Defensible Space

The term defensible space now has meaning in terms of wildfire defense but, in the 1970s when I first learned of it, defensible space was a kind of buffer zone between public space such as a footpath and the (front) door through which private space is accessed, and intended to defend you and your property against assault and/or burglary. I understood it as a front garden. The concept held that if some stranger was in your defensible space then you had the right to ask what they wanted and why they were there. But would a polite question be enough? How this defensible space would be defended was never made explicit and, I suspect it didn’t need to be. It was a concept for aggressive times and places and, not conducive to a sense of community, or of even of belonging to a greater society.

Nevertheless, in places such as 1960s–1980s New York, assuming all strangers were out to do you harm wasn’t such an outrageous thing to assume. Architecturally, it gave rise to secured buildings such as the 1963 Ford Foundation that created a secure and serene place to be instead of the hostile outside. A template for living on Mars.

Over the same period, it became more common to have gated communities where the sense of community was created by a defensive enclosing wall and entry via secured gates. Inside, there was no public and so no public space. Defensible space became a buffer between private space and communal space, ensuring privacy rather than security. Anyone walking a dog or jogging would be regarded as having what people called (and still call) “shared values”. Houses not in gated communities could erect high garden walls and install entry-phones and become gated communities of one. This notion of the outside world as a threat lives on in terminology about territoriality, defense, and surveillance.

 

By the 1980s, apartments around the world were configured as vertical gated communities with live-in building managers having secondary roles as concierges and security guards. If the office was unattended, occupants could use the lobby entry-phone to admit visitors, couriers and food deliveries. Strangers passing by one’s apartment wouldn’t be such a problem if residential floor corridors had only doors opening onto them but, for example, many upmarket apartment buildings in Japan’s large cities have deck access because apartments can be planned with daylight and natural ventilation to more rooms. Rooms with windows opening onto the access corridor are usually secondary (children’s) bedrooms and the windows would have frosted glass, deep reveals and security bars. They wouldn’t be open very often and, when they were, unable to be opened fully. This next layout is typical of the time.

This example has deck access on the north side, enabling south-light to the LDK room. Don’t forget that, in Japan, the tatami room on the south side can also have the bedding put away and the room used as an extension of the daytime living space.

Multi-story residential buildings with what I’ll call detached decks are now more common than they used to be. This next example is a 2015 multi-storey apartment building in Tokyo. The deck is detached from the building and, whether it’s defending privacy or against crime, the defensible space consists of two parts, the first being the voids that physically prevent people from approaching the windows and the second is the space between the voids. This second space could easily be gated to make it an atrophied front garden and more obviously defensible.

This next is a contemporary example of a Chinese apartment with a detached deck leading to one other apartment. The deck is overlooked by a kitchen, two bathrooms and a study room. The balcony is a service balcony for the hot water tank and two air conditioner compressors. The idea of a machine balcony within a void has potential but both examples are an improvement as the apartment no longer presents a blank wall to the access deck. Not only do more rooms get natural light and ventilation, but the rear of the apartments allow an awareness of the internal life of the building. You know when somebody is home.

Detached houses with a front garden, a garden fence and a garden gate always had defensible space and the only thing that changed was the perception of the threat and the degree of response to that threat. These days, we have more people living in multi-storey residential buildings with secure entrances to prevent hawkers, burglars and peepers but, once inside, there no measures to provide the sense of community that living along a street used to.

This term “sense of community” needs clarifying. I’m using it to define a sense of looking out for each other, of having a concern for the security and safety of others as well as oneself and, at the same time, of taking pleasure in other people living along the same street or corridor or in the same building as oneself. Privacy and affirmation that one’s not alone in the world aren’t and shouldn’t be thought of as mutually exclusive.

The Japanese and Chinese examples above both use detached decks to ensure privacy and security to secondary habitable rooms. However, the entrances are clearly at the back of the dwelling whereas defensible space was originally meant to be at the “front” of the house where all the main rooms were. People could be in their living rooms yet still watch for visitors and deliveries and also be aware of activity in the street.

Many of my own proposals to improve this situation by having deck access or semi- enclosed corridor access inadvertently maintained this status quo by usually placing kitchen windows so they looked at or over the access corridor/lobby across a void.

These voids functioned as defensible space in that they prevented people from approaching too close to the windows but they also enhanced airflow. Some proposals had kitchen windows overlooking access corridors and some had them overlooking three-storey high lobbies. Both types had the access overlooked across voids. This next example has an access lobby (serving three levels) being overlooked across a void by windows in the kitchen and entrance hall of each apartment. The view on the right below is the view from the window just inside the entry.

There were several variations. Some used rectangular apartments to stretch the circular typical floor into a sausage shape. My last proposal in this series had kitchen windows and narrow bathroom windows opening onto the void. The bathroom window would have frosted glass of course and once again it was the kitchen window that allowed views out. A view of an access lobby is not necessarily about surveillance. Just as with any other street, it could just be about watching people go about their lives as a way of passing the time. It could be about letting other people know you are home. No matter whether a person is within an apartment or in the access corridor, it could just be about wanting to be a visible part of the life of the building. I believe this is a prerequisite for a high-density residential architecture that’s not the socially dysfunctional types we’re used to.

This next proposal had kitchen windows looking across a void to overlook the access corridor at a half-level difference in height. This half-level height difference minimizes the opportunity for sudden direct eye contact but allows a mutual awareness of the presence of other people.

With this next proposal, the access corridor is separated from the living space by voids each side and overlooked at a half-level difference in height by kitchen windows on one side and a bedroom corridor on the other. The example above had a problem with bathroom windows but this example has the bathrooms above/below the access corridor.

Two proposals, one called Terraced Mat and another called Pasadena 2 were inclined mat buildings along the lines of Kunio Mayekawa’s Pasadena Heights. Both had lightwells shared vertically by different spaces of different apartments but there was no overlooking of access and so, like many a building with blank walls or only minor windows fronting the access, the buildings appeared uninviting to people arriving.

In a suburban situation, the entrance to the house was conventionally at the street facade of the house that had the living room and main bedroom windows. The was so the important rooms of the house faced the street but also because the view of the street was the default view if there was no other view.

The street is no longer the default view. In suburban Australia for example, residential blocks are often only half the width of what they used to be and the remaining width is sufficient for only a double garage, entrance door and one mandatory window that will most likely be for the master bedroom. The living areas now face whatever open space remains out the back. Nevertheless, the fact that the room with the mandatory street-facing window is the master bedroom suggests a residual respect for the view of a street. The houses haven’t turned their backs on the street totally.

It used to be the norm for suburban houses to face the street. It used to be the norm for single-0aspect5 apartments to face some external aspect and present a blank wall to the corridor – a configuration that detached houses are moving towards.

Rather than apartment corridors becoming more like the best kind of street, suburban streets are becoming more like the worst kind of apartment corridor.

The voids in my various proposals have all functioned as defensible space that, being voids, were already a physical barrier against trespassing. Voids puts three-dimensional space between observer and observed. From the inside, voids enhance the perception of security and privacy and provide a safe place from which to watch and maybe even interact with people on the other side. And from the outside and especially for those not yet inside, seeing or even having an awareness of other people (by seeing the lights on in even curtained rooms) is a sign of the shared inhabitation that’s the prerequisite for community. These are important functions but voids can also function as lightwells and ventilation shafts and also as easily accessible and ventilated service risers. My most recent proposal better integrates these many functionalities of these empty spaces that are actually doing quite a lot.

This only becomes possible by rejecting the single-aspect apartment configuration that denies the street and adopting the traditional suburban house orientation that valued views of the street and having a human presence on that street. I’m suggesting it’s time for the orientation of apartments to become more like what houses once were. The only view these dwellings have is of streets that only now, are worthy of being called streets in the sky, defensible space included.

TO DO LIST

  1. Resolve apartment layouts for different lengths, ideally retaining a high degree of modularity.
  2. Solve the contradiction of dual aspect apartments that don’t overlook each other’s private space while still sharing the vertical light-wells/defensible space. This may prove impossible to solve for dual-aspect apartments. I’m not sure what do do about that.
  3. Have only one vertical run of services per void instead of the current two. This may also be impossible to solve for dual aspect apartments along vertically adjacent streets horizontally staggered two bays. Ditto
  4. Solve all this within a 5.5m x 8m x 5.5m matrix, the 5.5m x 8m being equivalent to four car bays (if wanted) so that a workable width remains for the half-void bays. There may be some set of “magic” dimensions like the 8m x 8m grid that neatly solves many things while creating few problems.
  5. Design for construction using self-supporting prefabricated modules in the manner of shipping containers or Habitat ’67.

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3 thoughts on “Defensible Space

  1. Kilgore Trout

    Great post! This one immediately reminded me of Le Vele di Scampia in Naples. It was featured in the film ‘Gomorrah’ (2008) and, apparently, in a follow-on TV series of the same name. Looking for it now I find mostly articles about its failure and eventual demolition, though 25 years ago at least we talked about its sail form (like the ships in the harbor!) and the same idea of a separated space from apartment to circulation (unlike, say, Robin Hood Garden’s severely diminished ‘streets in the sky’ or Pruitt-Igoe’s initial design sketches with the baby in a playpen on the wide interior ‘street’.
    That whole question of what makes for a comfortable spatial separation is a great one. Distance if on the same plane, less so if there’s a signal marker like a fence or low wall, and even less if we can get a grade change up from the circulation. As I recall, there was a great article on this about courtyard garden types in California and their share spaces…
    In any case: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/may/17/goodbye-to-gomorrah-the-end-of-italys-most-notorious-housing-estate and https://www.italynotes.com/stories/le-vele-di-scampia

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks KT! I did see a YouTube video that was all about what went wrong at Le Vele di Scampia, with little about what might be learned. Not having connected balconies (for those strong horizontal lines on the elevation) might be one thing to consider in crime-ridden areas. But as for what size a comfortable spatial separation would be, I think a minimum horizontal distance would be about two metres, and anything over five probably excessive. If it’s the minimum, then a half-floor vertical separation would be good, as in NY brownstones and UK terraces. In both cases, it’s the main rooms that overlook the street and sidewalk. It’s already been solved, just not yet for housing accessed from vertically stacked streets.

      Reply
      1. Kilgore Trout

        Right! And once again the depth of the unit comes into play. Rowhouses in the Anglo-American sphere do indeed put the pubic rooms towards the front and kitchens to the back, presumably so that plumbing and pre-plumbing access to waste infrastructure is easy and hidden from the formal front. This puts bathrooms in the back-center, before the kitchens, and to give air and light access to those rooms in the sidewall setback.
        But somehow when we thought about ‘streets in the sky’ we wanted to enliven the street side and put the kitchens there, while giving the grand view to the living/dining rooms (now a private ‘public’ realm!). Since utilities stack we also wound up with the bathroom waste stacks there at the front. Same for typical apartments and hotel rooms, as you’ve so nicely shown before.
        It’d make for an interesting conversation about the trade-offs of location vis-a-vis ‘eyes on the street’, including *whose* eyes we’re counting on!
        What also occurs to me is that the lower units – those whose face is below the up/down walkway – make for a lot less pleasant spots to be. Again, the brownstones with their kitchens in the back solve this problem as no one will be looking right down onto your counter or breakfast table!
        Finally, two early examples come to mind. First, I’m reminded of Auguste Perret’s Rue Franklin apartments and the big front/back reversal he pulled off there by putting the light well on the front facade. I wonder if there’s something to be drawn from that in this discussion.
        And, I had always wondered why Sant’Elia’s designs were so Art Nouveau compared to, say, Boccioni’s sculptures. I had the good fortune of coming across an answer: Sant’Elia was inspired by the setback apartments of Henri Sauvage (ref: https://alchetron.com/Henri-Sauvage).
        So now, in true Misfits fashion, we’ve up/down, front/back, and setbacks! Let the insights ensue!

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