One of the reasons why I like speculative archaeology, or hypothetical archaeologies created in the future of our present, is that is allows us to look at current issues from a different perspective. In particular, I enjoy speculating on how specific iconography and design choices might be interpreted – for many of us, one of the first archaeological exercises you do in college is to speculate how a coin would be seen by future archaeologists, and I guess I never outgrew that. Let’s move beyond the fanciful interpretation of how George Washington’s face on the quarter could be seen as worship and idolatry (actually, there’s something there…), and move towards something perhaps more urgent: hostile architecture and design.
Recently, the MTA in New York City was justifiably put on the spot for its blunt stance against unhoused people, which was exacerbated by the unveiling of more benches designed to deter people from hanging around too long – again, something which will disproportionately affect unhoused people. This got me thinking about the hostile architecture and what it encapsulates about our current world. “Hostile architecture” refers to specific design features made to deter people from staying too long in public spaces. This includes incorporating spikes on flat surfaces, placing seats at uncomfortable angles, and including dividers to prevent people from laying down. Hostile architecture and design removes comfort and rest from public spaces, and often funnels those needs into commodities (Kim 2019) – if hostile architecture makes sitting for free in a courtyard an impossibility, would you then turn to being a customer of a nearby café just to sit down and relax? And again, these design choices disproportionately affect certain groups of people: disabled people, unhoused people, and poor people.
It is easy to imagine the sort of interpretations that future archaeologists will make of the more overtly hostile architecture – both designed to repel people, one can see how spikes on a windowsill in New York City can evoke the imagery of defensive systems used in the historic and prehistoric past, from sticks and stones which were used as Iron Age chevaux-de-frise (Murphy 2018) to the stockades often used by colonial forces during military expeditions (Jayasena 2006). Hostile architecture also inspires its own adjacent archaeologies as well, with people creating their own spaces in response to this antagonism. Here, we can actually turn to work being done alongside communities of unhoused peoples, as archaeologists such as Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield in the United Kingdom, and Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch in the United States have demonstrated with their research (e.g. Kiddey and Schofield 2011, Zimmerman and Welch 2011).
Of course, it should be said that hostile architecture shouldn’t need this sort of roundabout form of reflection to be seen as “bad”, and that choosing to divest from these antagonistic designs should be based on empathy and respect for people regardless of their circumstance, rather than the imagined judgements of a far future archaeologist. Fortunately, there are many who continue to speak out against hostile architecture and protest there use – this includes people who have also taken things into their own hands and have removed these features themselves (Suliman 2018). And maybe this is where archaeology can step in…after all, I’m pretty sure many of us have a mattock or two to spare.
Hostile Architecture found on a Manhattan windowsill (Photo Credit: JL Jahn/Alamy)
To end this post, I’d like to promote some groups and organisations who are doing good work at providing mutual aid for unhoused people in the UK and the US. Please consider donating, and remember that unhoused people are also part of your communities, and deserve the same respect, dignity, and care that everyone else receives.
Remora House DC – Washington DC, United States
From the Heart PNW – Seattle, WA, United States
Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid – Dallas, TX, United States
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless – Chicago, IL, United States
Coalition on Homelessness – San Francisco, CA, United States
National Coalition for the Homeless – United States
Museum of Homelessness – United Kingdom
NRPF Network – United Kingdom
Homeless Network Scotland – Scotland
Jayasena, R.J. (2006) The Historical Archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company Fort in Sri Lanka. Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(1). pp. 111-128.
Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J. (2011) Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1). pp. 4-22.
Kim, E. (2019) A Field Guide to the ‘Weapons’ of Hostile Architecture in NYC. The Gothamist. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/a-field-guide-to-the-weapons-of-hostile-architecture-in-nyc
Murphy, K. (2018) The Atlantic Coast. Internet Archaeology 48.
Suliman, A. (2018) Public Hits Back at ‘Hostile Architecture’ in European Cities. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-cities-homelessness-idUSKCN1M419S
Zimmerman, L.J., and Welch, J. (2011) Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1), pp. 67-85.
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