In architecture, what you exclude is often just as important as what you build. That becomes abundantly clear in the wonderful new compendium of techniques to keep things and especially people out, The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion (Actar Publishers, 2017), by the New York City–based Interboro (Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore, AIA). The book is a dictionary of terms for arranging space and access to space through legal and financial means. These range from zoning and redlining to classical music—piped into convenience store parking lots to deter loiterers—and skywalks, which keep shoppers and office workers safe from the elements and panhandlers. The Arsenal is also a guide to modes of resistance, and thus an implied manifesto about how we can address architecture’s complicity with social exclusion. The book is as important for architects to have on their desks as any building code—whose mechanisms it reveals along the way.
Though many of the techniques you can find in the book are familiar, some of them are slightly more obscure. For instance, I knew that cul-de-sacs were developed to control suburban space by offering no outlet and a place that watchful eyes from kitchens could control. Interboro shows how some communities have gone further by converting street grids that once ran continuously into exclusionary zones by such simple means by making them one way, planting hedges or bollards in the name of beautification and traffic control, or creating restricted parking zones. I also knew that mandating large fire trucks, even in suburban communities, makes dense housing and human-scaled streets difficult to achieve, but I did not know that some communities use sirens as a way to ward of strangers.
The authors also point out what should be obvious but that we might overlook. Thus, building elements we take for granted, such as elevators, help to segregate social classes: The rich can remove themselves ever further from the more-or-less democratic street in their luxury apartments, and office workers can differentiate themselves from factory workers stuck in vast assembly halls.
What good does pointing out these facts do? In the introduction, the authors write: “We study history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past but also to denaturalize and expose the constructedness of the present. First and foremost, then, we hope that this book will help us understand that things like segregation and spatial injustice aren’t the product of invisible, uncontrollable market forces, but of human-made tools that could have been used differently (or not at all).”
While I love Interboro’s book, I do wonder how effective such a study is without offering either a deeper analysis of the root causes of the situation or providing more concrete tools that will help us be more inclusionary. The most encouraging thing the authors can say on the topic is that “the linkages between housing affordability, access to the city, and displacement are being widely discussed today.” That does not seem to be much solace.
It would be interesting to put this analysis of current, and mainly American, techniques in the context of the very foundational philosophy of architecture as it is currently practiced. Architecture is, in its essence, a defensive and exclusionary endeavor. We build to keep the rain, the snow, the sun, and others out. Our buildings turn property into three-dimensional facts. Every use we accommodate excludes others. The whole notion of architecture as the construction of solid and stand-alone buildings that are commissioned by those with the means to do so means that they are places that fix the power of the social, political, and economic elite in place. All that architects can do is to fight a rear-guard action by trying to find ways to open up the designs they make so that they include rather than exclude, or otherwise ameliorate the fact of exclusion so fundamental to architecture.
Interboro’s analysis is at its best when it shows the hidden forces at work in shaping our built environment. By listing specifically what laws, regulations, and techniques have been used to create spatial separation between the haves and the have-nots—from the zoning regulations to the poor doors in New York’s residential skyscrapers—they allow us, as promised, to be more concrete in our understanding of the landscape in which architects operate. It is one shaped by such policies, but also by architects’ acceptance of those regulations and biases and their ability to turn them into built form. For every attempt to design decent public housing, which itself warehouses the poor, there are many more examples of giving developers a way to let the wealthy not experience the other half through those poor doors.
The Arsenal is also subtle enough to make it clear that there are techniques that include, as the title promises. These range from such simple steps as putting not just curb cuts, but the nubs that warn people in wheelchairs of the edge of pavements, to the ways in which non-architects appropriate elements meant for exclusion, such as lawns and fences, for garage sales, community spaces, or artworks. These forms of spatial resistance are, however, overwhelmed by all the ways we keep out.
I hope that Interboro follows up this book, itself the result of 10 years of research and analysis, with one that catalogs more techniques of subversion, trespassing, and appropriation. I hope that volume will show how we could not only train architects in such techniques, but also rethink the discipline on a more fundamental level to focus on creating open, changeable, and non-fixed spaces that invite and frame social interaction. We need to learn how to design not to keep out and make mine, but to invite in and make ours.