Image courtesy of Topographies of Defense
Image courtesy of Topographies of Defense
December 18, 2015

Eager Grant Winners: Topographies of Defense

A bus stop bench intended for momentary rest, or the metal spikes installed under a bridge to deter the homeless, are prime examples of the subtle and overt ways design controls public space and those who use it. Defensive architecture, also known as hostile architecture, is a realm of urban design that, as Guardian journalist Alex Andreou describes, “aggressively rejects soft, human bodies.”

Topographies of Defense, an Eager Grant 2015-2016 awardee, is a collaborative project which aims to assess how defensive architecture manifests in Chicago. The group comprises of Frances Lightbound, Michael Rado, both second year printmedia MFA students, and Louis Kishfy, a MDes student in Designed Objects, and is supervised by Art History Professor Shiben Banerji. Lightbound briefly summarized the group’s aims: “Our interest in defensive architecture is two-pronged. We’re thinking about the motivations behind the spaces that are created, and also the ways these spaces are perceived by people.”

Delving into the highly controlled urban landscape of Chicago, the evidence of defensive architecture was not immediately obvious. “We’ve been talking a lot about how these things don’t prohibit use all together, but encourage a certain sanctioned use by a particular group of people whilst excluding others or prohibiting other use,” elaborated Lightbound. Issues of class are most pertinent in the design of public spaces. Rado cited the newly opened Riverwalk, and the neighborhood of West Loop as examples of “mediated public space, like very sleek benches that are designed only for one body, not large enough to sleep or sit on.”

In the coming months, the group plans to launch an online platform that will collate crowdsourced photographic submissions of defensive architecture in the city. “The beauty of mobile phones is that they automatically geotag the photos and the status is embedded in them. It can allow us to create a visual scenario of the concentrations in Chicago,” Rado explains. In addition to photographs, the platform will also host short essays to generate discussion among its users.

Next semester, Topographies of Defense will organize a roundtable panel discussion, to facilitate a shift in dialogue from blogs and academic forums to the public. In drawing attention to these urban spaces, greater questions around design ethics for designers and city authorities will come to the fore.