Design by Negligence, Negligence by Design

A Theory of 20th and 21st Century Architecture

Negligence by Design, Design by Negligence

One solemn evening in 1964, Kitty Genovese, an average, middle-class New York waitress was driving home in her red Fiat from the bar where she worked. While waiting at a light, she was spotted by one Winston Moseley, as it later became apparent, had followed her home. Armed with a hunting knife, he approached Genovese, who ran toward the front of the building. But Moseley ran after her, overtook her, and stabbed her twice in the back. Moseley stabbed Genovese several more times before raping her, stealing $49 from her and running away again. The attacks spanned across approximately half an hour. A neighbor, Sophia Farrar, found her shortly after and held her in her arms as she breathed her last. Another isolated late-night New York City crime, no?

No. In fact, this crime was actually committed in front of thirty eight eye-witnesses. 38! They screamed and boo’d and aah’d, but no one took action. They all watched her die. You might say that this is somewhat of an anomaly, and that if you — an upstanding citizen — had seen this, you would have intervened. Surely, you would’ve done something. Most of modern psychology would tell us otherwise. In fact, I would argue that you’re acting as a bystander right now. You, I, definitely the entire discipline of architecture — almost all of human society — is a victim of the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect refers to the reduced likelihood of individuals to help a person in distress when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any of them will help. This effect, commonly preached throughout anti-bullying seminars at public high schools is somewhat of a contemporary cliché. We have all heard of it and, if anything, the individual propagating it comes off as somewhat of a soap box orator. But the thing is — this effect is applicable to more than teenage bullying.

Negligence comes from the old French word with the same name neg·li·gence — meaning “injury” or “injustice”. While the word traces its roots further back to Latin, here, the meaning is quite identical to the way we use it in modern times. What’s interesting in the difference between the French understanding of ‘negligence’ is that it implies a certain damage done through this word; it alludes to a certain activeness in action that’s fundamentally different from the passiveness this word implies.

Back to the twenty first century, where on a daily basis we’re bombarded with images — of the seemingly unending wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and countless other places, of innumerable human rights violations and injustice in all forms of environmental damage, from completely eroded forests to a chunk of ice four times the size of Manhattan breaking away from the northwest coast of Greenland, of that giant hole we have neglected and therefore made in our planet’s ozone layer and, most recently, images of the inhumane shooting in our own backyard. Sometimes, when these events affect us enough to want to do something, Facebook offers us the option to change our profile picture, our Instagram feeds and stories are filled with condolences and universal anger over the events, including our own. But all action that takes place is virtual, with very little percolating into the real world.

In their book, “are we human?”, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley write about anesthetic design and how it relates to modern architecture. For them, modern architecture was essentially a means of anesthesia, a form of numbing the modern nerves so terrorized by the agony of the world wars. This argument however, does not end with modern architecture, or for that matter, with architecture as a whole. The notion of design as a stabilizing force has entered the virtual space but the actions we take on social media in response to trauma and injustice are just that, anesthetics. They give us a false sense of stability in a rapidly crumbling landscape. We’re able to take agency, take some action. But then here’s my question, how are we any different than those 38 observers who watched Kitty Genovese get raped and killed? All that seems to have changed, is the medium of booing and aah’ing. If anything, the bystander effect is even stronger, with us watching thousands of people doing the same thing we are. The lack of action is also designed. Neglect has been shaped.

Coming back to neglect, do you see why the French definition holds up? Do you see the damage being caused? Neglect is not passive, it’s an active form of violence. If anything, I hope this article serves as a call to architects, to walk away from the anesthesia of design, to no longer make buildings that are “comfortable”, “nice” or “beautiful”, no longer give the false sense of stability. Architecture must instead de-stabilize, disrupt and disturb. Architecture can no longer shape neglect.

Written for "Intermission" by Interpunct.

Thanks to Chitika Vasudeva for her awesome editing.