“Unpleasant Design” is a stunning book by Gordan Savicic and Selena Savic (@unpleasanting). It’s a collection of different research approaches to the pervasive presence of “defensible space”, i.e. physical features that prevent people from doing certain activities. With contributions by Adam Rothstein, Francesco Morace and Heather Stewart Feldman, Vladan Jeremic, Dan Lockton, Yasmine Abbas, Gilles Paté, Adam Harvey the book is made of various case studies, photographs and essays about these “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities.
Given the relevance of this theme to the “Infra/Extraordinary” column of Ethnography Matters, I took this opportunity to ask the two editors a couple of questions.
EM: I have always been fascinated by the type of anti-design features you describe in the book, collecting examples myself in my travels. Both because it says something about our society and because of the design process behind them. On your side, what made you focus on this?
Unpleasant or anti-design is present all around the globe. We could observe a particularly widespread use of them in Europe. At the time we started this research, we were living between Rotterdam and The Hague and we still think that the Netherlands are at the forefront of applying Unpleasant Design. Unpleasant Design is of course not something that is practised on a national level, but it is very typical of Dutch cities to have strong control over public space and to regulate what can or cannot be done within it. This might have something to do with the weather not permitting a vibrant life on the street, but it also has something to do with the distribution of shared common goods (reflected in the lack of common staircases in buildings, each apartment havin their own street number). So we decided to give it a try, to start collecting and categorising unpleasant applications; hoping that we will arrive at a theory of Unpleasant Design – how is it made, by whom, against what and what does it bring to public space.
EM:If you had to summarize your typology of anti-design features, how would you express it in terms of design as well as purposes?
On our blog, http://unpleasant.pravi.me we collected some typical unpleasant applications which we divided up into devices and objects. Within the devices group, we have light, sound and surveillance devices, while in the objects group we observe static things, such as benches, obstacles, surfaces and tactile objects. Typically, objects from the device group are addressing our basic human senses. This is by no means a final typology. It is a way to orient oneself within a wide variety of Unpleasant Design applications. It is also a way to distinguish Unpleasant Design from unsuccessful or failed design. What is really important in our research is that Unpleasant Design is foremost intentional. It is not a chair gone wrong. It is a chair which should make you get up after 15-20 minutes (in fast-food chains, this was reinforced by the design of uncomfortable seats, to keep up the fluctuation of customers and faster turnovers.)
The second very important thing about Unpleasant Design is that it always has a target audience, a group of people or a behaviour that it aims to discourage. In our research, we discovered it is usually one or all of these: homeless, youngsters, drug addicts (hello target group!). There is a funny metaphor for this in our case study of repellent systems against pigeons, which represent a paradigm for homeless, someone dirty and unwanted in your proximity. It is quite normal not to want to run into drug addicts injecting themselves in a public toilet, but there is something intrinsically mean about installing a blue light to discourage this behaviour. It is also a question of limits – today these three groups are the ones organised targeted by Unpleasant Design. Tomorrow it can be women on high heels, or men wearing a tie or a pair of glasses. Or it can be you.
EM:The resistance strategies you address in the book are also very informative. My best example for this is a pillow used on a very nasty fence in Lima so that people can go from one house to another. In your research, did you encounter this type of reaction? What do you think of them?
This is a great challenge for anyone with a critical mind and affinity for speculative design. So as soon as we identified the unpleasant agenda in urban spaces, we started thinking about ways to subvert it. In many cases, the resistance strategies highlight the very gist of the problem.
Travelling to different cities, we encountered some humorous interventions and adaptations to unfriendly surfaces and objects. We also organised a competition for Unpleasant Designs, asking for both pleasant and unpleasant submissions. Some very good ideas came out of this. There are also artworks that offer fun ways to overcome Unpleasantness which are featured in our book. From strategies addressing people’s basic needs and conditions (like the BAUM Lav’s SI8DO ‘pleasant’ urban furniture for immigrants or Michael Rakowitz’s ParaSITE housing units for homeless) to the more technology oriented interventions (like the CV Dazzle surveillance camouflage by Adam Harvey) they all uncover subtle attempts at conditioning or designing our behaviour in public space.
EM:Who benefit from these? Is there a class of citizen/institution that benefit from these anti-design features?
In the beginning we assumed all unpleasant installations are orchestrated by the city authorities, to secure order and raise the image of the city. For example, one of the most basic and most pervasive cases of Unpleasant Design is a park bench with armrests. When parks and metro stops are redesigned these days, they are equipped with such benches to ensure no one is going to use them as a bed.
After some research, we found that there is a whole other world of applications that are designed for private persons and companies to address unwanted users of space or unwanted behaviour. For example, shopping malls use unpleasant objects and devices to prevent young people from loitering. In some cases, we could argue that their video surveillance systems also begin to discriminate people who are potentially “no-consumers”. Systems equipped with computer vision software can target persons wearing hoodies or look for faces from a database of known criminals. A very popular device used by property owners – both private and commercial – was the infamous “Mosquito”, a buzzing teen deterrent that emits high frequency noise to ensue youngsters under 25 won’t spend too much time in their vicinity. All these examples are described in the essay “Technology Enabled Discrimination” in our book.
Unpleasant Design could also influence property value as an relational parameter on rental prices in the city, for example.
As we can see, both city policy makers, private property owners and citizens benefit to some extent from Unpleasant Design. But the application of these systems is not subject to any global standard for public spaces or human rights legislation. Subsequently, private interest groups start using unpleasant applications to influence the demographics of a place, and they can just do it on their own. What is the human scale of those installations? As a side-effect, by looking for Unpleasant Design we found out that public space is very often semi-privatized.