Journal of History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

History of Design and Curatorial Studies
Parsons School of Design
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


Form Follows Hostility: Defensive Architecture, Modernist Design, and the Exclusivity of Public Space

Barbara Kasomenakis

Fig.1 Yoav Liberman. 2020. 86th street subway station leaning bars. April 9, 2020. Photograph.

Anti-homeless architecture, also known as defensive design or hostile architecture, is a bandage solution to exclude and ultimately physically punish those left out of mainstream society. From sloped window sills, curved benches, intermittently activated water sprinklers, anti-encampment spikes, and more, hostile architecture is cruel, inhumane, and intentionally designed to exclude and harass. It is a tactic of corporate hygiene and exposes how cruelty is considered, designed, funded, and actualized by those with power and authority. New York City (NYC) is no stranger to this type of architecture and design. This paper aims to identify and analyze the connections between neoliberal policies and modernist design apparent in hostile architecture throughout New York City. Through analyzing these design and political relationships, we will be able to identify spatial patterns of hostile design and question who this city is meant for, if not its inhabitants. First, we will contextualize this paper by asking, in light of a post-WWII re-evaluation of what constituted a lively cityscape, how did defensive architecture come into being, and how does it currently impact the city? We will then be introduced to post-WWII modernist design aesthetics. There, we will examine the linkage between 1950s corporatism and modernism to understand how clean and functional design is still used as a hallmark of “good design” and shapes current examples of hostile architecture as “the discomfort of [hostile architecture] is sometimes disguised by [its] gentility”.1 Wider-reaching questions will also be considered, such as: How do modernist aesthetics distract from larger questions of exclusivity? How do we re-imagine public space to create more inclusive spaces for unhoused populations and populations at large? 

Post-WWII Revaluation of Architecture, Modernism, and Anomie

Modernist design and its association with social progressivism and functionalism was part of the increasing dominance of American business domestically and internationally. To trace the specific modernist design principles of clean lines and minimal ornamentation, we must first understand how defensive architecture came into being in the wake of a post-WWII re-evaluation of what constituted a lively cityscape. 

The years after WWII saw The United States in a victorious position. The country was left relatively unscathed and prepared to assume the role of a major global leader. The newfound economic prosperity emboldened by wartime spending following WWII was underwritten and pushed by governmental/political and private spending seen in urban centers nationwide. Economic and political figures had predicted that New York “was poised to become the political and cultural capital of the world.”2 Samuel Zipp argues in his book Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York that “…in order for the city to leap into the first rank of what would later be called “global cities,” [elite observers and civic leaders] believed that the metropolis needed to undertake a grand scheme of city remaking, one that was symbolic and imaginative as well as physical.”3 The efforts put into city-rebuilding harnessed a “vision of urban myth making” that functioned as “the infrastructural nuts and bolts of an imaginative project that required the actual rebuilding, in concrete, glass, brick, and steel, of an outmoded cityscape along modern lines.”4

This urban myth manifested in New York City’s built environment took faith in the “creative powers of destruction”5—therein lies the embrace of modernity. It was not long before these grand ambitions completely displaced traditionalism, and the highly contested term known as “urban renewal” became a dominant player in transforming NYC. Unlike the term “redevelopment,” urban renewal came to be understood through a built environment with “its cleared, open superblocks and austere towers—[a] self-evident symbol of a new kind of time and space. These built forms stood for the very idea that it was necessary and possible to do away with the old city, for the faith that tradition had to be displaced, for the belief that city building had to reveal time rolling ever forward, leaving outmoded ways of life behind.”6 Reshaping the metropolis–one in which its architectural, design and arts, and media communities played a vital role in reshaping the urban environment–wanted to erase its landscape of its slums and blight while simultaneously dislocating and isolating people. 

The promise of a shining metropolis full of open superblocks and austere towers became a clear indication and reflection of a new era. Outmoded ways of life were replaced with desires for progress and newness. It did not take long for the embrace of modernity and urban renewal to be seen “as a force for turning working-class neighborhoods over to private developers, destroying neighborhoods, dislocating people, and implanting a foreign, imposed landscape.”7 Zipp writes, “[c]learance site evacuees, cast out by the destructive energies of progress, were said to resemble the displaced persons of postwar Europe. To many of the people caught in its path, urban renewal earned the popular sobriquet “Negro removal” because it continually targeted poor African American and Puerto Rican enclaves for destruction.”8 In this example of expropriation, the relationship between the isolation and anomie of modernist design affecting the marginalized and the broader public becomes clearer. We will explore this dynamic further in the following section of this paper. 

Public authority combined with privately owned corporations and wealth targeted those whose persona and way of life did not fit the grand ambitions of modernism. “With its open plazas and modern towers erected over the ruins of old neighborhoods, urban renewal appeared as a vast apparatus for replacing the horizontal relations of neighborhoods with the vertical authority of ‘projects.’”9 While we will not discuss the development of housing projects in this paper, the historic racial displacement emboldened with the onset of modern new spaces reveals the anomie and isolation that go hand in hand with what James Scott coined “authoritarian high modernism.”10 In all of its modernist glory, NYC began to see the quick erasure of the daily patterns of working-class life and neighborhoods yielded to the interests of administrative efficiency. 

The Seagram Building: A Case Study of Modern Architecture’s Prowess 

The open plazas and modern towers Zipp mentions in his text are seen in 1950s corporate architecture and the prevalence of International Style. While the style takes its roots in the 1920s and 1930s, the economic prowess and technological advancement this architectural style communicated paired well with NYC’s continued robust growth post-WWII. This section will discuss to what degree the advent of postwar public spaces designed in a modernist vocabulary led to concerns about access and the perceived need for public spaces to be “defensible” and in what ways modernism, with its “form follows function” approach, directly shaped contemporary defensive design.

Corporations in 1950s America, specifically in the New York metropolitan area, adopted modern architecture to manifest their economic and elite social presence. While there is great variation in what can be considered “modern design,” it can be argued that mid-century modern architecture by the 1950s “had become associated with the Establishment, to be fostered in America and then reexported.”11 The Seagram Building’s plaza, completed in 1958, is an example of public space adopting a modernist design that “bespeaks initiative and enterprise of the highest order.”12 

The materials used for the Seagram Building and its plaza represent and reinforce the relationship between architecture, corporate power, the clients it serves, and the pedestrians invited to grace the building’s ceremonious entranceway. In 1956, the building was praised by the likes of the Chilean Consul General as “an outstanding and original contribution to world architecture embodying copper, one of Chile’s primary resources.”13 The building, in its clean, solid, and functional design, symbolized hope and confidence for a stable economic future. The innovative design seen in the building’s ability to melt away snow from its granite slabs and prevent fountains from freezing epitomized the innovative technological and imaginative forces driving American capitalism. 

Architecture scholar Sandy Isenstadt describes how “modernism precluded the notion of character” and that “authentic architectural character was epiphenomenal to the accommodation of function of the articulation of structure.”14 The era of the “form follows function” dictum traditionally associated with modernist design is ostensibly synonymous with American industrial vernacular architecture and structures. The Seagram building is just one example of pure functional utility still aligned with aesthetic pursuits. Its plaza reflects corporate modernism merging with public life unrelated to the offices and business inside the building’s glass windows and steel frame. 

In aligning with its utilitarian aesthetic and materials, one can understand how the Seagram building and its architectural blueprints were intended to be repeated. The building’s “readymade” quality acts as “irrefutable evidence of architecture’s refusal to confront its audience primarily as medium and only secondarily as a specific instantiation.”15 The Seagram building stands as a curtain of steel whose design was meant to be reused and repeated along NYC’s skyline, therefore “contain[ing] within itself the mechanism of its own dissemination.”16 This mechanism of dissemination is duly communicated in the quietness of the building’s sleek design. The building’s steel muteness makes its presence even more impactful as it “actively convert[s] background ‘noise’ into ‘signal,’ organizing the mass-cultural flux of the city-of which the dissemination of its copies, and the fractalization of its modules, was to form an inseparable part-into an event to be watched.”17

The Seagram building’s ability to find power through its seemingly silent aesthetic elucidates modernism’s power of abstraction and repetition. Ultimately, the building finds analogs in television, the ultimate communication machine. As is the case with the physical medium of the T.V., “what matters is less what is or is not on the screen than the process of screening itself.”18 It is in this parallel of communicative mediums we understand how the Seagram building’s silence turns city noise into a signal of quiet prowess. 

Manifestations of Anomie: Hostile Architecture as a Social Actor 

The manifestations of anomie as experienced through modernist architecture and the corporate structures that imagined, designed, and constructed the Seagram Building were designed as symbols of power and economic prowess. Keeping these relationships and symbolic ideals of a building as a codified object in mind, Jean Baudrillard’s The System of Objects becomes an appropriate theoretical analog in the study of hierarchical objects. In his book, Baudrillard begins by describing a traditional kind of bourgeois interior and the patriarchal foundation contained in the dining room and bedroom. He writes that the emphasis of a bourgeoisie interior is on “unifunctionality, immovability, imposing presence, and hierarchical labeling” and that “the pieces of furniture confront one another, jostle one another, and implicate one another in a unity that is not so much spatial as moral in character.”19 Modernist architecture takes on similar moralist connotations as their ability to alter and ultimately erase the daily patterns of working-class life and neighborhoods yield to the interests of administrative efficiency and hierarchy. It is by no coincidence that the corporate architectural milieu of the 1950s and beyond adopted a mode of design that emboldened their status, power, and alienating features. 

Modernist architecture and its adherence to, or often intertwined relationship, with private capital and corporate policy are implicated in its design philosophy. Modernists believed they could design a better society and that ornamental indulgence was considered a frivolous waste of effort. They thought function should always dictate form and that mankind’s intelligence, creativity, and capability for radical thinking should be celebrated. The morality Baudrillard discusses is embedded in objects that embolden hierarchical relationships; these objects reflect a society characterized by strict and stable social roles. Objects that are replicable, replaceable, and multi-functional–think of Ikea–reflect a condition in which roles become unstable and constantly shifting. Social hierarchies become replaced with hierarchies of objects. This does not simply mean that class mobility increases but rather that the people holding certain social roles and the social roles themselves become disposable. Objects with modernist design in mind, while not all intentionally designed to alienate, certainly hold the power to exacerbate preexisting social roles of conduct.

The picture above (Fig. 1) depicts a “leaning bar”–essentially a structure made as an alternative to sitting or lying on a bench. The leaning bar is a prime example of an object’s morally driven role as a social actor. The MTA began installing leaning bars as a part of their Enhanced Subway Initiative (ESI) in 2017 and was issued by the Department of Transit (DOT). Interestingly, it is difficult to source the designer(s) who created these leaning bars; whether this anonymity is coincidental or not is debatable, yet it certainly adds to the benches’ impersonal aura. Regardless of accreditation, this example of subway architecture was designed with discomfort in mind – you may stay for a while, but you must never get too comfortable. These leaning bars moderate a person’s behavior and extend “into the multidimensional space of social interaction.”20 These bars are not designed to cultivate discussion between individuals. The emphasis on its clean lines, minimalism, and utilitarian design–while practical for continued urban use and influenced by modernist design–ultimately takes away from the spontaneous capabilities of public space. 

The construction of space, especially as demarcated by objects such as leaning bars, is used as a nexus of control. Noami Smith and Peter Walters write in their article “Desire lines and defensive architecture in modern urban environments” that “defensive benches not only discipline the undesirables, but also penalize the broader public and deprive city inhabitants generally of places to rest and observe.”21 These benches, which are objects of class competition and private/public interest, “[encourage] limited engagement with the cityscape outside of commercial venues and transactions.”22 The homogenization of space as dictated by hostile architecture is a result of altering the affordances of the city. Two questions thus arise: Who has permission to be in public spaces? And more widely, who is considered a member of the public?

Conclusion: Spatial Justice?

The previous example of leaning bars is one of many urban structures created to regulate space. These tactics of exclusion are often borrowed from “gated communities and shopping centres,… CCTV, walls, fences, intimidatingly upmarket retail outlets …” and use “police intervention [to] physically move along undesirables.”23 Those considered undesirable typically fall outside of favor from the capital and the state–two forces that ultimately mediate and construct public space. The itinerant and homeless do not belong to cities in which new hostile architecture is framed as tactics of urban “renewal.” According to Smith and Walters, “In ‘renewing’ the city, capital places both actual and social boundaries around urban neighborhoods. In response, inhabitants and passers-through must embody the habitus of the economically privileged to validate their presence within these neighborhoods.”24 The forces of neoliberal globalist politics are completely interwoven with urban architectural planning, and increasingly, architectural solutions, like defensive architecture, are used widely to appeal to diverse clients in large urban developments such as NYC. What results is a homogenization of space and the lack of tolerance for diverse groups of people–the unhoused and itinerant included. Public space and the hostile architecture it contains thus become a deterrent and disorienting feature of public life. Just like the quiet prowess of the Seagram building, a prime example of modernist architecture, hostile objects take on a “silent complicity between architects and the agendas of the politically and economically powerful.”25 

The reconsiderations it will take to render public space diverse and compatible with all its inhabitants is a mammoth task. This paper will not be able to provide concrete “next steps” in how to build an architecture that does not sustain powers of authority or corporate gentrification. What we can correctly conclude, however, is that the function of public space as a determinant of social relations allows for the flow of democratic activity. Moveable furniture, spaces less policed/surveilled, and spaces filled with desire lines or paths allow people to mark and designate their place and, more poignantly, their sense of self as it relates to social space. The modernist features that influenced the design of leaning bars, for example, were not created from whole cloth. Modernism, co-opted by symbols of corporate power and social homogenization, allows for the proliferation of clean and easily replicable design–a design that often leaves out the improvisational aspects of life in an ever-shifting, always-moving city like New York. 

Barbara Kasomenakis is a visual artist and researcher. She earned her MA in 2023 in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by Parsons School of Design and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and was a curatorial fellow at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. She currently works with incarcerated and at-risk populations. Her areas of interest include Trotskyism, material culture, semiotics, the ocean, and the music of Iannis Xenakis.


  1. John Michael Kilbane and Michelle Legro, “The City That Will Never Let You Sleep,” Topic, May 6, 2019,
  2. Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 20.
  3. Zipp, 19.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Zipp, 9.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Zipp, 10.
  8. Zipp, 207.
  9. Zipp, 10.
  10. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2020), 87.
  11. Benjamin Flowers, Skyscraper the Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 130.
  12. Flowers, 137.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Sandy Isenstadt, “House and Haunted Garden,” Sanctioning Modernism, 2014, 244–68,, 251.
  15. Reinhold Martin, “Atrocities. Or, Curtain Wall as Mass Medium,” Perspecta, vol. 32, 2001, pp. 67–75. JSTOR,, 72.
  16. Reinhold, 71.
  17. Reinhold, 72.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Jean Baudrillard and James Benedict, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 2020), 15.
  20. Mimi Hellman, “The Joy of Sets: The Uses of Seriality in the French Interior,” Furnishing the Eighteenth Century / Ed. by Dena Goodman Et Kathryn Norberg vol. 129-153, 2007, 133.
  21. Naomi Smith and Peter Walters, “Desire Lines and Defensive Architecture in Modern Urban Environments,” Urban Studies, vol. 55, no. 13, 2018, pp. 2980–95. JSTOR,, 2984.
  22. Smith and Walters, 2984.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.