In the Western world, we live in a culture that is not just characterized by abundance, consumption and climate and resource challenges but also has a firm belief that design is a force for good! Design promotes innovation and creativity, thus contributing to economic growth, and in addition, most of us imagine that design is helping to make the world ‘a better place to live’.
But what happens if we focus on design interventions that are intentionally devised to reject the most vulnerable citizens, marginalize social groups and promote exclusion?
The research project Dark design: Social exclusion in urban places is a four-year research project supported by Velux Fonden. It runs from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2024 and is based at the Department of Architecture, Design and Media Technology, Aalborg University. It is headed by Professor Ole B. Jensen and includes collaboration between the City of Copenhagen, Projekt MINORITET, SAND, DanChurchSocial, Projekt Udenfor and Aalborg University.
The concept of ‘dark design’ is focused on precisely this type of exclusionary design and architecture interventions (Jensen, 2019). Naturally, everyday life also contains many examples of design with an unintended exclusionary effect. For example, elderly people are less likely to go out if the duration of the ‘go’ signal for pedestrians is too short to allow them to cross the street before the signal changes (Whitelegg, 1997). However, in this research project, our main focus is on intentionally exclusionary design.
In Denmark, examples include leaning benches, ‘armrests’ on benches and seats in the urban space and steel barriers to keep rough sleepers away from warm-air vents and other locations that would otherwise offer shelter for the night. Abroad, we also see the use of steel spikes, razor-sharp metal elements or concrete spikes or bumps designed, manufactured and installed with the purpose of driving away rough sleepers, the most marginalized members of society.
The open and welcoming city – an ideal that is coming under pressure?
style=”font-weight: 400;”>Throughout the history of urban planning and architecture theory, the diverse, socially inclusive and welcoming city has been the ideal for democratic city planning (Aristotle, ca. 350 BCE/1995; Jacobs, 1961; Sennett, 1990). Public spaces and city squares welcome everyone, regardless of social or economic status, ethnicity or other stratification categories.
Through processes of ‘gentrification’ (Harvey, 1992), however, more and more cities have ‘upgraded’ their residential neighbourhoods with sky-high housing prices as an indicator. Streets and urban spaces are increasingly subject to commercialization and monetization. For example, cafés are gradually becoming the only place to find a seat in the public space, with the requisite economic transaction as a condition for taking a break.
In this sense, the growing use of dark design raises concerns. When we make it harder or impossible for the most vulnerable groups to find shelter for the night and to use the urban space for their particular needs, we are tampering with the DNA of the democratic city.
The research project ‘Dark design: Social exclusion in urban places’ began a couple of years ago and has conducted a series of empirical ethnographic studies of how unhoused individuals experience dark design. It has also explored the legal aspects that become relevant when places that have dark design features become subject to legislation aimed at combating begging or ‘encampments that make an area feel unsafe’.
At this stage, the project has presented some of its findings (see, e. g., Jensen, 2020, 2022, 2023), but the main report in the form of a PhD dissertation will not be presented until the project nears its conclusion. An important goal is to contribute to greater general understanding of this phenomenon and to invite informed dialogue about the topic.
Generating new knowledge
In a project based on empirical social research, such as this one, generating documentation, data and evidence for the phenomenon in question, in this case, dark design, is a goal in itself. However, an additional goal may be to develop theoretical concepts and to test them in relation to the empirical data with a view to producing instruments to help us understand the exclusionary practices unfolding in our neighbourhoods.
Simply put, we need a language to be able to articulate a problem! From many public talks and the courses I teach at Aalborg University’s Architecture and Design programme, I know that most people are not familiar with the concept of dark design or had any idea that it is being practised in Danish cities.
Thus, in addition to generating empirical documentation and evidence, the project also aims to help develop new, more precise and specific concepts and theories. This article will present three such theoretical concepts aimed at facilitating a more detailed understanding of the conditions faced by rough sleepers.
The three concepts are ‘atmosphere of rejection’ (Jensen, 2020), the city as a ‘mosaic of go and no-go areas’ (Jensen, 2019) and ‘material interpellation’ (Jensen, 2023). Obviously, some of these concepts cannot be immediately applied in the public debate. The latter concept, for example, may require some ‘translation’. At the time of writing, this issue is being addressed.
An important aspect of the communication plan for the research project is that it is not limited to journal articles, book chapters and conference presentations but also includes exhibitions, interventions in the urban space and other dialogue initiatives. Through these other channels, it will be possible to ‘show’ a concept such as ‘material interpellation’ (which I will discuss in more detail below).
By contrast, a concept such as ‘atmosphere of rejection’ is more straightforward and thus much easier to ‘put into circulation’ in a broader public debate.
Concept I: Atmosphere of rejection
Imagine that you are walking the streets after dark, looking for a place to spend the night. An unfamiliar thought (hopefully). Now, imagine that virtually everywhere you look, you either encounter barriers or find that benches and other furnishings have been redesigned to prevent people from seeking shelter there.
The more you find that otherwise promising locations have been placed off limits by deliberate design interventions, the more unwelcome you will feel. You will experience an ‘atmosphere of rejection’ that will slowly but surely make you feel unwelcome, even in your hometown.
Concept II: Material interpellation
The mechanism at play in this atmosphere of rejection is called ‘material interpellation’ (see Jensen, 2023 for a more detailed discussion). That may sound complicated, but is in fact quite straightforward. Among others, the French philosopher and political thinker Louis Althusser used the term ‘interpellation’ to demonstrate how we, as subjects, are ‘interpellated’ or ‘hailed’ and thus assigned a specific position in a relationship of power. One of Althusser’s examples is a police officer hailing someone who is walking down the street by shouting ‘hey you’.
Most people would stop, turn and expect to receive a message or instruction. Althusser (1972) writes that when the person makes this 180-degree turn to face the officer, they become a subordinate subject to the state (as the police officer in this example is regarded as the embodiment of the state. Thus, when the officer hails the individual, the result is a specific social positioning in a relationship of power.
If we now replace the police officer with a leaning bench or an array of metal spikes under a bridge, we could say that the material ‘hails’ us. In a certain sense (and in parallel to Althusser’s theory), the bench says, ‘You can’t bed down here!’ and instructs us to ‘Move on!’. The concept of material interpellation thus describes how material installations of dark design hail and position rough sleepers and unhoused people in a way that creates an ‘atmosphere of rejection’.
Concept III: The city as a ‘mosaic of go and no-go areas’
The third, and last, concept that I will introduce here has to do with how a city that has been subjected to dark design is experienced by rough sleepers and unhoused individuals on a larger scale. We all perceive the city as a sort of playing board of go and no-go areas. Just think of how you plan your daily commute or where you take visitors from out of town when you want to show them around. Naturally, the same applies to rough sleepers and unhoused individuals. They also perceive areas as either accessible or inaccessible.
However, to them, there is an added layer. Most people have a home that can be represented by a fixed set of GPS coordinates that marks a site-specific, fixed and sedentary point. That is not the case for rough sleepers. Instead, they live ‘in the grid’. For example, they sleep in one spot, shower somewhere else and eat in a third location. Thus, rough sleepers and unhoused people have their city and home ‘adjusted’ from above, in the sense that what was a bedroom yesterday is now off limits, for example due to a dark-design intervention. In other words, their city (and home) is a ‘mosaic of go and no-go areas’ that changes in ways that are beyond their control.
Together, these concepts (and others, of course) make up the ‘new language’ we need in order to develop a more granular understanding of dark design. New concepts are continually developed and applied to the ethnographic and empirical findings of the empirical research practices.
The research project is still ongoing, and at the time of writing, the researchers and practitioners who make up the project steering group are developing a so-called dialogue platform, which includes exhibitions, newspaper op-eds, textbook material for schools, mock-ups and 1:1 physical interventions in the urban, games, seminars and workshops as possible ways of facilitating a public dialogue about this topic. In combination, the PhD dissertation and the dialogue platform are the modes we use for sharing our research findings with society at large.
Engaging the design and architecture world in this sort of debate is not a novel endeavour. For example, the op-ed ‘Arkitektens løfte’ (The architect’s promise) discusses professional ethics, the norms and values underpinning architecture and design and the ethical dilemmas that arise in a professional design practice. The issue of professional ethics is one area where I expect this project to have an active ‘afterlife’. This includes both the Architecture and Design programme at Aalborg University, where we are seeking to make design ethics a more explicit element in the curriculum, and in a broader dialogue with design practitioners, as insights from the project can be used to facilitate dialogue with other design schools and programmes as well as trade unions and associations with an interest in design ethics.
From a wider societal perspective, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the fact that Copenhagen is the UNESCO World Capital of Architecture in 2023 are helping to create a receptive cultural context for this debate on design ethics. The climate transition is important, as is the green agenda. However, we should not forget that ever since the Brundtland Report (The Brundtland Commission, 1987) and, now, the UNs 17 SDGs were launched, social equality and inclusion have been part of the topic of sustainability.
Thus, when we speak of the climate and the green transition, it is important to remember that the motto ‘Leave no one behind!’ should be taken literally and very seriously. Dark design stands in opposition to the Human Rights and other conventions about free and equal access to society.
However, it is not a practice regulated by law, and rather than banning dark design, the appropriate approach, in my opinion, would be to generate knowledge and stimulating a public conversation about the fairness of dark design.
Designers, architects and makers, in particular, can contribute to this debate and promote understanding based on their specialized knowledge about materials, sensory qualities and tactility.
The principal activity in the research project is a PhD project undertaken by PhD scholar Carsten Hvid Nielsen. In addition, postdoc Pia Justesen studies how law and criminalization also affects unhoused individuals and street sleepers. The main purpose of the project is to change general social perceptions of the problems surrounding unhoused individuals’ presence in the urban space in order to generate dialogue about this social challenge across public administrations, NGOs, public authorities, press, media, business owners and private citizens.
For additional information, you can also contact Project Director, Professor Ole B. Jensen, Aalborg University (email@example.com)
Althusser, L. (1972). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Lenin and philosophy and other essays. (Trans. Ben Brewster, pp. 127–187). Monthly Review Press.
Aristotle (1995). Politics. (Trans. E. Barker). Oxford University Press. (Original work published ca. 350 BCE).
The Brundtland Commission (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future. United Nations, Oxford Press.
Harvey, D. (1992). The urban experience. Blackwell.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Vintage Books.
Jensen, O. B. (2019). Dark design: Mobility injustice materalized. In N. Cook & D. Butz (Eds.), Mobilities, mobility justice and social justice (pp. 116–128). Routledge.
Jensen, O. B. (2020, 2–4 December). Atmospheres of rejection: How dark design rejects homeless in the city [conference paper]. 4th International Congress on Ambiences, Ambiences, Alloæsthesia: Senses, Inventions, Worlds, e-conference.
Jensen, O. B. (2022). Urban mobilities and power. Social exclusion by design in the city. In Cattan, N. & L. Faret (Eds.), Hybrid mobilities: Transgressive spatialities (pp. 37–55). Routledge.
Jensen, O. B. (2023). Material pragmatism and dark design: Critical readings of ‘atmospheres of rejection’ and ‘material interpellation’. Mobility Humanities, 2(1), 39–59.
Sennett, R. (1990). The conscience of the eye: The design and social life of cities. Faber & Faber.
Whitelegg, J. (1997). Critical mass: Transport, environment and society for the twenty-first century. Pluto Press.
Theme: Urban Space
In connection with the Architecture Capital 2023, Formkraft explores crafts and design in public spaces and built environments. This thematic publication provides a platform for the latest research and work within crafts and design.
Where and how is contemporary crafts and design established in the urban space? What actors are involved? What lessons can we learn from history?
The Formkraft archive holds a treasure trove of articles about our shared history of crafts and design. These articles tell the story of professional development and Danish cultural history from 1948 to the present. Search for various topics in the archive or browse through the journals on the Journal Shelf.
Receive a newsletter
Sign up for Formkraft’s newsletter and receive information about new articles as well as tips on relevant conferences and books. Sign up here.