Fear of a Black Pedestrian


In The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff points to a practice he calls "21st-century medievalism," in which "architects are being enlisted to create not only major civic landmarks but lines of civic defense, with aesthetically pleasing features like elegantly sculpted barriers around public plazas or decorative cladding for bulky protective concrete walls":

After 9/11, a craving for the solidity of walls reasserted itself. And the wars on terror, and fractious peaces, enforced it. The Green Zone in Baghdad, Jerusalem's separation barrier, the concrete bollards that line corporate headquarters on Park Avenue—all are emblems of an unintended new mentality….That mentality has become acceptable in relatively stable cities as well, including London, where a debate has now arisen over what do to with the concrete barricades that surround the United States Embassy in historic Grosvenor Square. Some suggest that they should be replaced by a permanent, more visually appealing barrier, as if better design could somehow negate the notion that we are surrendering to the inevitable. And in downtown Miami, federal marshals have suggested that the barricades originally included in the plans for a park designed by Maya Lin as part of a new courthouse complex might have to be reinforced, even as people begin to move into the building.

The most chilling example of the new medievalism is New York's Freedom Tower, which was once touted as a symbol of enlightenment. Designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it rests on a 20-story, windowless fortified concrete base decorated in prismatic glass panels in a grotesque attempt to disguise its underlying paranoia. And the brooding, obelisk-like form above is more of an expression of American hubris than of freedom.

Part of me wants to nod my head, and part of me wants to complain that "medievalism" really isn't the best term for the trend. Most of me, though, wants to turn the microphone over to Lester Spence, who adds a little historical perspective:

While very specific design elements may have become more commonplace after 9/11, many of them had been in place for the last thirty years or so. The first modern urban threat remember was not the Arab terrorist, but the black rioter. Buildings like Detroit's Renaissance Center were noted not only for their use of curves as opposed to angles, but also for [their] use of military style bunkers to keep urban (read: black) denizens out. The bunkers have since been removed, but the first thing that I thought of as a young kid looking at it was the Morlocks. The curves (the building is in effect a series of connected tubes) served to disorient people rather than welcome them—which of course makes sense if the only population the designers want in the building in the first place are people who know where they are going. And the use of surveillance cameras were first popularized in the US in Baltimore, while dealing with a crime spree associated with young black male criminals.

If someone were to study the shifts in these design elements over time in response to what is in effect racialized fear, it'd be hot. And if they could combine a study of building design with car design they'd be really onto something.