Defensive and Fortress Architecture in Privatised American Cities

American cities, as we have seen throughout this module, are increasingly sites of conflict and segregation amongst social and racial groups, heightened and escalated by riots and unrest, such as the disorder throughout the early 1960’s. This essay will seek to examine how the emerging popularity of architectural interventions in society is characteristic of the state of social relationships. In order to do so in a focussed manner, information will be drawn primarily from the city of Los Angeles, California.

The use of fortress and defensive architecture by Los Angeles’ residents will be analysed, in addition to the rising inclination of particular groups of citizens to privatise public spaces for their exclusive use.

Los Angeles is an obvious choice to demonstrate the social segregation that can occur within a city, along with highlighting the role of architecture in creating both physical and invisible boundaries between the various social groups.

Recent progress within the city has involved the redevelopment of parts of its centre, or ‘downtown’ as it is known, bringing with it some interesting design features to attract or repel particular social groups.

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Los Angeles has been of interest to sociologists for many years due to it’s unique character, and mix of ethnic backgrounds (cf: Scott et al, p49). The city is, in fact, home to some of the largest metropolitan groups of Koreans, Mexicans, Filipino and Vietnamese outside of their country of origin (Scott et al, p49).

Unfortunately it has also been the location of increasing social conflict, including the Watts rebellion of 1965, and the 1992 Rodney King riots.

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Whilst the city is renown for the opulent lifestyle of those residing in areas such as Beverly Hills and Belair, it is also home to some of the most disadvantaged and densely populated groups of people in America, such as those in MacArthur Park and Lincoln Heights (Davis, 1993). The result of this dichotomy of lifestyles is the view that “…. t is more fitting to see the area as a set of countries – like Europe – than as a traditional unified city” (Scott et al, p49). A contributory factor to this view is the recent trend in Los Angeles, and in fact throughout many American cities, of residing in ‘gated communities’, a form of fortress architecture which encloses an entire community within security fencing, almost as boundaries around a country.

This theme was highlighted by McLaughlin and Muncie (1999, cited in Eade et al, p35): “In an ever increasing number of global contexts, the middle and upper classes in cities are opting… o live, shop and work in privately guarded, security conscious, fortified enclaves”. Such affluent neighbourhoods commonly employ private police to increase their security, often displaying warning signs such as “Armed Response! ” (Davis, p223) on each property. These measures are quite possibly the most dramatic and intrusive manifestations of fortress architecture, therefore it must be asked if the perceived threat to the property and safety of the residents is of such magnitude as to warrant this degree of intervention.

The trigger for the middle class “obsession with physical security systems and with architectural policing of social boundaries” (Davis, 1998, p223) is an inherent fear of the immigrant minority communities living in the poor areas of Los Angeles. Although the origin of the fear is perhaps understandable, due to excessively high crime rates amongst these poorer communities, the fear itself within the suburban middle classes is both unjustified and irrational, as the crime rates are not increasing in their area.

However irrational this fear may be, it has been possible for it to permeate social and fiscal policy, at least to some extent, through the influence of the powerful middle classes, resulting in an overwhelming increase in the segregation between class groups. This power is also extended to encompass the control of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the result of which, as we will see, has very serious implications for the control exercised over the city.

The use of architecture to create a ‘fortress surrounding the privileged’ (Sorenson) has resulted in physically segregating the poor from the wealthy, whilst the use of technology creates invisible barriers or ‘warning signs’ (Davis, 1998, p226) to forbid them from entering particular areas. This system is described by Davis (1998, p224) as the “merge[ing of] urban design, architecture and the police apparatus into a single comprehensive security effort”.

This notion is also identified by Sorenson, describing fortress architecture as “… here urban design and the LAPD have brutally merged to keep the dispossessed out of the line of sight of the affluent” (Sorenson, 1992). An example of such practise is the organisation of shopping malls in and around the city. The malls are “… surrounded by staked metal fences, and have a substation of the LAPD in a central surveillance tower” (Davis, 1998, p223), whilst also extensively utilising closed circuit television (CCTV) to observe shoppers, or rather to observe the ‘type’ of person entering the building.

Any ‘undesirables’, such as the poor or homeless, are frequently escorted from the premises, a process described as ‘people sanitising’ (Davis, 1998). In addition to this it is not uncommon to see large ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ signs erected outside malls. Therefore, without expressly denying access to certain social groups, it becomes clear to minority members that they are not welcome. The effect of this is to give invisible warning signs, criticised by Davis (1998) as being “… in many instances… just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop”.

Not only are the police instrumental in the process of segregation, they have become ‘central players’ in the design process of all major structures, on occasion exercising veto power (Davis, 1993). As the ‘Downtown Los Angeles’ redevelopment project progressed, it became clear that it was to become a defining factor in providing further social separatism. Funding for the project was drawn away from the provision and maintenance of public space, to be invested in the redevelopment that was to exclude the poorer communities in their entirety.

The development effectively cut-off the access for the poorer neighbourhoods, minimising all on-foot access to the new ‘office block district’ or ‘citadel’. The lack of political voice belonging to the excluded parties meant that “.. this radical privatisation of Downtown public space – with its ominous racial undertones – occurred without significant public debate or protest” (Davis, 1993). It has been suggested by some that the financial power of the middle classes was also contributory in ‘… making elected officials more attuned to corporate interest and the suburbs than to the city’s poorer areas’ (Boger et al, 1996, p173).

The security provision within the new office blocks was highly sophisticated, with the ‘sensory systems of the average office tower including panoptic vision, smell, sensitivity to temperature and humidity, and motion detection” along with bullet-proof steel doors and electronic locking systems (Davis, 1993). The concept of creating a ‘fortress of security’ was essentially to coax businesses back into what had previously become a dilapidated area, all with the ultimate aim to make the middle classes ‘feel safe’ in downtown by excluding the feared lower classes.

This dismissal of the immigrant minorities from the new centre was inclusive of employment opportunities, as the wealth of jobs provided by the new development required highly skilled and educated workers (Boger et al, 1996, p74). Following the redevelopment of ‘downtown’, members of the middle classes began to re-inhabit inner city areas. This created a demand for suitably lavish homes, disguised as not to attract unwanted attention and make it a target for criminals.

Gehry provided the solution in the form of ‘stealth houses’; buildings that are camouflaged to match their run-down and dirty surroundings, “… dissimulating their luxurious qualities with proletarian or gangster fai??ades” (Davis, 1998, p238). The need for stealth houses, in contrast to the gated communities of the suburbs, is perhaps a rational precaution to take, as such properties are located within, or close to, high crime areas. However, the threat facing those in the poorest areas are of much higher magnitude, and yet the protection available to them is of much less assistance.

This is evidence of a distinct ‘security differential'(Davis, 1993) between the groups, where the security available to individuals is dependant upon their means, rather than a universal provision. These communities are also often divided into a form of ‘gated community’, but against their will, with the aim of keeping the poor and the criminal inside rather than preventing their entry. The barricading of such neighbourhoods is instigated by the police as part of their ‘war on drugs’ (Davis, 1998, p223), and is imposed upon residents, as in the Sepulvedia barrio in Los Angeles (ibid, p248).

Homes in these areas have become ‘windowless concrete-block buildings’ (Davis, 1993), said to resemble ‘cages in a zoo’ or ‘prison cells’ (ibid), in an attempt to protect residents from the increased crime and violence. In contrast to the private police employed by the middle class gated communities, ‘slumlords’ and ‘rent-a-thugs’ operate their own “reign of terror against drug dealers and petty criminals” (Davis, 1993). These divisions on both sides of the societal spectrum result in the city being described as a ‘fortified honeycomb’ (Davis, 1993).

As can be seen from the evidence produced so far, the poor are demonised by the middle classes, and are therefore victimised by this move towards segregation, being strategically confined to particular areas and zones within the city, known as ‘social control districts’ (Davis, 1993) which have the highest population densities in the city (ibid). This is can also be seen in the containment of homeless people in the Skid Row area of the city. Any attempts by the homeless to move out of the area to create safe havens or encampments elsewhere are stopped by the police.

The key aims of containment strategies are the exclusion of the homeless from public spaces, and to ensure such poverty remains out of the view of the middle classes. Design features that assist the policing of the area include ‘bum-proof benches’ (Davis, 1998, p233) which make it difficult for a person to sleep on them; sprinkler systems which activate at random times throughout the evening to drench unsuspecting homeless people (ibid); and the removal of public toilets to eliminate the possibility of the homeless accessing sanitary facilities.

Davis has described the consequences of this: “A common and troubling sight these days are the homeless men… washing in and even drinking from the sewer effluent which flows down the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River on the eastern edge of Downtown”. (Davis, 1998, p234) In addition to this there has been an increasing tendency to place rubbish bins in protective cages, comprising of large spikes and padlocks described as the ‘ultimate bag-lady-proof trash cage’ (Davis, 1998, p233) in order to prevent the poor or homeless from obtaining disposed food.

Even facilities that are traditionally freely available to all residents, such as libraries and museums are built in such a manner as to promote the exclusion of particular societal groups. For example, the Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library in Hollywood is described as ‘undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built’ (Davis, 1998, p239) with its immense array of physical security features, generated in response to the arson attack on its predecessor (ibid).

This ‘fortress approach’ has even been extended to theme parks and hotels, in a bid to retain the Los Angeles tourism trade, resulting in what is described as “.. an archipelago of well-guarded corporate cash-points where affluent tourists can relax, spend lots of money, and have ‘fun’ again” (Davis, 1993). The aim of such parks has been to offer a simulation of the ‘American Dream’ version of Los Angeles to hide the reality outside their walls, a similar approach to that used in Hollywood.

To all intents and purposes, the once ‘glitzy’ and glamorous image of Los Angeles is now dependant upon the ‘social imprisonment’ (Davis, 1998, p227) of the lower classes of society. The privatisation of public space, an issue raised briefly in relation to the closure of access for the poorer residents to downtown Los Angeles, is also a vital issue in this discussion. Residential areas with sufficient power are able to exercise influence upon the use of public space, such as parks and roads, and have been successful in acquiring certain pieces of public space for their own private use.

By enforcing what is effectively a form of neighbourhood passport control (Davis, 1998, p246) communities have secured land, particularly parks and car-parking facilities, for the sole use of residents of a designated community. This a further example of the middle classes dominating an increasing percentage of the city, whilst the immigrant population have their movements progressively restricted, and their land increasingly reduced.

The privatisation of parks is particularly contradictory to previous theories of social integration, such as work by Olmsted relating to Central Park in New York which referred to public spaces as ‘social mixing valves’ where individuals from various backgrounds can come together in the pursuit of common recreational goals (Olmsted cited in Davis, 1998, p227). Some critics consider this loss of communal space to be a major contributory factor to the friction within the city:

In a city of several million yearning immigrants, public amenities are radically shrinking, parks are becoming derelict and beaches more segregated, libraries and playgrounds are closing, youth congregations of ordinary kinds are banned, and the streets are becoming more desolate and dangerous” (Davis, 1998, p227). With the introduction of ‘Gang Free Parks’ policies, parks have also become useful example of ‘status criminalisation’, where even in the absence of a specific criminal act, gang membership has been ‘outlawed’ (Davis, 1993).

As in the quote from Davis (1998) above, this causes the prohibition of ordinary youth congregations, in the fear that they may be a ‘gang’. Further anti-gang repression is induced by the introduction of Governmental programs linking community development funding to the communal adoption of exclusion strategies (Davis, 1993). A further urban design feature that has been utilised in the repression of the lower classes of Los Angeles, has been to use those on the fringes of the middle class areas as ‘neighbourhood watch’.

The purpose of this is to act as a security system that is midway between “the besieged, gun-toting anomie of the inner ring and the private police forces of the more affluent, gated suburbs” (Davis, 1993). A Police officer quoted by Mike Davis described the system as: “… like a wagon train in an old-fashioned cowboy movie…. the goal is to get them to fight off the Indians until the cavalry – that is to say the LAPD – can ride to their rescue”(Davis, 1993).

In conclusion, fortress architecture and the privatisation of public space have a deeply rooted relevance to the underlying social problems in cities such as Los Angeles, as they are the physical representation of the barriers that are being constructed socially, economically and politically between the affluent and the impoverished. This was a theme identified by Richard Nixon (cited in Davis, 1998, p224): “We live in ‘fortress cities’ brutally divided between ‘fortified cells’ of the affluent society, and ‘places of terror’ where the police battle the criminalised poor”

It is unclear whether the social and spatial division in American cities, such as Los Angeles, is the result of class or race relations, but it is undisputedly a real characteristic of the city. As commented by Scott and Soja (1996, p49): “Whether the identity comes from inherited ethnicity or chosen lifestyle, the effect is to divide Los Angeles into village sized fragments, what I would distinguish as enclaves of exclusion (Rolling Hills), from enclaves of desertion (the black area of Watts)” The supposed cause for the segregation is the fear of the middle classes directed towards the immigrant minorities of the poor neighbourhoods.

However, as can be seen from examination of crime statistics and demographics, those who are demonstrating the greatest resistance to crime are those at lowest risk. As proposed by Whyte, “Fear proves itself” (cited in Davis, 1998, p224), therefore in generating an irrational fear of crime, society creates the need for security services. The imagination of society magnifies the risk and threat to the middle classes, instead of dealing with the causes of criminality among the communities for whom crime is a reality, rather than a distant fear.

The ‘spatial and social isolation from mainstream economic and educational opportunities’ (Boger et al, p166) means that for many within the poor immigrant communities, they will be unable to escape their current situation. By segregating themselves from this section of society, the middle classes are effectively repressing them, ‘keeping them down’ or ‘imposing an iron heel’ (Davis, 1993), and are therefore at best preventing improvement, or at worst escalating the problem.

This is a view supported by William Wilson (cited in Boger et al, p319): Today the ghetto features a population, the underclass, whose primary predicament is joblessness reinforced by growing isolation”. It is therefore perhaps being suggested that fortification of the affluent is not the answer to the social problems, and that action needs to be taken to re-integrate society. What must be understood, according to Mike Davis, is that: “… if we continue to allow our central cities to degenerate into criminalized Third Worlds, all the ingenious security technology, present and future, will not safeguard the anxious middle class”

The current situation in Los Angeles, which is manifesting itself in urban design and architecture, is of such a serious nature that it is being referred to by some commentators as a form of ‘South-Africanisation’ (Davis, 1998, p227) and ‘spatial apartheid’ (ibid. p230). Whilst some believe the resolution to be rooted in fiscal affairs (Boger, p81), others believe that it is an issue of individual action, with citizens actively ‘drawing immigrants and refugees into the mainstream’ (Moody, cited in Keil, p125).

With concerns being raised about impending guerrilla warfare, or a social ‘Armageddon’ (Davis, 1993) it is disturbing to read that there is ‘considerable public scepticism’ about the capacity of the federal government to solve the city’s social and economic problems (Boger, p80). As stated by Davis, the harsh reality is that; “… even as the walls have come down in Eastern Europe, they are being erected all over Los Angeles” (1998, p228).

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Defensive and Fortress Architecture in Privatised American Cities. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Defensive and Fortress Architecture in Privatised American Cities

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