Haphazard Haptic Happenings: A Tactile Tale for a Hostile City

By Alfonse Chiu

GRC sensorialist Alfonse Chiu digs deep into the fleshy surface of caresses—from carnal to architectural, in this fifth instalment on sensing the city. Invoking a city of tactical tactility and the history experiential erosion, Alfonse traverses the urban politics of haptic allowances to ask: What do places and spaces permit us to feel? Do we feel because of, or in spite of?

HDB Flats in Little India. Image courtesy of the author.

Page divider

Not long ago, our protagonist, a cis-Chinese young man who shall not be identified, had a dalliance with a member of the rougher sex who was an American foot soldier, while out for a night of drunk, uproarious, mostly drunk fun, following some professional set-backs that necessitated the usage of strong alcohol. Meeting at a bar off a nondescript app meant for nondescript meetings such as this one, and throwing all sense of good judgement into the wind, shots were downed, followed by the rapid deterioration of public decorum, which resulted in our protagonist necking in an intensifying manner with said American foot soldier.

Sensing an impending need for a private space for some private activities, our hapless duo made their way out of the bar and walked for a while into the downtown, where, ensconced in youthful desires, they commenced their exchange of (innocuous) bodily fluids once more. Hefting the not-insignificant mass of our protagonist upwards, the American foot soldier, decided to settle his curvaceous, due-for-a-diet beau on a nearby ledge belonging to a building of the civil service. Thinking not very clearly at this moment for obvious reasons, the American foot soldier’s grip loosened based on a miscalculation of how far the ledge was from his beau, and casually dropped him onto some well-placed spikes, where our protagonist made the sound of an animal being enthusiastically slaughtered even after alcohol had already dulled a significant portion of his pain receptors.

With his eyes almost bugging from their sockets, and a calibrated switch of the pained grunt into something decidedly more delicate and sensual, our protagonist gingerly lifted himself from the spikes and swooned into the arms of his military swain. Making sure not to whimper too much, he leaned on his partner in a show of intimate connection and not because he really needed support from the way his knees are buckling with the pain coming from both his thighs. Following an exchange of meaningful eye contact, our duo ambled off, slowly, into the night, determined to have their knees buckle for other indecent reasons, even as some terrible, murderous bruises bloomed on our protagonist’s lower torso and limbs. The next morning brought forth, naturally, no end of shame (“I did what!??” could be heard all over the city’s southwest region.), but even while traces of the dalliance and the sordid memories attached to it are slowly erased, the spikes—fortunately or not—still remain, lying in wait to pike yet another engrossed couple someday.

As one may already know, what was just observed—the spikes, not the encounter—was of course, an example of ‘hostile architecture’, also tellingly described in a slightly more euphemistic term, ‘defensive architecture,’ or the ever crowd-pleaser, the paternalistic ‘disciplinary architecture’. Coined relatively recently, the term(s) comprises and describes a loose class of structures attached to or installed in public spaces so as to render them unusable by certain social groups or in certain ways.[i] Taking the form of anything from spikes—ostensibly meant to deter the homeless population from rough-sleeping on a surface—to dividers on public benches that force users into sitting in a particular way, hostile architecture is a tangible manifestation in the built environment for social control that feels, as its namesake states, physically hostile.

The usage of environmental factors for controlling social behaviours is not something recent; those in the seat of power have always made pragmatic demands of the oppidan space, whether it is by bracketing town squares with civic instruments in medieval times, or its contemporary update, the ubiquitous closed-circuit television surveillance cameras that characterise Foucault’s notion of the panopticon in modern society. Here, the depressing innovation of hostile architecture goes beyond threats, into actualised bodily violence: lie down and be stabbed; sit any way you want, but only the prescribed way will minimise discomfort; stay in your lane, your little box, all of you. The cardinal function of a piece of hostile architecture is to police—bodily autonomy, occupancy, and ultimately, social visibility. In urban historian Mike Davis’ account of early Nineties Los Angeles, for example, the city itself bristled into militarisation with the aid of the well-heeled, resulting in imposing new structures such as spiked fences and barbed wires masquerading as part of a desirable urban renewal project when they are really “strategic armouring [] the city against the poor.”[ii] All these would serve to further drive the already-excluded and under-resourced into the narrower margins where they would presumably stay out of sight—and out of mind, clearing the space for a new breed of desirable, upwardly mobile citizens.

Encounters with hostile architecture often feel personal, even when its calling card is almost always a design that is not. Broadly and uniformly disregarding of the human experience, boring and nondescript to the eyes with barely any other sensorial qualities, hostile architecture insinuates itself into its surroundings and makes itself known only at the point and moment of contact: a bench user’s furtive adjustment ends in dismay once one realises that discomfort is built-in, subsumed by the bare utility it was supposed to provide. One is inclined to feel shock, then anger, then frustration—depending on how urgent one’s needs are and how badly let-down one is left at the failure in facility. The disappointment one feels upon such encounters can be likened to a pulling out of the existential rug from under one’s feet; an attack on a basal expectation which should have been corroborated by a pivotal sense—touch. The reason for this sort of vexation is clear: the physical world is not as it ought to feel.

The most rudimentary, and thus the most primal of all senses, tactility is a sensation that goes beyond the mere touching and sensing of objects, and encompasses the human capacity to ambulate and interact with the world. As noted by American psychologist, James Jerome Gibson, who wrote that “[t]he haptic system…is an apparatus by which the individual gets information about both the environment and his body. He feels an object relative to the body and the body relative to an object,” the haptic “is a perceptual system by which animals and men are literally in touch with the environment.”[iii] Bound explicitly to the skin, the largest sensory organ of them all, to the body, and most crucially, to a fundamental concept of physical existence, touch “remains a constant, the foundation upon which all other senses are based.”[iv] Other senses—sight, smell, hearing—could be lost, and it still would not be as upsetting as losing the sense of touch, the implication of which entails the loss of one’s sense of the world, and even one’s very sense of being.[v]

Owing to its irreducible nature and the fact that “the tactile experience is such a continuous and taken-for-granted part of everyday encounters with the environment,”[vi] haptic experiences and negotiations of spaces may appear to be commonly missed, but that does not mean they are unimportant. Far from it, the different ways of externalising tactile concerns create different entry points into the densely packed urban politics of haptic functions that includes all manners of occupying spaces—as regulated by design elements such as hostile architecture—and moving through them as well. Geographer Paul Rodaway posits that “[t]ouch is both active and passive. The ultimate reference for touch is the human body—its size and orientation, its own relative motion, temperature and humidity, as well as its tactile surfaces or haptic capabilities,”[vii] and it is precisely because of tactility’s unique positioning as an—admittedly anthropocentric—universal sense that the urban condition can be evinced on a very accessible level.

Take for example, walking through the city. While the roads of the contemporary era are dominated by all manner of automobiles, the cars and what-nots that clog up and choke a city are, in all honesty, new additions to the urban landscape, which, for the longest time, prioritised the pedestrian as the universal benchmark of traffic. “[W]alkability was essential in cities before the automobile era,” writes urban planner and academic Michael Southworth .“[S]ince everyone depended upon ready access by foot or slow moving cart, wagon, or carriage for access to jobs and the marketplace.” Reaching the zenith of its primacy in the medieval city, the unassisted human movement created for itself the natural limit and range of distance that allowed for both relative convenience and accessibility to the society. It is only with the post-industrial turn that the need for hyper-efficient transfer of capital displaced human movement to become the de facto way of traversing the urban space. In this scenario, humanity’s own haptic capabilities contested but lost to capitalist forces which demanded bigger, faster, more, and which then created an insular power structure for itself that ignored pedestrians and cyclers.

With this in mind, how then may we approach the tactility of a place such as Singapore, itself a site of contradiction, resistances, and varying degrees of complicity with the global capital flow? Penning down her thoughts on hostile architecture in an op-ed for the Straits Times, writer Amanda Lee Koe opined that “[u]rban design, as orchestrated by the state, has to accommodate the greatest good” that “should not be calculated at a premium whose counter cost, at times, dehumanises its ordinary denizens; nor should it beat down less privileged groups, seeking to exclude them in civic life whilst merrily exploiting their labour; nor should it be complacent in its power.”[viii] What went unsaid is of course the subtext that the tactile properties of the body can never be dis-entangled from the state apparatus which dictates the terms of engagement between the bodied citizens and the spatial milieu: you cannot sit here; you cannot gather there.

Though the state, in all its near omnipotent glory, has the choice and responsibility to be magnanimous, it also seems increasingly clear that this is unlikely to come to fruition as civic agency mounts a growing threat to political expediency. Beyond the almost authorial command exerted on the static body, movement is also curbed—pun, intended—and increasingly rarefied; while Car-Free Sunday and car-free zones exist, them being limited to the city centre, and only occurring occasionally, suggests that it is not really meant for everyone; the irony of such gestures while continual roadworks and highway expansions are happening amidst some occasional sanctioned pedestrian takeover of public space for transient purposes is not lost on anyone who is watching.

No matter if you want it or not, the city offers a near constant amount of sensorial overload. To be in a space is no longer about just being present and engaged, it also means being tuned in to a hundred different stimuli all calibrated to get you to do something—vote for someone, buy a sampler, signup for a mailing list—in the wake of this, what are the ways of resisting, and how do we tune out the noise to get back to the textures of our public space: social, cultural, discursive, etc? In a hostile city, who wears the skin that feels the pain, and how do we help?

Page divider

[i] Petty, James. “The London spikes controversy: Homelessness, urban securitisation and the question of ‘hostile architecture’.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy (2016).
[ii] Davis, Mike. “Fortress Los Angeles: the militarization of urban space.” American architectural history: a contemporary reader. Routledge, 2004.
[iii] Gibson, James Jerome. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. George Allen & Unwin, 1968.
[iv] Montague, Ashley. Touching: The human significance of the skin. Harper & Row, 1986.
[v] Tuan, Yi-Fu. Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics Nature and Culture. Island Press, 1993.
[vi] Rodaway, Paul. Sensuous geographies: body, sense and place. Routledge, 2002.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Koe, Amanda Lee. “Stayin’ alive… in the face of hostile architecture.” The Straits Times. Singapore Press Holdings, 6 May 2016.