14 December, 2010

Barriers, barriers everywhere

Fear as an architectural issue

By Thanos Stasinopoulos

Greek version


São Paulo: A wall separates hundreds of shacks from private swimming pools and tennis courts [photo Tuca Vieira]


A characteristic of our times appearing more or less in all countries is the widening rich-poor gap, with crime rise as its expected side-effect. This in turn brings to the limelight a long-standing architectural parameter that had languished during the decades of isotropic social development: security.

In societies where luxury coexists with misery, houses have a common element: railings. Railings in fences, on windows, on porches, on roofs. Rich and poor are barricaded trying to protect what they have and is missing from others, poorer. Thus railings have become a practical indicator of social inequality in a country.


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Houses in Brazil


Economic conditions are certainly not independent of political ones, which also bring railings. A telling example is the American Embassy in Athens, which had been designed by Gropius as a symbol of an open society, inaugurated in 1961 at the beginning of the Kennedy presidency. Time magazine wrote on 15.7.1957 for the public presentation of the design of new building: "... the new U.S. embassy will be open and inviting, with neither walls, fences nor closed façade obstructing the view into the interior court. 'The building will be approachable, and thus democratic,' said Gropius. 'The visitor will not feel the impact of authority, but will enter the building as a free man.'" However, frequent violent protests against U.S. policy led in railings and antitank obstacles 25 years later. Times are changing: the open society is going away, the bars are coming.


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U.S. Embassy in Athens: 1970 & 2010


The impact of insecurity on architecture is not restricted to rails and other building details. Since ancient times, the parameter 'safety' affects the typologies of building forms, and also the layout of settlements. For example, the introverted patio of the traditional house in the Mediterranean and the Middle East was protecting both from the climate and the enemies. In larger scale, hostile threats influenced the formation of many medieval settlements of all sizes, and pirate raids had been a decisive factor in the location of the Aegean villages.

From the old towers of Mani and Yemen to the current apartment blocks and skyscrapers, high-rise buildings with controlled access on the ground floor provide protection against human threats -but not absolute as demonstrated by the Twin Towers. However, the disadvantage of the successive floors is that security is limited to indoor space. To protect outdoor activities too, vertical obstacles on the ground has been the ancient solution, from city walls to fences. Thus a short or long boundary separates those on the 'inside' from those on the 'outside' filtering their contact, as it happens e.g. in prisons, zoos, or the West Bank.

The broad issue of 'Security and Architecture' is not the subject of this article. Here the focus is on the revival of a housing type that had almost vanished in the past century, during the mitigation of political and economic disparities and the prevalence of collective attitudes. In the era of globalization, conditions are different, with new consequences for the formation of built space, verifying that architecture and urbanism exemplify social structures and priorities of their time.

The growing fear that accompanies the current social disintegration revives old-fashion types of urban schemes, such as those seen in medieval towns surrounded by walls or in old villages where houses along the perimeter create a wall. These are the so-called 'gated communities' that spread throughout the world under various names: 'urbanización cerrada', 'geschlossene Wohnanlage', 'condomínios fechados'.

In the book 'Fortress America - Gated Communities in the United States' of E. J. Blakely & M. G. Snyder [ISBN 0815710038], the term 'gated communities' is described as follows: "They are security developments with designated perimeters, usually walls or fences, and controlled entrances that are intended to prevent penetration by non-residents".

The same authors note in an article: "Gated communities physically restrict access so that normally public spaces are privatized. They differ from apartment buildings with guards or doormen, which exclude public access to the private space of lobbies and hallways. Instead, gated communities exclude people from traditionally public areas like sidewalks and streets".

In the book, gated communities fall into three categories: First are the Lifestyle communities, where the gates protect recreational activities inside. These include housing e.g. for wealthy retirees and luxurious leisure facilities. Second is the Prestige communities, which do not have the amenities of the foregoing, but the gates are symbols of prosperity. Both types are built from construction companies, mostly in the suburbs. The third category is the Security Zone, where the most common incentives are the problems of crime and traffic and the fear of strangers. In these cases, it is the local people, not companies, that install gates and fences in previously open neighborhoods.

Describing the social and psychological aspects of that new trend, the book raises some crucial questions like: "When public services and even local government are privatized, when the community of responsibility stops at the subdivision gates, what happens to the function and the very idea of a social and political democracy?"

It seems that it is a rampant trend. In the U.S., in 1985 gated communities were few; in 1999 they contained about 3 million homes; and in 2002 they had reached 7 million, or 6% of all households in the country. Moreover, it is a trend that spreads worldwide, from Mexico to China. As a rule, it is about the self-protection of the rich from the threats of the poor, therefore they appear particularly in countries with low human development index and / or income inequality, such as Latin America. In the European area the examples are limited mainly to Russia and Britain, but have begun to emerge even in countries of high social cohesion, such as Germany and Sweden.

In Greece, apart from the fenced tourist resorts -which anyway do not offer permanent residence- is not common to see such 'residential forts' with walls, guards, and cameras. But as the effects of wealth distribution from the poor to the rich intensify, and as the elites are prone to imitate the status symbols of the West, the new urban fashion will not take long to spread here too, meeting the requirements of a clientele that knows no crisis and wants to remain so. Ghetto-ization has no class boundaries, and it can be by choice too.

Perhaps such example will be the "luxury homes" in "the most expensive suburb of Athens" which is being methodically and persistently promoted in the prized area of old Athens airport. But this is a complex and serious issue deserving another article.


Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
Dr. Architect Engineer NTUA, AAGradDipl.

 A gated community in Attica?


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