Robert Moses, Pig-Ears and the Camden Bench: How Architectural Hostility Became Transparent

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Camden Bench
Camden Bench
Camden Bench
Camden Bench

With the growing trend towards hostile architecture now openly admitting its political incentives, are we in an age of transparent hostility?

Writing in 1980 the political scientist, Langdon Winner, described an intriguing, albeit disconcerting episode in the history of American urban planning. The bridges that cross the parkways leading from New York City to Long Island, he explains, were constructed to achieve a particular social effect. The overpasses hang considerably lower than usual, with many barely reaching three meters from the curb.

This structural peculiarity was a deliberate choice by the man responsible for many of New York’s public renovations during the last century, Robert Moses. Aware that low-income communities relied on public transport Moses designed these bridges to discourage poor people from using the parkways. Four metres high buses were unable to pass beneath the bridges, keeping poor people within the city limits, whereas higher-income, predominately white communities, driving automobiles, were free to use the roads. Developed to encourage commuting and recreation, the parkways in question led Moses’ acclaimed Jones Beach, effectively segregating a supposedly public park.

The discriminatory nature of Moses’ planning remained widely unrecognized during his lifetime. Drivers using the roads failed to notice anything significant, with the bridges’ seemingly harmless design concealing their political purposes, allowing these qualities to phase into the periphery. Concerned with the political dimensions of technological artefacts, Winner uses this episode to demonstrate a provocative line of thought. Banal aspects of the landscape, he explains, can be powerful tools in the hands of the politically motivated. […]

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