Architecture: Making a point with spikes and studs: For the homeless, for weary tourists or anyone waiting for a friend, London buildings have offered a nook or windowsill on which to rest. Not any more. Mark Cole looks at anti-people adornments

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The Independent Culture
CITY-CENTRE buildings are sprouting a new form of decorative excrescence. Subtly incorporated into the fabric of buildings, old and new, many of these devices are fascinating to look at, yet far less appealing to the weary bodies of those - ill, exhausted, homeless - seeking somewhere to sit or sleep. For this latest wave of architectural decoration is nothing less than a way of keeping people, especially the destitute, clear of buildings.

Buildings have long incorporated decorative features which, in some way, define boundaries and preserve their integrity. The ornate character of a wrought-iron railing, for example, disguises its true purpose of dissuading trespassers. But the Post-Modern adornments that architects seem to be building into new designs, or else grafting on to existing city buildings, are blatant attempts to prevent passers-by from finding a moment's repose and to drive the homeless away from the warm niches that can be found amid even the toughest glass and steel structure.

Mike Davis in City of Quartz, a study of the ways in which Los Angeles works, notes how there have been a wide range of methods designed in recent years to see off homeless people in that city. These include oddly shaped benches at bus stops and rubbish skips given a fortress-like quality through the use of steel bars and spikes. Davis relates how in Phoenix, a few years ago, the authorities poisoned the city's rubbish with cyanide to deny the hungry even the basest snack.

British cities are still a long way from such savage extremes, yet there is clearly an architectural trend, notably in London, towards preventing the unauthorised informal use of buildings. Despite the attempts by designers to disguise the true purpose of their work, the increasing number of examples are serving to make this phenomenon more, rather than less, obvious.

London has little in the way of what is fashionably called 'street furniture' - benches, really - while the absence of a cafe culture means that pavements are woefully lacking in chairs and tables. The long hot summer that we have enjoyed this year saw thousands of foot-sore tourists in search of somewhere to sit. Informal resting places that once served as makeshift seats or benches are increasingly being adapted to prevent this unauthorised use.

At the Woolwich Building Society in the Strand, central London, there is a flight of marble steps leading up to the entrance. On either side of the steps, flower-beds have been built into a plateau of pink stone at just the right height to beckon weary travellers. To dissuade such poor souls, clusters of pointed metal studs, each about 3in high, have been fixed into the surface. They serve no other purpose than to bring tears to the eyes of those who make the mistake of sitting there.

The same kind of addition has been made to the branch of the Barclays Bank nearest Harrods, a popular tourist haunt. The marble windowsills of the bank's front windows were a perfect place to sit or sleep. Until recently, these long flat spaces, ideal for city sleepers, were attractive to homeless people. Not any more.

Barclays has made it clear that it has no intention of sharing its fashionable address with the needy and it has had sharp steel cones set into the marble, rendering each surface a fakir's bed. Recently, however, a resourceful person with no bed for the night arrived at this favourite open-air bedroom and placed a large sheet of plywood over the spikes.

The homeless are now also denied the warmth that rises from external vents on buildings that form part of the Arundel Great Court development, to the south of the Strand. Local residents here include Arthur Andersen & Co, a leading company of management and accountancy consultants. At Andersen's pavement level is a series of person-sized alcoves that house the heating outlets for the complex. Each could provide a warm and dry retreat for homeless people in the winter months.

Instead, these areas have been rendered unusable by the addition of a decorative railing. Significantly, this cannot be scaled by comfort-seekers because it has been installed at an angle of approximately 45 degrees, so that it effectively occludes the whole space. It is not an original feature of the building and has been recently added for no other purpose than 'decoration'. Of all the examples of this kind of alteration, this seems to be the most brazenly exclusive.

Throughout London, wherever there are daytime crowds and people sleeping rough, the cityscape is being changed to hinder people from using it in ways developers and architects appear to have overlooked. Such modifications to private property are now being matched by changes to public spaces. In the pedestrian tunnel that links the walkway on Hungerford Bridge to Charing Cross station, for example, wedged blocks of concrete, tiled to match the lavatorial surfaces of this ghastly thoroughfare, have been set on the floor at the base of the walls.

These prevent the homeless from curling up into the edges of the tunnel, where it is clearly felt that they would incommode respectable commuters rushing for their homebound trains. As there are a couple of square brick pillars along the walkway, behind which a potential assailant could skulk, the wedge does coincidentally serve to prevent assaults. But this effect could equally have been achieved without running the wedge of concrete the length of the tunnel.

The dingy underpass at Centre Point, which joins up with the ticket hall of Tottenham Court Road Underground station, also boasts recently installed wedges; or at least it did until until someone took a sledgehammer to them one night. Several central London stores, including the Murder One bookshop, Charing Cross Road, have introduced wooden wedges for their shop fronts, presumably to stop homeless people from sleeping on their steps or in their doorways.

Each embellishment makes London less user-friendly; every additional adornment of this type makes our cities less enjoyable to live in. Milling crowds are artfully denied the opportunity to linger at each aspect of the urban spectacle. The overall effect is to make city centres feel like the seating provided by fast-food restaurants: functional but not designed for lingerers.

Architects are not the villains of this piece, nor even the owners and users of much put-upon buildings. As one business person explained, you can be thoroughly sympathetic while still not wanting your own business premises to lose any of their appeal to clients through the presence of sleeping people or fatigued tourists.

Once again, the finger points at a government unwilling - or unable - to make adequate response to the increasing problem of homelessness, and to the planners of our cities who fail to accommodate the real needs of pedestrians.

In many areas, architects are making contributions to alleviating the problem of homelessness. The 'foyer' developments that are burgeoning in our inner cities - purpose-built to provide accommodation, guidance and training for the young and homeless in comfortable and welcoming surroundings - are prime examples of the contribution that housing charities and their architects can make.

Such good works are not enough, however, to prevent concerned passers-by from flinching when they see an apparently frivolous adornment to a building denying some poor soul the simple solace of warmth and a place to sleep.

(Photographs omitted)

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