Urban Architecture | Surveillance, Architecture and Society

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Surveillance has a long history in architecture and society. Throughout history and modernity, surveillance has been used as a method of control, a symbol of power. Lately it has been used to assure, or attempt to manifest, safety in urban environments. This has increased the complexity of the issue and expanded the scope. Power, control, gender, fear and mistrust are entwined in surveillance. How is surveillance used in architecture and urban environments? What are its consequences and future implications?

Transparency, surveillance and architecture first came together with the advent of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon in the late 18th Century. The panopticon was conceived as a prison in which a minimal number of guards could watch the entire prison population. Cells made up the perimeter of the round prison, creating a strong backlight on the prisoners. The center of the round prison was the guard tower, concealing the guards within. From this configuration, it was easy for the guards to see exactly what the prisoners were up to at all times. However, there was more to the prison than the cells. Because the guards could not be seen, the prisoners had to assume they were always being watched. Thereby, as Hille Koskela says in "The gaze without eyes: video-surveillance and the changing nature of urban space", "while the panopticon ostensibly keeps the body entrapped, it is in fact targeted at the psyche: in this mechanism 'the soul is the prison of the body.'" This is interesting because Koskela argues that surveillance does not only monitor a body moving through space, but also affects the mind of the body. The act of being constantly viewed by an invisible and unknown power makes one try to conform to the social norms expected. The mind and soul are forced to make the body behave in an acceptable way. While the body is imprisoned, it is the soul that suffers. Michel Foucault adds, "visibility is a trap. It is through this visibility that modern society exercises its controlling system of power and knowledge." Like in the panopticon, visibility sees the body, but inflicts changes in the mind. Visibility coerces people into conforming to social norms that are established by those in power.

Many people see a corollary between the panopticon and modern video surveillance and closed circuit television (CCTV). Increased fear, especially post 9/11, has led to a rapid increase in the number and density of surveillance in modern cities. The first use of CCTV was in 1942 to observe the launch of V-2 rockets. Olean, New York was the first city to implement CCTV on their main street to try to fight crime. The next development was the use of CCTV in banks to try to prevent theft by customers, outsiders, and staff. With increasing fear of terrorism and crime in the 1990s and 2000s, city centers became areas of constant surveillance. While the goal is to deter crime, CCTV footage is most useful in solving crimes and gathering evidence. CCTV footage was used to identify the London Underground bombers, and footage is regularly used to track the movements of missing children. Privacy issues are also debated, with many critics concerned that the technology encroaches on privacy and civil liberties. However, proponents argue that cameras surveil public space, where one can never expect to have much privacy anyways.
The increase in urban surveillance has led to a wide variety of effects and observations of the consequences of the camera. In studying the changing nature of urban space, Koskela observes 3 types of space: space as a container, power-space, and emotional space. Further observations have been made about the division of space, exclusion and division, and a blur between public and private.

Space as a container involves an exploration of the consequences of life put on a monitor, when space as a container for social activity becomes contained in the eye of the camera. Koskela suggests that several negative things result from this process. First, the camera is detached from the scene it is containing in several ways. The first being that it is designed to solve crimes, not prevent them, therefore working in a different time frame than we live in. Second, as with the panopticon, it is not known whether someone is behind the camera or not, and if there is, their location is completely unknown. This leads to uneasiness and skepticism about the camera and the urban space it covers. If something happens, perhaps the person behind the camera is too far away to do anything. Third, the camera views the scene as a contained object and has no interaction of influence on it. At the same time, surveillance forms are both transparent and opaque. Everything under surveillance is becoming more visible while the sources are becoming more opaque, producing an effect of uncertainty on the public. Lastly, space as container reveals an objectified reality, in which the image displaces reality. It is not unlike a stage space. People pass on and off of the frame of view, or stage. The lived world is transformed into a 2 dimensional projection of the world void of any human contact, increasing the sense of people as objects in a container. This is not unlike Foucault's observations of the panopticon cells, saying, "they are like so many cages, so many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible." This is a very important connection because Foucault also asserts that visibility is used preserve society's controlling systems of power and knowledge. This connection suggests that CCTV use helps to keep structures of social hierarchy in place, with power remaining in the hands of the invisible.

Power-space is based on the studies of how video surveillance affects power interactions. What is readily noticed is that surveillance is not a power-neutral condition. "Looking connotates power, and being looked at powerlessness." Surveillance turns the city into a panopticon, linking power, knowledge and space. This is an extremely fascinating idea, questioning whether urban space under surveillance is in fact a prison of the psyche, conforming behavior to social norms established by those in power. Cameras are used to try to prevent deviant behavior through controlling people by controlling the space. But the lines are not clear as to who has the power. Many cameras are privately owned, making it impossible to know who is at the other end of the camera. Gender issues also are considered, because women are most often under surveillance, and men are most often behind the camera. Compounding the gender issue, feminist theory dictates that identity is largely formed through, and by, power relations. This implies that anonymous surveillance can have a negative affect on identity and raises questions about the camera being used as a tool for harassment.

Emotional space tries to understand the emotional impact of being under surveillance. While the obvious goal is to make urban environments safer, and instill a sense of security, attitudes are often more ambivalent. Some feel guilty, uneasy and uncertain as to who is watching, and it can create feelings of vulnerability. For a woman alone in a subway station, the camera may make her feel safe as well as unsafe. Who is watching? Being under control of the camera means not being in control of the situation.

Modern and evolving technology has given rise to even new forms of surveillance and the panopticon. Mark Poster sees our wired world as a "Superpanopticon, a system of surveillance without walls, windows, towers, or guards." People with camera phones respond to events by photographing and texting live information across communication networks. Implied also is that the public is now under scrutiny by the public. No longer are CCTV cameras the only form of surveillance and control, now the general population will use similar methods to control social behavior and record events in the city. Also called the Participatory Panopticon by James Casco, this development in technology and surveillance is a whole new form of surveillance architecture and digital space.

Surveillance technology also offers a new way to look at the creation, slippage and transparency of boundaries. Boundaries are set up where cameras cover, or end coverage, implying a change in space, social contact, and control. While the camera is the physical marker of the boundary, the lines itself are invisible, transparent. Surveillance also allows for a slippage of boundaries. By transferring events in one location to a remote location via the camera, boundaries are no longer definite and physical, and events are no longer contained in the space they happen in. By virtue of these possibilities, we also see that boundaries have become transparent and indefinite, expanding the area of influence a given site has.

As with transparency, surveillance has complex series of interactions with space and experience. By containing and flattening space, objectifying people, influencing power relations, and affecting the emotions and perceptions of people being watched, surveillance, coupled with architecture, has the choice of being interesting or viewed with ambivalence. My interest lies in both the spatial quality of surveillance, and the social ramifications of it. How can surveillance be exploited? Diller+Scofidio have several projects examining transparency and cameras that give good insight to the issues and applications to architecture. Case studies of these projects provide a valuable supplement to research. 'Jump Cuts', 'Facsimile' and the proposed installation 'Sky Space' all use transparency and cameras to defy expectations and change the apparent reality. The display of people and space are manipulated with the camera. While not as invasive as CCTV, the cameras in the project still objectify people, remove them from social contact with the viewers, and put them on display, submitting them to scrutiny from the people in the privileged position of watching.

Paul Goss is an architect, freelance writer, blogger and founder of the Architecture and Anthropology Curiosity Collaborative. Visit the blog to learn more about architecture and anthropology: http://architectureanthropology.com To learn more about Paul Goss and his work go here: http://www.paulgoss.com

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