitering?” she said. “It makes me think twice about whether or not to sit, how long can I sit, and do I have to buy something so that I’m a valid squatter?”

Sage Realty, which manages the plaza, said it removed the “no loitering” signs in late September as soon as it learned there were concerns. “We never thought of them as hostile,” said Jonathan Kaufman Iger, Sage’s chief executive. “That’s not what we’re trying to convey to the community.”

Mr. Iger added that metal bars are used on some benches to deter skateboarding, which would damage the wood.

In an effort to create awareness about privately owned public spaces, a design competition was held this year to select a new logo that will be posted at every one of them.

Hostile designs in New York and elsewhere are also increasingly being called out on social media by those who believe that it goes too far.

As evidenced by the spikes along the UPS logo at a store on East 34th Street, even the pigeons are not safe.

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Editorial

Five Places to Visit in Washington, D.C. With a Black Digital Storyteller

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Lanae Spruce describes herself as a foodie and cultural connoisseur. But in the nation’s capital, the 31-year-old is better known for digital storytelling and building social media brands. Until September, Ms. Spruce designed and managed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s award-winning social media accounts for more than six years.

ImageCredit…Darren S. Higgins for The New York Times

In her downtime, Ms. Spruce, an Ohio native, relishes exploring D.C. neighborhoods that have transformed into buzzing destinations. One of them is her own, the Trinidad-H Street Northeast area. “What drew me was the rich history of black entrepreneurship and proximity to all the hip things that enliven the city. Art galleries galore, hidden alleys with small shops, outdoor sculptures and tons of eating options.” This month, she and her fiancée, Brianna Cooper, a chef, are decamping to New York City for Ms. Spruce’s new job with iOne Digital, a media platform for an African-American millennial audience. Here, Ms. Spruce shares her favorite D.C. spots.

This welcoming community hub, which stretches nearly half a block, opens directly into “a collection of black-owned shops and two art galleries displaying established and emerging black artists. It’s one of the hidden gems in Anacostia.” Ms. Spruce is a fan of MahoganyBooks, where the shelves are lined with some of her favorite authors. “And it’s pretty cool to see black-owned brands for cosmetics, fashion, food, toys, even card games.”

1231 Good Hope Road SE; anacostiaartscenter.com

“For me the most meaningful spot is the fourth floor panorama lens,” Ms. Spruce says. “It’s a cutout in the lattice facade overlooking the green lawn of the National Mall. Much of the Mall was once occupied by plantations and worked by slaves. Sometimes after a long day I like to stand here, look out and remember we’re sitting on the shoulders of our ancestors.”

1400 Constitution Avenue NW; nmaahc.si.edu

Named for the D.C. native Marvin Gaye, this restaurant and popular rooftop bar attracts stylish locals. “It’s a great place to meet young professionals and hear local musicians,” Ms. Spruce says. “There’s live music several nights a week, mostly jazz. It’s not pretentious. You can sit right up next to the band and talk to them during sets.”

2007 14th Street NW; marvindc.com

The year-old restaurant and rooftop bar, with a Mediterranean-inspired menu, is often Ms. Spruce’s first stop at the Wharf, the huge waterfront development in southwest Washington lined with food spots, shops and entertainment venues.

“It’s where I go to have fun and be seen, when I’m dressed fancy or after a stressful week,” Ms. Spruce says. “La Vie is where I’ll start my evening. It’s got the perfect mix of stunning views, a chic ambience and delicious cuisine. If octopus is on the menu I always try it. The plates are small, so then I’ll get lamb meatballs and oysters.”

88 District Square SW, lavie-dc.com

In the heart of downtown, this spot with an Italian vibe is one of the latest female-owned cafes to join D.C.’s lively culinary scene. “I really love going to women-owned eateries. This one is small, chic and cute. The oven churns out hot breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day.” The owner, Amy Brandwein, is also the chef. “She makes a kind of stuffed bread called scacce. It’s like a savory sandwich. The best is the lamb sausage scacce. It’s so yummy.”

963 Palmer Alley NW; piccolinadc.com

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Editorial

Charlotte Perriand, Stepping Out of Corbusier’s Shadow

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PARIS — It was 1927, and Le Corbusier had already declared, “The house is a machine for living in.” But like Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times,” he hadn’t quite figured out how to live with the machine from a practical, everyday point of view in the living room, for example, or the bedroom. Yes, the machine was the messiah of the new Modernism, but how do you sit on one? How do you sleep and eat on it? Just how do you furnish modernity?

Corbusier returned that year to Paris from an exhibition of International Style buildings in Stuttgart, Germany, where his demonstration houses were furnished with Thonet bentwood chairs that looked retrograde compared to the tubular steel furniture by his German colleagues. He contacted the young Parisian furniture designer Charlotte Perriand, whom he had very recently rejected as a job applicant, saying “we don’t embroider cushions here.” He changed his mind after seeing an exhibit of her work at the Autumn Salon, where her streamlined, steel-zinc-and-glass “Bar in the Attic” — an installation of furniture, metal finishes, and a built-in bar — was captivating Paris. She had translated the spirit of the machine into a room.

Now he needed Perriand, a 24-year-old decorative-arts-school graduate, to invent just how people would actually inhabit his white, geometrically pristine villas. Together they embarked on a professional relationship that in today’s he-said, she-said era has raised he-designed/she-designed questions. Did he, or did she?

“Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World,” a generous exhibition sprawling across all four floors of the Fondation Louis Vuitton here through Feb. 24, spans seven decades of Perriand’s packed career. The show features meticulously researched recreations of Perriand rooms, including an art gallery, apartment and teahouse. Magisterial artworks by Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder, artists she knew in Paris’s tight circles, establish the friendships and visual partnerships she lived with as she integrated all the arts within rooms conceived for what she called the “art of living.”

Two drawings and a letter at the show’s start act as a Rosetta stone, clarifying a long-fuzzy mystery about the Perriand-Le Corbusier association, which would produce some of Modernism’s enduring icons, their chaise longue, lounge chairs and sofa.

In one 1927 drawing, Corbusier outlined typical sitting and lounging postures without proposing actual designs. Inventing the furniture itself would be Perriand’s job. In a 1928 sketch, she accommodated the lounging posture in the famous “chaise longue basculante,” drawing a movable chaise rocking in a steel cradle.

For many decades, Le Corbusier basically “owned” authorship of the several chairs on which they collaborated, primarily because his name was on the door, he was famous, and he was a guy. To this day, the Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina markets four of her own pieces within the “Le Corbusier collection” (while giving her individual design credit), and in one of MoMA’s rehung collection galleries, a label assigns the pivoting, tubular steel chair she designed before working with the architect to Le Corbusier, his cousin and collaborator Pierre Jeanneret, and Perriand. Le Corbusier still clouds her achievements.

The drawings suggest that Perriand solved the problems Le Corbusier defined. “Le Corbusier waited impatiently for me to bring the furniture to life,” she wrote in 1991 for her autobiography. In a 1932 letter, he confirmed that the “entire responsibility” of realizing the “domestic equipment” of his buildings was hers: “Madame Perriand possesses exceptional qualities of inventiveness, initiative and realization in this domain.”

A recreation of their stunning installation, “A Modern Apartment,” in the Autumn Salon of 1929, makes her mastery of interiors abundantly clear. Several of their chairs, along with stacked, modular storage units, orbit freely in an open Newtonian space that we would now call a loft. Le Corbusier had long advocated an open plan free of bearing walls, and within it, Perriand furnished a constellation of objects that made space “sing,” as she liked to say. Furniture came off the wall and belonged to the floor in free-form configurations no longer anchored to a fireplace and bourgeois rules of symmetry.

A small kitchen with movable counters and sliding shelves exemplifies her own signature idea of furniture and fixtures that move, dating from her own 1927 apartment-studio, with its swiveling chairs, sliding front door, and extendable dining table.

After a decade with Le Corbusier, she stepped out of his shadow into a successful career of her own.

In the late 1930s, breaking with Le Corbusier over her affinities with communism, Perriand emerged as an activist designer. Her giant photo montage mural of 1936, “The Great Misery of Paris,” re-created in the show, was a cri de coeur protesting the housing problems, pollution, bread lines and income inequality brought on by the machine and industrialization.

The woman who had defiantly sported a necklace of ball bearings in the ’20s turned away from the machine toward nature. A large gallery displays her photographs of tree rings, benches crafted with split logs, and solid, free-form wood dining and coffee tables. Off-center shelves invite displays of driftwood, rocks and animal skeletons, nature’s “art,” free for anyone who hiked in the woods.

Perriand set her own design agenda. Invited to Japan just before the war, she initiated an industrial design program for a culture importing modernity. The country had little history of chairs and furniture but had a rich tradition of natural materials like bamboo and rattan, which Perriand adapted to designs extrapolated from the International style.

Back in postwar Europe, she turned to the task of reconstruction, designing minimally sized rooms in university dorms that synthesized color, form and composition in succinct masterworks of function.

Working in Le Corbusier’s studio, she, in effect, became an architect. For a 1934 competition, she designed a prefabricated seaside cabin, dramatically constructed in the Vuitton show. In 1938 she collaborated with Pierre Jeanneret on a futuristic metal-clad mountain pod called “The Refuge Barrel.”

Her experience across disciplines, from furniture to industrial design to architecture, culminated in the huge, 30,000-bed ski complex in the Alps, Les Arcs (1967-1989), where curving apartment blocks follow the contours of the slopes.

The show ends poetically on the recreation of a teahouse she designed in 1993, at 90, getting every detail right for a floating pavilion enclosed by stands of bamboo under a parachute of translucent fabric inspired by sailboats. She understood Japan, and had the talent and skills to capture its ineffable ethos.

With hundreds of objects and a dozen full-size room installations, “Inventing a New World” presents ample evidence that Perriand, who died in 1999, was a major design force through most of the century.

She lived her times, and like her own first apartment, with its moving parts, her imagination and career never stayed still. There was life after Le Corbusier.

Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World

Through Feb. 24 at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en.

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Editorial

Taylor Swift, Lizzo, Lana Del Rey: Pop Stars (and Their Fans) Clap Back

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This week’s Popcast examines how artists leverage their power, their fame and the crowdsourced enthusiasm of their fans.

Taylor Swift recently wrote an open letter to her fans, detailing some of the ongoing behind-the-scenes struggles she’s been experiencing with Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, the executives who control her back catalog. In it, she asked fans to directly express their support of her and their frustrations with the men; the result was a swarm of social media vitriol aimed at the executives, including the release of their personal information.

This year has also seen a spike in pop stars using social media to push back against music critics: Lana Del Rey and Lizzo both took issue with reviews written about their albums, and complained publicly. Their fans fell in line, swarming the offending writers with hate.

What are the moral responsibilities of performers with huge fan bases in terms of how they wield them?

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