Space Not Spikes – Interview
by Ana Marta Laranjeira
Most of us will probably remember the sprouting of the so called “Anti-Homeless Spikes” in London. This past summer, a group of activists decided to take action against it by turning these objects – originally meant to bluntly push people away – into something as welcoming as a bed. Latitude Lookout got to talking with the people behind this project, not only about this particular deed but also the bigger picture surrounding this kind of urban architecture.
How did this project begin?
So-called ‘defensive’ architecture was an issue for us some years ago when a number of us were part of another art collective that addressed public and private space. Then one day, when coming out of a supermarket in central London, I overheard some women in their sixties or seventies who were laden with shopping complain that they couldn’t sit on a ledge because of all the spikes on it. A person who later said he was homeless [though he didn’t ‘look’ it] called them anti-homeless spikes and said they were put there to stop people like him from sleeping there.
And so the seed was laid for an idea to play on the notion of bed….to counteract the bed of spikes with an actual bed. It developed into a bed and library pretty organically and when we came into a bit of money to make it happen, the rest of the gang chipped in the time etc.
These spikes are quite a flagrant example of defensive architecture but most certainly not an isolated case. What exactly is “defensive architecture” and how does it affect our society in general?
Defensive architecture and design initiatives are more and more a common part of the urban environment. Back in the 1980 and 90s Mike Kelly called it ‘strategic armouring’, most often directed at the poor and the homeless. They seek to exclude people from public space. This kind of architecture is much more a part of our everyday urban life than it was 30 years ago. Slanted or divided benches in bus shelters and in public space, the removal of benches in public spaces, surveillance, metal studs on outdoor surfaces, anti-climbing paint, barricades and bollards in front of buildings and spikes in front of doors are all examples of this kind of hostile architecture. They are used to make sitting, sleeping, and moving in particular ways impossible. Poor doors are another example. Essentially they police social and spatial boundaries and send a very clear message that public space and the urban environment is not for everyone. This does nothing to address the social inequalities of the city; in fact it only helps to reaffirm them by separating out those who have from those who don’t. Making the city ‘safe’ for those who can afford it at the expense of other human beings ability to be in the city is not the sign of a humane or vibrant space.
Over the past few years, there has been an ongoing debate on gentrification. Yet, it seems that, at times, people tend to dismiss it. How seriously should we take this matter?
Gentrification that does not benefit existing residents, and indeed helps to push them out of their homes and neighbourhoods, is a serious problem for London and other urban centres. Entire parts of London are being economically and socially cleansed. We see that happening most ardently in Brixton right now with, for example, threats to close the arches and the planned demolition of Cressingham Gardens. The destruction of council estates (i.e. Heygate and Aylesbury) are a form of ‘creative destruction’, embroiled in a process of capital speculation and circulation, with the very real consequences of forced mobility on communities and the transformation of spaces into desirable places for global elites. Property developers and the state are destroying the city, hollowing out any difference and helping to make the social life of the city homogenous by making the reality of living in it unaffordable for most and impossible for many.
Do you feel there are some misconceptions regarding the homeless population?
Absolutely. And the one thing detractors of the homeless forget is that because we are all in precarious positions in life, homelessness could happen to any of us. We just don’t realise that we are all living on a knife’s edge when we are living under a system that can only survive through the exploitation of many for the benefit of the few.
What needs to be done in order to efficiently tackle the issue of the rising number of rough sleepers*?
That is a question that might be best answered by organizations and individuals who have been doing work on rough sleeping and homelessness. Jon May has also been doing some important work on this, including the Homeless Places Project. That being said, rent control and the protection and building of council housing throughout the city would definitely help to address the rising number of people who find themselves without shelter.
What was the importance of, not only covering the spikes with a bed, but also setting a bookshelf? Was there any criteria on the selection of the books?
As mentioned earlier, it’s a play on the word “bed”…replacing one unpleasant bed with one that is more useable and inviting. The bookshelf came in to help contextualise the bed…to not only give the space a further practical use but to highlight the issues we are addressing…. The books were chosen in accordance to theme – gentrification, the abuse of the arts as a wedge by commercial developers, housing, privatisation, poverty….all the reasons why things like anti-homeless spikes were invented and used in the first place – as a means to repel and exclude certain members of society that do not fit one’s aspirational ideas for what a community should be…. It is a counter to the false and unkind notion that exclusive is better than inclusive.
Are there any plans for the future of this project?
Yes. We aim to install more beds in strategic places throughout the city. We also want to engage with planners, landlords and architects to find out the rationale for installing hostile architecture. Our aim is to make these spikes unlawful.
Do you believe people are aware of their power to engender change?
For more on this project make sure to check the Anti Anti-Homeless Spikes blog.