Hostile Architecture

For somebody who hates to describe things in her writing, I’m a big fan of setting. I think of setting as another character, as context that changes the conflict in a scene, as barriers and enablers, as a huge carrier of theme, so I keep Pinterest boards of pictures I find that evoke setting in the same way that I keep pictures of people that evoke character. That is, just as I’ll have multiple placeholders for a single character because I’m trying to evoke a mood/personality instead of the way somebody actually looks, I’ll have multiple pictures of different places to represent the same setting because I want to evoke what it feels like to be there.

Which brings us to hostile architecture.

Atlas Obscura has this great piece on designing urban spaces to be hostile to the homeless, to addicts, to teens, to anybody else they want to say “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” (This always evokes Hot Fuzz for me, all those privileged sociopaths intoning “for the greater good.”) I tripped on the article because I saw this picture of a fence in the teaser for it:

That’s the fence that’s around Dark House when Zo and Gleep see it in the first scene of “Zo White and the Five Orphants,” the first story in Paradise Park. I knew I wanted something bleak and dark and hostile, but until I saw this vicious piece of boundary iron, I had no idea how awful it could be. I like the “hostile architecture” tag because it sells the way I look at setting: you see that fence and you know the people inside it are just mean sons of a bitches, afraid of the outside world getting in, close-minded and hostile, so you make sure your characters are on the outside of it and need to get in. Setting as barrier, setting as character (for Randolph who owns the house and put up the fence), setting as mood, and setting as theme, a story about outsiders who are trapped by the architecture not only of the lethal house but by the architecture of society, homeless orphans rejected for being too different. That fence as setting sums it all up for me.

It also reminds me of one of the best bits of setting as antagonist, conflict enhancer, mood builder, and theme that I’ve ever read, the house from The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson was a viciously good writer, and her description of a house built so that every wall was just a fraction off plumb so that no room ever felt right, not only meant there was a permanent sense of unease in the book, but that there was never a safe place to stand in the architecture and in the story. The house in that case was literally hostile, but it was the physical description that sold it and still makes the story impossible for me to read at night. (I read it when I was about twelve, in bright daylight with my best friend reading it beside me while we held hands, it was that damn scary. Haven’t read it since but I think maybe I might go back to it when I can see clearly enough to read again. It’s great fiction, but it’ll scare the hell out of you.)

Of course some of the best bits of hostile design come from the movies, like this hallway that looks like monster’s teeth from Crimson Peak:

Gothics are always going to be goldmines for hostile architecture, but I like even more the subtle stuff, like Hill House’s walls being not quite right, or like some of the benches that look so lovely but are designed to be too uncomfortable for the homeless to sleep on:

Because the key to really effective hostility is when it’s cloaked. Archtecture that says, “I’m going to tear you apart” is fun to look at because you see the threat. It’s those walls one degree off center, that beautiful curved bench that’s too narrow to fall asleep on, the amusement park that’s supposed to be for kids but looks vaguely creepy . . . that’s where hostility in setting is really effective.

I’m really fixated on this right now. Anybody else have some good examples of hostile architecture, overt or subtle, in story setting?

57 thoughts on “Hostile Architecture

  1. Of course the big reference point for this kind of stuff is Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” where the house is a character like the brother and sister, and may be considered to be the main character from a point of view. H. P. Lovecraft also mined this idea a lot, though some of his alleged tropes like “acute angles that look obtuse” weren’t in his original manuscripts and may have been added by editors enamoured with purple prose. Ellery Queen’s book, The Player on the Other Side, also has a striking architectural layout that works both as a factor in the mystery and also as a ward against most folks.

    1. Oh, wow, it’s been years since I read Ellery Queen. Must go look that up.

      That whole thing with the front of the Usher house looking like a face, and then burying his sister in the basement/subconscious . . . I remember teaching that. And I just realized it’s basically the dynamic of Crimson Peak, too. Gothic protagonists, they like their sisters.

  2. Mike Davis’s Book on Los Angeles, City of Quartz, has an awesome chapter on hostile architecture called Fortress L.A. I read it as a young college student and it made a deep impression on me. It’s a scathing critique of public architecture that demeans and dehumanizes.

  3. I once had an interesting conversation about making your house less attractive to burglars by planting shrubs with large thorns under the windows. (I recommended the flowering quince.) While it isn’t architecture, it is environment.

    The other thing I thought of is more interior design. Paint color, light, windows (or the lack thereof), can change how a place feels – and how you feel in the place.

    1. I was thinking environment too.

      And also how intention and using elements at odds with those intentions can be creepy. Two specific examples came to mind as I was reading Jenny’s post:

      1) I went to the zoo on an unseasonably warm winter holiday weekend once. Unseasonably warm, but the place was still almost deserted. All the plantings were brown, there was an empty monorail gliding past….it was really creepy and I even said to my companion, “This would be a great setting.”

      The other example? Empty churches, esp at weird times of day. I worked in the church (pastor) so I was there for reasons, but the space itself – meant for community and celebrations, candles and singing? – was not meant for one person moving furniture or doing other lone activities. They often felt eerie to me even I was there alone. (Sometimes comforting, but always….off, somehow.) This is more number of people than time of day, I think, because alienating the night with a group for an activity was fine, but sleeping in one alone was very weird.

      When being used “properly,” these were good, positive spaces. When being used not quite as intended….very disquieting.

      1. Yes, any time I go into my church when it’s empty I have to shake myself and tell myself I’m there for legitimate reasons. It never feels like I am.

      2. That’s interesting. I was raised Catholic but am not religious now. Nonetheless, I quite like being alone in a church. It’s peaceful, like the peace is soaked into the walls and floor and you breathe it in, in a way that’s lost when it’s full of people. Although that could be because if I’m in a full church these days, it’s likely to be a funeral!

      3. I’m not religious, but I like going into churches and feeling the atmosphere. Some of them are wonderful places to soak up some peace and spirituality. I don’t think it’s related to their age (I’m in Europe, so lots of very old churches). My most striking experience was going to a meeting about sustainable community in the local Friends (Quaker) Meeting House. It was a perfectly ordinary, plain room – I’d guess 1920s – but the atmosphere of peace inside it was so thick it was like wading through honey.

  4. There is a really interesting article about how some of the US cities were designed to be antagonistic to various races – the bridges along the routes to their neighbourhoods were built lower than required height for bus clearance. So buses from those neighbourhoods couldn’t travel into those cities, making job seeking a very difficult task.

    I wish I could find the article. Was recently via twitter.

    For us the effect of apartheid architecture, landscaping and city design is too complex to be quantified. Freeways designed to prevent people from ever needing to travel through alternate race group areas. “Group Areas” is a valid apartheid term as it was the “Group Areas Act” that legislated separate living.

    More later. Dinner time.

    1. The biography of Robert Moses talks about how he transformed New York in order to divide the city and keep poor people in their place. For example, building overpasses that were too low for buses to drive under. I think it’s called Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

      1. Even more subtle: the pattern of using “Public/Private Partnerships” to turn freeways into toll roads under the pretense of repairing and/or expanding them. If you can’t afford to pay the tolls, it’s going to take you quite a bit longer to get around the city.

        1. Argh! I can’t believe how these people think! Psychopaths designing cities. Now that you mention it, of course it happens, and it’s only going to happen more now, but…mind blown.

          On a lighter note, has anyone read Sparkle Hayter? I knew I would love her because her heroine, Robin Hudson has her own security system, including growing poison ivy in her window boxes on the Lower East Side.

          1. Hi I have read Sparkle, quite a few years ago. I will have to reread. Thanks for reminding me about her, L think she is a Canadian author (eh) which is why I would read her.

        2. You read about vile people in power like this and think nobody could be that cruel and bigoted. And then . . .
          I remember John Rogers of Leverage saying that people would complain that their antagonists were cartoon villains, and every single one of them was based on a real corporate crime.

      2. Yes! That’s it. Everytime I watch Batman Begins I think of The Narrows as analogous (sp?) to that type of city design.

    1. Yep. I’m reserving judgment since Gaiman’s adaptations are hit and miss for me, but I have high hopes.

  5. When the RWA conference was held in the Westin Hotel in downtown Detroit in 1984–the towers are now General Motors headquarters, so I have no idea whether this is still applicable–it took me a couple of days to figure out that despite the very open appearance of the ground floor, a series of interior fountains and decorative waterways were cleverly designed so that they actually constituted a moat that prevented any access except through the severely restricted hotel entrance. (There were shops and cafes around the perimeter of the towers, open to the public, but customers from outside still could not get into the hotel proper.) Of course, this was the hotel that had armed guards in the restrooms–someone said there’d been a stabbing a few days before–so presumably all that security did serve a purpose.

  6. So people have recently started looking at public health and architecture. For example, if your stairways are a gorgeous centerpiece, more people will take the stairs. If it’s back in a corner and dark, more people take the elevator. Basically, does this building encourage movement, clean air, and exposure to sunlight and green things? One study found humans are waaaay calmer if we can see green things outside from our desks. Which in turn leads to less stress related disease.

    Architecture is an expression of the people who picked it and built it, but it can also change the physical and mental health of the people who end up living in it.

  7. I have been reading the “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” series by Jodi Taylor, which is about a group of historians who “investigate historical events in contemporary time”. Their headquarters has all they need in order to accomplish their jobs. But when things go WAY bad on them, the building, St. Mary’s, is part of the casualties. Some characters die, some are injured. St’ Mary’s is injured as well. This comfy, homey place which has provided for their needs is broken. Dust in the air, wood splintered, windows broken and blind. It is really beautiful writing.

  8. Thank you for this post. Have always believed setting to be a character too. Hostile architecture. Love it. Once gave a workshop about setting being a character.

    I read “Dragonwyck” by Anya Seton which I found in my aunt’s bookcase, I was 12 or 13. Still remember the architecture of the house. Vincent Price started in the old black and white movie.

    “I think of setting as another character as context that changes the context in the scene…” Thank you Jenny!

  9. Oh, I forgot a wonderful non-fiction, A Burgler’s Guide to the City, by Jeff Manaugh. In it he goes into detail about the way we put together buildings and how they enable or confound thieves.

    1. I loved that book! I got it in the middle of a Leverage binge because I wanted to think about cities more like Parker does. It didn’t actually help that goal, but it definitely helped think differently about buildings and the built environment.

      If you do podcasts, there is a series called 99 percent invisible – Roman Mars narrates a lot of them, and they look at design of everyday things, the design of history, trying to design for an unknown future… the title comes from the saying that the best designs are 99 percent invisible. There are themes running through all the podcasts, but there is an entire subset about buildings, and how they do and don’t work.

  10. Ellery Queen also wrote a short story called “The Lamp of God” where the setting was really important, but I’m not sure it stood out to me as a character.

    1. (-: I was scrolling down to see who would say this. Yes, that yellow wallpaper was nasty! (And Jenny recommended it as reading on the blog, I believe. The last time I looked for it, it was still on the internet and freely accessible.) Worst interior decoration ever, made even more horrible by one’s interior life.

      Jenny, you have so many great examples of emotional architecture in your canon. The lovely house, falling apart because of the crazy ex- in Crazy For You. And the pyramid/ziggeraut in Dogs and Goddesses.

      Lois McMaster Bujold described an ancestral fortress of Lord Dono (nee Lady Donna), complete with boiling oil holes and spikes (IIRC — I may have embellished things in my own imagination), and this description contrasted with the light and airy modern fortress of the Vorbrettens, as well as the economical and relatively cheap apartment of one of the Counts whose ancestors consistently chose the losing sides of the various civil wars in that century.

      As far as real-life hostile architecture, some variation on the Cosmos Mystery Area in South Dakota would be pretty disturbing. Nothing plumb, and the floors were built with optical illusions in mind, so something that looked downhill would actually send a ball rolling “up”. The buildings were all done in weathered grey wood, unpainted. (Something about peeling paint is just hostile in so many ways — lead poisoning is just one of many issues that spring to mind, and also neglect.)

      Funhouses are only fun to a certain extent, too. Mirrors are something I find to be particularly creepy — especially if they are positioned (fictionally) so that they are in an entry, and you don’t realize that sudden movement you see in the half-dark is just you in a mirror.

      I’ll just mention one more things. Green walls that smelled of boiled cabbage. I read that description somewhere, and it just haunts me (even though I don’t find boiled cabbage to be all that terrible, the evocation of it is just awful). I can’t even remember what kind of institution it was. Probably mental. Paint jobs and ancient smells can be incredibly triggering.

      1. There’s also the house in Getting Rid of Bradley. And Agnes’s house.

        For some reason I’ve been thinking about Jenny and the houses in her books a lot lately.

  11. Timely post. Finished last night on my reread of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels her “Borrower of the Night,” a gothic set in postwar Germany. Schloss Drachenstein is definitely a character, decrepit and malevolent. So many of EP/BM settings had overt creepy character.

  12. This is an amazing post and conversation.

    I find as a reader that lack of setting or misuse of setting alone keeps me from getting into a story. I find as a writer that figuring out what to provide in the way of setting is incredibly hard.

    And the key, of course, isn’t the number of words spent on architecture or its psychological effect. I recently reread Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael and was amazed at how much the themes and characters were reinforced by the setting (for example, Stewart kept returning to a cascading grove of olive trees that had perhaps five meanings). Also, I reread Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring and discovered that that author didn’t use a ton of description — just the right bits. I had mistakenly thought Heyer engulfed her reader in her make-believe worlds. Finally, the Goodnight’s shop sign, the dock and (to me) mysterious waterway, and the million-steps apartment access in Faking It, Welcome to Temptation, and Bet Me are brilliant pieces of setting.

  13. Haunting of Hill House…. brrrr! I read it as a teenager, not in the daylight, holding a friend’s hand (are you sure it was HER hand, Jenny?) but late at night while babysitting. I found it on the shelves and indulged. About a year later, babysitting for the same family, I watched the movie on TV. Double brrrr!

    I never forgot the bit about how how all the corners were off square.

    1. (You knew this was going to get music involved in some way, didn’t you, at least coming from me) In recording studios built from the ground up it’s common to find non-square corners from the 50 difference between the walls in recording rooms. This is to prevent standing waves in the room — parallel wallsrun the risk of this problem. It’s also why Jimi Hendrix specified some round recording rooms in Electric Lady Studios in New York. (Hallucinogens might also have been a contributing factor) Recording studios tend to be somewhat unnatural environments, which contributes to the disconnected feeling for some folks when working in them, and the concept of a “studio tan” that experienced musicians speak about after spending a decent amount of time in them. Social Facilitation/Inhibition also factors in someone getting comfortable with a space, which leads us to a discussion of how Oprah first met Dr. Phil. (do a search on the company Courtroom Strategies)

  14. I don’t have a picture, but in the Middle Ages (and earlier) castles were often built with stairs of unequal heights and widths. The idea was that people who lived in the castle would be used to them and would be able to take the stairs at speed where as invaders would trip.

  15. Hostile architecture: any school that has no windows. Seriously. Who thought this was a good idea?

    Landscape architects have learned that if they have chairs placed in a setting, however purposefully, they will be moved. Even if only fractions of an inch.

    People want ownership of the physical space they inhabit. Moving something, makes it theirs.

    I learned this in the high school library. Allow people to move chairs; it makes them happier.

    Many of the Gaudi buildings, despite their curves and colours, seem so chaotic they feel hostile to me.

    Airport benches are the worst. Designed to ensure people can’t sleep on them.

    Playing classical music or using the high pitched sounds only teenagers can hear is another way of getting rid of “undesirables.” Apparently, this is done around local teen hangouts. It’s not architecture exactly, but it’s got the same effect.

    1. OMG, so that’s why I didn’t feel a need to rearrange the furniture at all when I had my own apartment, but do it fairly frequently when I’m sharing space. Thank you!!

  16. Two buildings in Paris: Paris VII Jussieu – designed to keep students from mounting effective protests – moat, barriers that rise from the ground, nothing but towers at ground level – you have to go into the tower, then up stairs/elevator to get to the offices, all of which can be barricaded and cleared with water cannon.

    The South African Embassy looks menacing, glowers at the viewer. There used to be an embassy on the left bank, near Invalides, that was surrounded by tall spikes that looked perfect for mounting heads as a warning.

  17. I love the paint colors in Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close.
    They’re called names like Despair and – well now I can’t remember the names, but they made me laugh when I read them, they gave great insight into the MC (that she recognized the paint colors a man used in his house) and there’s a twist at the end that makes it all come together.
    But mostly I loved it because it made me laugh and see the room and know the character all at the same time.

  18. James Howard Kunstler’s “Eyesore of the Month” feature ( alternates between examples of mundanely hostile architecture (i.e., the blank walls school mentioned above) and ridiculously hostile architecture.

    How does motivation fit into hostile architecture? Elements like un-lie-able benches, un-sittable ledges, and the fence you showed are all clearly stating “go away”– I always feel like the creators and commissioners of the places Kunstler highlights are going to be terribly offended if they realize they’ve ended up on his site, but they’re hostile places all the same.

  19. Furniture can be (unintentionally, I hope) hostile too. I lived with a man who really wanted a bedstead from a certain high end store. One that he could afford when it went on sale, and that he liked in the picture, turned out to be so textured that it would scratch the thin skin on the back of my hand — to the point of sometimes bleeding — any time I tried to make the bed with fresh sheets. It also caught on any kind of fuzzy clothing (especially sweaters) and pulled the threads, so that I had to be careful in my bad habit of draping what I’d been wearing over the footboard (or whatever is at the opposite end from the headboard) if I thought I might wear it again before washing it. He said it never scratched his skin, and he hated that habit of mine — untidily leaving clothes out instead of putting them either in a laundry hamper or back in the bureau.

    Now that I think about it in relation to your work, it seems like the kind of thing Linc in The Cinderella Deal might have owned — admittedly not particularly modern, but sort of harshly masculine and expensive.

  20. Last year I read “A Pattern Language,” which is supposedly one of the foundation texts for architecture students, except what people build bears no resemblance to what the writers talk about, so.

    I was completely surprised by what a communalist utopia the writers had in mind – how to create built environments that welcome humans, facilitate human interaction with nature, minimize isolation and traffic, etc.

    The book is frighteningly huge but is broken into very short chapters. I read a couple of chapters a night for a couple of months. It starts with macro environments – whole city design – and winnows down to private homes.

    Anyway, it was very illuminating in its theory of why a built environment is, or is not, welcoming.


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