Crime pays! How surveillance technology, architecture and urban design are powered by crime

One could even say that the gadgets of the security industry merely announce the presence of valuables in the home to those who are being locked out; that it is more often about symbolic security – or about status symbols – that at most testify to the fact that one can afford these gadgets. That our society also needs real acts of crime, however, and that it knows all too well how to put them to good use, is something Karl Marx pointed out a long time ago.

”Crime does not pay!’ Not so!’, wrote Marx. Crime pays very well indeed – not always for the ‘criminal’ or his unfortunate victim, but certainly for ‘society’. Because according to Marx, the criminal not only produces the crime itself, but also the preventive measures against crime. In other words, the criminal produces the police, the penal code, the judicial system and the prison, as well as all the forms by which criminality is proclaimed, whether it be in the ‘fine arts’, in scholarly publications or in the mass media.1
‘Crime and transgression’ of whatever kind presuppose a system of rules that can be ‘broken’, as well as an authority that frames and maintains those rules. This calls for publicly executed punitive measures, social and spatial structures relating to law enforcement and punishment, penal institutions, and the accompanying media coverage. On the other hand, every set of rules requires occasional transgression, for only in this way can normative boundaries be drawn around the deviant and, by extension, our own normality be defined.
By this means, the impermissible deviation is rendered recognizable and liable to criminalization and it also has a disciplinary effect. Through the ceaseless reportage of deviation, prosecution and punishment – once upon a time passed down orally, nowadays by the mass media – the criminal aids prevention and deterrence and thereby unintentionally the stabilization and regulation of the prevailing morality and economic power relations. This production of anxiety not only serves the general interest, but also specific interested parties.
The anxiety generated by real or imagined crime is not only portrayed in numerous aesthetic forms of expression, like crime novels and cop movies, which serve the psychological processing of crime. It is also enshrined in countless preventive structural, architectural and town-planning measures.
In this way, suppositional crime opens up a sizeable market, and contributes more (according to Marx) to national income than many more reputable business sectors. If crime threatens to disappear, it is reinvented by those with a vested interest in anxiety: the police, politicians, planners, the building materials, security and insurance industries, but also artists, authors, and academics like myself whom have made this field of production the focal point of their ‘research project’.
Building on Marx’s thesis, I venture to assert that, on the basis of a meticulously compiled chain of indicators, an alternative history of architecture could be written. The Panopticon, which according to Michel Foucault embodies the guiding principle of the surveillance society, is one of the most powerful substantiations for Marx’s thesis – one of many, incidentally.
The architecture of fear
In addition to protection against the elements, the issue of housing has always been strongly dictated by fear of crime; it has been a driving force behind the building industry throughout history. Even though the objective danger – at least from our Eurocentric point of view – of falling prey to a crime whereby life and limb are put at stake has decreased with the forward march of ‘civilization’ and the simultaneously growing monopolization of violence by the state, people’s sense of insecurity has nevertheless increased. It is not only the police and the security industry who profit from this, but also architects, town planners and landscape architects. And because the debate about fear is also being conducted by feminist planners, women, too, are finally managing to capture public attention, as well as a modest share of the market.
There are two opposing preventive strategies competing against each other in the market. Luckily, neither of them is financially viable or politically feasible in their pure form. The first strategy is aimed at ‘reinforcing’ buildings as much as is technically possible in order to isolate individuals or groups with similar interests from the dangers lurking outside. All passages from outside to inside are monitored by surveillance cameras and security personnel; reinforced concrete and bulletproof glass are deployed. This is the model of a city composed of bunker architecture, the inside is patrolled by private and the outside by public security services.
In the second – democratic and ‘feminist’ – strategy, each individual is seen as a possible threat who must be prevented from breaking the prevailing rules by being rendered visible. This passive surveillance entails the absolute transparency of every nook and cranny, the elimination all possible hiding places, the illumination of the entire urban area, including the underground domain of basements, car parks, metro and so on. This utopian model of the ‘safe’ city is constructed of glass and light, and the surveillance task is taken on by the entire population.
In the US and Great Britain, where political developments have resulted in a keener fear of crime and politically motivated attacks than in countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, crime prevention in the construction industry already has a long history as a field of academic research and as a design practice: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a counter-strategy to traditional protective architecture. It is based on research done by Jane Jacobs (1961) and Oscar Newman (1973).2
In addition to access control and the presence of the police, this strategy uses social control (Jacobs) to establish a ‘defensible space’ (Newman). CPTED’s key terms are territoriality, small manageable units, surveillance, a view of the entire area, image, improvement of the streetscape to encourage stronger identification with the neighbourhood, environment, and communities of interest: the users’ occupation of the space and their identification with their surroundings means that unfamiliar intruders are immediately recognized as such. The only way to establish such close-knit communities, according to the American conception of culture, is occupation by like-minded residents.3 Accordingly, the debate about security gave rise to a criminological argument that supports New Urbanism and regards gated communities as the securest form of habitation.
In America and Canada the police collaborate actively with neighbourhood associations and estate agents. Selected citizens are trained as neighbourhood watchpersons and police informants; estate agents are recruited as mobile control units: their mobility in the city, their unimpeachable access to properties and their knowledge of residents and homes are put to good use.4 In some cases, such as in Peel (Ontario), the police not only give advice via the Internet, but also intervene at the level of urban planning.5
Categorization of the production factor
Preventive measures can be subdivided into two groups: measures against enemies from outside (burglars, foreign army units at the city gates, migrants at the external borders of the EU), and measures against enemies from within: family members (long a social taboo), co-workers, demonstrators, ‘dangerous’ classes. Against external enemies, access surveillance and fortifications are deployed. Against the enemy within, disciplining architecture and ‘spaces of control’ are built, like the great boulevards that were also conceived with a strategic military objective in mind, namely, to be able to mobilize soldiers quickly or to isolate the city centre or seat of government efficiently in case of riots.
Jean Baudrillard elaborated this distinction in a metaphorical genealogy of enmities: walls protect against the wolf that attacks from outside, hygienic measures help against rats beneath the ground, but against the beetle, which can operate in three dimensions, very little can be done. Viruses represent the ultimate stage of malevolence; they nestle in the very heart of the system.
Apart from the distinction between the inside and the outside, the categories S, M, L, and XL, introduced by Rem Koolhaas, can also be invoked here, where they refer not to the magnitude of the crime itself, but to the scale of the object targeted by the crime:
S(mall): the evolution of security technology as in the historically productive rivalry between locksmiths and the guild of burglars. Alarm installations and camera surveillance also belong to this category, even though the latter can inflate the scope of the category since despite the miniaturization of their components, these systems can grow into immense networks.
M(edium): the safeguarding of medium sized objects, as in the real and figurative safeguarding of ordinary homes, and access control in gated communities. (The metaphor of paradise, used to sell such places is equally open to criticism, because protection goes hand-in-hand with strict rules of conduct.)
L(arge): the fortification of larger complexes by means of analogue or computer-controlled access monitoring, military or intelligent ‘expulsion’ techniques in residential blocks, office buildings, shopping malls and urban entertainment centres.
XL(large): town planning and state architecture; the military-strategic layout of cities, colonies as laboratories of modernity, the illumination of the city, historical and contemporary improvement strategies in so-called problem areas of the city (gentrification); the complex security demands of international airports that are geographically located in the middle of the country, but juridically on the external borders.
Paradigm shift with regard to control
The increasing privatization of once public spaces and their economic utilization have lead to the segmentation of the territory and its control. Individuals, too, are increasingly confronted with the fragmentation of their own identity. Social status changes according to the social sub-segments in which they circulate. Collage families and collage incomes characterize existence in a deregulated society.
At the same time, according to the German criminologists Michael Lindenberg and Henning Schmidt-Semisch, there is a tendency in Western countries to exchange generalized, consensus-based value judgements for those of numerous subcultures. What was previously regarded with suspicion as eccentric or over the top and sometimes even punished as transgression, is currently, where possible, marketed as a leisure trend for high-income groups. It is difficult nowadays for law enforcement officers to ascertain whether or not a 45-year-old martially clad Harley Davidson motor-cyclist is a member of a gang or simply a highly-paid entrepreneur dressed in leisure clothing, or perhaps both. Like corporate marketing concepts, the conduct of the law enforcement officers is being reorganized: ‘The state responds to the disappearance of a universal morality with a ‘de-moralization’ of control. Ideas such as resocialization, improvement and treatment lose their significance and are replaced by the ‘morally-aloof’ technocratic concept of security’.6
‘The society of control loosens its moral grip on the individual, not in order to provide them with unlimited freedom, but to subject them to another mode of control that is more spatial-situational.’ Individuals no longer pass through the major control milieus in a purely chronological sequence as part of their biography – first as child in their own family, then at school, at university, in the army, the factory, the hospital and so on, as described by Michel Foucault – instead they switch daily between the various control milieus.
‘The all-pervasive and ever more technologically mediated surveillance touches upon the interest of every owner of a space in a strictly instrumental way. Foucault’s image of society as an all-pervasive prison network has been replaced by the more contemporary image of a beehive divided into a variety of spaces of control belonging to different private governments: ‘You are allowed to do as you please, but do it in the allocated space and in the intended manner – that guarantees your safety vis à vis us and our safety vis à vis you.’ The state is no longer the guardian of morality,’ as Lindenberg and Schmidt-Semisch write, ‘only the penetrable spatial boundaries are still patrolled by the state’s guards.’
The new forms of control have not supplanted the old forms of disciplining, but have made them more refined, more flexible, cheaper and as a result, more comprehensive.
The task of the police in the risk society
According to the traditional notion of police work as formed by the media, the policeman ‘hunts’ down the criminal and provides the judicial system with evidence that will lead to the criminal’s conviction. It is no longer that simple. Today, police know-how no longer serves only the law or crime statistics, but also a system of fragmented institutions that are simultaneously part of all sorts of networks. Information is not only exchanged among the police forces of different countries but, according to criminologist Richard Ericson, is also requested by other government institutions and private companies; by social, educational and financial institutions; by the health care services, crime prevention bodies and sick leave administrators, by the insurance industry to enable them to estimate risks, by suppliers of security apparatus to market their products, by personnel departments to check up on applicants.7
All the relevant information is gathered, all the risk factors are identified, ordered and managed and the risks uncovered by the insurance companies are converted into institutional norms applicable to all. The paradoxical logic is that this ever-increasing knowledge generates ever-increasing risks that lead to ever more powerful measures. At the end of the day, fear proves itself.
To compensate the limitation of traditional police powers, new images of the enemy are conjured up: organized crime, the criminality of foreigners and young people’s increasing readiness to resort to violence. The most effective image of the enemy, however, is that of international terrorism: the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993, on the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995 and the massive car bomb attacks by the IRA in the centre of London in 1992 and 1996, have legitimized the expansion of the activities of the secret services.
They have also raised the standards for both security technology and access control systems significantly. They have even generated a fast-growing industry known as Business Continuity Services, with a specific building type of its own. These data backup centres, unlike the representative buildings of the companies themselves, are deliberately housed in inconspicuous camouflage architecture far from the urban centres so as not to be easily targeted during attacks and to be able to continue business without interruption in case of a catastrophe. Martin Pawley has called this ‘parallel architecture’.8
Spatial-situational control methods are very popular in the workplace where employees’ chip cards regulate the use of lifts and doors, record their working hours and make it possible to trace their movements inside the office. But it is not restricted to the workplace. During the day individuals increasingly find themselves in a continuum of different control milieus: they sleep in gated communities and shop and relax in equally secured shopping malls and urban entertainment centres. Even when on holiday, the so-called escape from daily routine, people prefer the security of an All Inclusive Club or computer-controlled ski centre consistent with their means. On holiday, individuals can get accustomed to being watched at all times. And by watching reality shows like Big Brother they can learn to adopt the viewpoint of an amused guard who is able to exclude undesirable types from the game via the Internet. While the Truman Show’s hero was caught unwittingly and involuntarily in the artificial world of the entertainment industry, today nobody has to be forced to participate in such a game anymore – on the contrary!
Unlike the safeguarding of military compounds, financial consultancy firms, international airports or the residential enclaves of the super rich, the access controls of the various everyday milieus are regulated by economic means. Although everybody understands the codes that indicate to which milieu each person belongs – business class versus economy class, Prada versus HandM, Hollywood Hills versus Working Class District – not everyone is willing to give up their right to freedom of movement. Even though it suits most people to stick to self-determined or allocated boundaries, for many others the kick of city life consists in transgressing the limits and occupying prohibited space.
Where informal boundaries are being transgressed, but physical barriers are deemed undesirable, as in shopping centres, continuous video surveillance helps to identify ‘undesirable subjects’. However, the individuals concerned will of course always develop tactics to evade the criteria of exclusion: impoverished American senior citizens wanting to spend their afternoons in expensive shopping malls among other people disguise themselves as affluent customers by carrying empty shopping bags.
The use of physical violence by the security service is no longer the only method relied upon to expel undesirable elements. The German railways (Deutsche Bahn) has incorporated the latest strategies for expulsion in their new publicity campaign: Service, Sicherheit, Sauberkeit. In their stations, transformed into Profitcentres in the wake of privatization, a video clip lauds the round-the-clock video surveillance intended to guarantee the safety of all. At the same time, security headquarters regularly sends out squads of patrolling cleaners to pursue ‘undesirable’ persons through the station precinct, repeatedly disturbing them in their various stopping places with incessant cleaning until they finally give up and leave the station. Occasionally, the task of expelling unwelcome visitors is taken over by the building services: apart from the special ‘black light’ bulbs installed in the toilets to prevent junkies from being able to distinguish their own veins on their blue-white skin, the floors are also uncomfortably cooled (instead of heated) or the humidity levels are raised to make inappropriate lingering by the homeless, for example, unbearable.
In the newest German shopping centres, the air-conditioning can be manipulated to create a strong draught or a cold wind to chase away undesirable persons who have not come to shop but to get warm. Another strategy is to replace the soothing muzak, which is designed to stimulate consumption and to suggest conviviality, safety and enjoyment, with unendurable music in those places where undesirables linger, until they vacate the ear-torturing area (usually within a few minutes). According to German experts, Austrian folk music is particularly well suited for this purpose; for example, ‘Du ich mag Dich’ by Hansi Hinterseer. In the US the same tactic – using classical music in this instance – was used to keep a youth gang out of a certain neighbourhood. However, after a couple of days, the music so irritated one of the residents supposedly being protected by it, that he smashed the sound installation to smithereens. What would Karl Marx have made of that?
1. Karl Marx, ‘Theorien über der Mehrwert’ erster Teil, in: Karl Marx u. Friedrich Engels, Werke, Vol 26.1, Berlin 1985, p. 363.
2. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, London 1961; Oscar Newman, Defensible Space. People and Design in the Violent City, New York 1972. Newman is known in the Netherlands on account of his advice on how to deal with insecurity in the Bijlmer housing estate in Amsterdam.
3. Barry Poyner, Design against Crime. Beyond Defensible Space, London 1983.
4. Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggerty, Policing the Risk Society, Oxford/New York 1997.
5. The home page of the Peel Regional Police in Ontario, Canada is illustrative of the way the police operate nowadays: the population is involved as much as possible in so-called Community Policing programmes. See:
6. Michael Lindenberg and Henning Schmidt-Semisch, ‘Sanktionsverzicht statt Herrschaftsverlust. Vom Übergang in die Kontrollgesellschaft’, in: Kriminologisches Journal, Vol. 1/1995, pp. 2-17.
7. This is legally sanctioned in the US and Canada; there are similar tendencies in central European countries. Richard Ericson and Kevin Haggerty, Policing the Risk Society, Oxford 1997.
8. Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture, London 1998.

Michael Zinganel, artist, curator and writer, currently teaches architecture at Graz University of Technology in Austria. His artistic and theoretical work focuses on the deconstruction of the mythologies of planning processes. His forthcoming book, Real Crime. Architektur und Verbrechen, will be published later this year by Edition Selene, Vienna.

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