Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Indefensible Space

Another link to Spillway - a photo-essay on the terrifying security landscape created around the Olympic site, documenting the relentless advance of the new Gothic architecture discovered by Patrick Keiller in Robinson in Space, made up of ubiquitous fences, barbed wire, labyrinthine security walls, walls topped by broken glass, with unnerving new space - there big sheds, here seemingly empty waterside luxury flats (featuring possibly the worst example I've ever seen). This links with one of the most brilliant, and unexpected points of Anna Minton's excellent new book Ground Control (reviewed by me for the NS, link soonish) - a passionate, convincing attack on one of the most accepted, cliched ideas about urban planning since the early '70s, Oscar Newman's theory of 'defensible space'. She introduces this by mentioning a housing association project which Hans Van der Heijden of BIQ Architecten worked on in Liverpool. They planned a 'continental' development, and were told in no uncertain terms that, according to police-led Secured by Design policies which have to be followed to get planning approval, the development must 'be surrounded by walls with sharp steel pins or broken glass on top of them, CCTV, and only one gate into the estate'. Despite having the support of residents, they were sacked from the project and something containing all of the above was built in its place.

Minton argues that defensible space, the attempt to design away crime from new developments, something equally prevalent in gated communities and in the housing association-run remnants of social housing, is a paranoid assault on the polis, a form of negative determinism (perhaps to complement the positive determinism of the modernists who tried to design community into estates). Rather than obliterating fear, by closing off an area and filling it with security paraphernalia, defensible space (and its state form as Secured by Design) creates fear. Interestingly, given that both Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman were very popular among postmodernists, she contrasts it with her idea of 'eyes on the street' from The Life and Death of Great American Cities, where strangers should be welcomed into the urban district and the housing development rather than repelled with the Orwellian apparatus of spikes and cameras that dominates British cities; patterned on the grid, rather than the cul-de-sac. It's odd, really, that this pessimistic, paranoid form of urbanism has been so popular for so long, its applicability being extended from the New York projects studied by Newman to the whole of the UK. There's sadly little acknowledgment of the only seemingly converse Urban Task Force approach of pedestrianized piazzas and overpriced coffee chains, which were frequently in the privately-owned 'Business Improvement Districts' expertly critiqued elsewhere in the book.

Addenda: although Minton doesn't write much about aesthetics, it occurred to me that the visual equivalent of Newman's ideas might be the notions of architectural legibility proposed in Alice Coleman's Utopia on Trial. Making a frontal assault on Modernism in toto, suggesting, rather extraordinarily (I don't want to bring up the Barbican again, but...) that crime increases the taller the building, her influence was brought to bear on actual housing design in Britain in the 1990s, and the results can be best seen in what Cedric Price called the 'pathetic Colemanville' of the area just behind Park Hill in Sheffield, and in the semis built by Liverpool's Militant council. It's extraordinary that Marxists were taken in by such a superficial, anti-materialist analysis - essentially, that buildings that don't look traditional are alienating, that height equals blight - when the problems of estates are mostly social rather than architectural, as the many estates of 30s semis built by local councils with fearsome reputations (Manor in Sheffield, Wynthenshawe, Flower Estate Soton) can attest. It's intriguingly stupid, what was done in the Hyde Park area. Modernist terraces and flats reclad, alternately in vernacular brick and postmodernist plastic, and even architecturally pretty conservative '30s tenements reclad to make them more 'friendly', while the streets-in-the-sky of Hyde Park were enclosed and closely guarded, making it a decidedly hostile place, according to an ex-resident of Sheffield's three streets-in-the-sky schemes - and in the process, a world-famous symbol of confidence and futurism was transformed into a provincial mess.


Blogger GCGM said...

Alice Coleman made a survey of Northampton's notorious Bellinge estate back in 1989. No idea what the outcome was though, or if any of her recommendations were taken on board. In the following years the estate was given a facelift which cost close to half a million pounds, but it quickly fell into even greater squalor than before. Is 'Utopia On Trial' worth reading?

7:12 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I've not read the whole thing, but what I have read is indescribably stupid, so I can't say for sure. What I am sure about is that re-cladding towers and maisonettes and giving them pitched roofs is not a sophisticated response to the problems of municipal housing. What it does do though is satisfy councillors and local papers that Something Is Being Done.

7:29 pm  
Anonymous Rob said...

Switch out the word defensible for legible and Newman's stuff starts to work. I must get round to properly writing up this:


Also, I think Minton might need to check her sources on the 'sharp pins or broken glass'. I can't believe for a second that was actually what the S by D recommendation was.

9:43 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

The quote is from the police recommendations to BIQ. And that's not the only instance she gives, either - there's several examples in the book of Secured by Design policies leading to paranoid and obnoxious urbanism. Whether it's ascribable directly to Newman I can't say, but she certainly argues his work (and its taking up by councils after the '73 Essex Design Guide) formed the basis for Secured by Design.

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Tim Vanhoof said...

Did Militant really engage with modernist architectural theory before rejecting it in favour of vernacular semi-detached? It doesn't strike me as the kind of thing they'd spend much time on. They could easily have arrived at the same position listening to the existing prejudices of their supporters who wanted "a proper house with a front and a back door".

10:44 pm  
Blogger dan hancox said...

would you indulge an architectural ignoramus (i will be, until i read your book, which i'm going to go and buy at the weekend): that infamous (famous?) brixton block in the guardian picture up top - is it true the windows were built that size because coldharbour lane was going to be turned into a dual carriageway or similar.. hence to reduce traffic noise? and then, it wasn't, but they were stuck with the small windows?

i've never known if that's just south london legend...

12:46 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Dan - the story is true, it was going to be part of the 'Ringway', the urban motorway that would have turned lots of south London into Leeds. I currently live in noise-pollution distance from one of the sections of it that was built, the (southern) Blackwall approach - though I lived for a couple of years on Coldharbour Lane, and can't say for sure whether it would have been better turned into a freeway or not...

...incidentally that headline is quoting a John Major speech where he condemned council housing - the Grauniad had uncovered the fact that block was built when Major was on the local council. It's much nicer from the other side.

Tim - not an especially sophisticated engagement, but Tony Mulhearn in his very interesting self-hagiography Liverpool - a city that dared to fight cites Alice Coleman and Utopia on Trial. Suspect it was with the best of intentions, but as with Sheffield, the end result was to turn inner districts of once great cities into clones of spec estates in Berkshire. Almost as sad in its own way as the Wilsonian stacked shoeboxes of the late '60s.

1:50 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

...though the one great 'vernacular' estate - Byker - was commissioned by the (very short-lived) Tory council that took control of Newcastle in 1969 in reaction to the blocks built under T Dan Smith. Would that the stuff in Sheffield, Liverpool and Coin Street had a tenth of the ideas in that place.

1:56 am  
Blogger Giovanni said...

This is truly chilling stuff, even from this far remove - you can't really get less gated or secure by design than New Zealand. And when one hears of such madness it's hard not to smugly form the obvious thought that no amount of defensible space technology will protect you from the people who share that space with you, and from being terrified of everybody else. There was an interview with Uma Thurman a while back (can't find the link) in which she articulated those fears rather well, and one can only imagine the kind of protection that she can afford to have installed.

One thing we did get, and I offer it as a possibly amusing curio, was a Tory candidate at a recent by-election in Auckland praising a proposed motorway development on the grounds that it would keep the riff-raff from other, less well-to-do suburbs away from the area.

She came second in the election by a very close 50-something percentage points.

3:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come from Liverpool, and you've hit the nail right on the head. The police's huge influence on the social fabric in general has been pretty horrific (they even dictate what music can be played by bars and clubs here ie. not modern and black). Recent 'regeneration' projects have brought a major 'progrom' against the homeless (I often see vanloads of police - with dogs - ganging up on solitary winos).

As for the urban planning - I moved - due to the lack of affordable housing - over the river to Wirral in an area with all the 'markers' of social deprivation (The shop has a queue of beer-buyers at 8a.m. and I've never seen so many teenage mothers in my life). However, the housing is largely old-fashioned terraces. Unlike Liverpool, it doesn't give off as much of a stench of social division, claustrophobia and paranoia.


10:54 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

In the same book I was posting about, there's stuff on how Liverpool is patrolled by airborne Drones, like those the US army use in Iraq - and that 'Stratford City', the gigantic Mall by the Olympic site, will be patrolled by the same. It's apocalyptic stuff.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

Spot on - gated communities are absolute rubbish. Here are some more horrors:

Quay Close, Nottingham:

Eccles New Road, Salford

5:56 pm  
Anonymous jann said...

reminds me of this chart of suburban forms as they compare to military bases:

3:03 pm  
Blogger Lyndon said...

Funny. I recall seeing a documentary on crime in estates; I got the impression they should be nice, open, and well lit rather than a mess of alleyways on something people can be trapped in.

1:56 am  
Anonymous citybus said...

Can anyone explain the reasoning behind the small windows in the Brixton block? They've tried something similar in East Belfast. The traditional houses only had the end of terrace gable walls facing the dual carriageway. The new street has actually turned the housing 90 degrees round so much more homes border with the road than beofore, albeit with a entirely window free back wall. I don't see the point of it, there's no need to have no windows as drivers going at 50 mph are too distracted by the road to peep at horizontal activities going on behind closed doors. And surely traffic noise can be dealt with easily with quadruple glazed windows should the housing association stump up the cash for them.

1:48 pm  
Anonymous FFS said...

Citybus: as Owen mentioned on the other post, the road that the Brixton block faces was intended to have been converted into a motorway. Not only were the small windows designed to protect the residents from the noise, but the block itself was intended as a noise barrier for the surrounding area; see also the irregular floor articulations and slight inverse setback. Hence its nickname, the Barrier Block. The Belfast housing has a slightly different purpose: the idea is effectively that the housing block itself functions as a "peace wall", breaking up the permeability of the streets. No windows equals no broken windows, but also equals one of the depressing and brutal urban forms possible. There are similar blocks in west and north Belfast too.

2:08 am  
Anonymous citybus said...

I suppose no amount of glazing can deal with blocking out really heavy traffic. Though one of the failings of 60's council flats in my view is small windows when noise isnt an issue. I think at some stage developers abandoned minimum space requirements of previous years, the book 'Tower Block' by Miles Glendinning implies as much. Though it could be that tall buildings naturally get more light anyway so negating the need for big windows?

The new East Belfast housing (Mersey St) I mention isnt on a peaceline so wouldnt be an excuse for the unusual design. The famous 70's noise barrier block on the lower Shankill was built for the westlink dual carriageway. However it was built the wrong way round so had limited noise barrier qualities for the residents whose bedrooms faced out onto the then unbuilt motorway. Some good pics on it here: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?p=28522156&postcount=1379

5:37 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...


Assuming it is the site in Belfast I'm thinking of, and the dual carriageway is the heavily trafficked A2 Sydenham Bypass, surely it is a sensible idea to enclose the northern edge of the redeveloped area with a Byker-like wall of building to reduce noise throughout the whole area not just in the northernmost flats.
The combination of heavy road traffic and the parallel Belfast-Bangor railway line must be pretty unpleasant.

Is there any news on what happened to the planned "iconic" pedestrian bridge across the A2 to re-link Victoria Park with the rest of East Belfast?

9:55 am  
Anonymous citybus said...

The iconic bridge over the Sydenham Bypass is part of the Connswater Community Greenway. That project seems to have been given a blank cheque to do what they want so I think it will probably be built at some stage. There's a map image of it here: http://www.communitygreenway.co.uk/PDFs/SydenhamBypass.pdf

However there's a chance the new greenway and Holywood Arches will be spoiled by what seems to be a pointless new link road to the dual carriageway

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Blogger Lee John said...

So long story but over all it seems interesting.I will discuss it on my blog: http://www.buildingandbeyond.co.nz/builder_auckland.html

8:38 am  
Anonymous reclad auckland said...

It was a nice story and exactly the homes should be safe enough that no one needs to be worry all the times. I agree with the statement of police that: Make my job easier and choose the right builder.

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