The Architectural Nervous System

Home, Fear, Insecurity

How to Cite

Caluya, G. (2007). The Architectural Nervous System: Home, Fear, Insecurity. M/C Journal, 10(4).
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01

If the home is traditionally considered to be a space of safety associated with the warm and cosy feeling of the familial hearth, it is also continuously portrayed as a space under threat from the outside from which we must secure ourselves and our families. Securing the home entails a series of material, discursive and performative strategies, a host of precautionary measures aimed at regulating and ultimately producing security. When I was eleven my family returned home from the local fruit markets to find our house had been ransacked. Clothes were strewn across the floor, electrical appliances were missing and my parents’ collection of jewellery – wedding rings and heirlooms – had been stolen. Few things remained untouched and the very thought of someone else’s hands going through our personal belongings made our home feel tainted. My parents were understandably distraught. As Filipino immigrants to Australia the heirlooms were not only expensive assets from both sides of my family, but also signifiers of our homeland. Added to their despair was the fact that this was our first house – we had rented prior to that.

During the police interviews, we discovered that our area, Sydney’s Western suburbs, was considered ‘high-risk’ and we were advised to install security. In their panic my parents began securing their home. Grills were installed on every window. Each external wooden door was reinforced by a metal security door. Movement detectors were installed at the front of the house, which were set to blind intruders with floodlights. Even if an intruder could enter the back through a window a metal grill security door was waiting between the backroom and the kitchen to stop them from getting to our bedrooms. In short, through a series of transformations our house was made into a residential fortress.

Yet home security had its own dangers. A series of rules and regulations were drilled into me ‘in case of an emergency’: know where your keys are in case of a fire so that you can get out; remember the phone numbers for an emergency and the work numbers of your parents; never let a stranger into the house; and if you need to speak to a stranger only open the inside door but leave the security screen locked. Thus, for my Filipino-migrant family in the 1990s, a whole series of defensive behaviours and preventative strategies were produced and disseminated inside and around the home to regulate security risks. Such “local knowledges” were used to reinforce the architectural manifestations of security at the same time that they were a response to the invasion of security systems into our house that created a new set of potential dangers.

This article highlights “the interplay of material and symbolic geographies of home” (Blunt and Varley 4), focusing on the relation between urban fears circulating around and within the home and the spatial practices used to negotiate such fears. In exploring home security systems it extends the exemplary analysis of home technologies already begun in Lynn Spigel’s reading of the ‘smart home’ (381-408). In a similar vein, David Morley’s analysis of mediated domesticity shows how communications technology has reconfigured the inside and outside to the extent that television actually challenges the physical boundary that “protects the privacy and solidarity of the home from the flux and threat of the outside world” (87). Television here serves as a passage in which the threat of the outside is reframed as news or entertainment for family viewing. I take this as a point of departure to consider the ways that this mediated fear unfolds in the technology of our homes.

Following Brian Massumi, I read the home as “a node in a circulatory network of many dimensions (each corresponding to a technology of transmission)” (85). For Massumi, the home is an event-space at the crossroads of media technologies and political technologies. “In spite of the locks on the door, the event-space of the home must be seen as one characterized by a very loose regime of passage” (85). The ‘locked door’ is not only a boundary marker that defines the inside from the outside but another technology that leads us outside the home into other domains of inquiry: the proliferation of security technologies and the mundane, fearful intimacies of the home. In this context, we should heed Iris Marion Young’s injunction to feminist critics that the home does provide some positives including a sense of privacy and the space to build relationships and identities. Yet, as Colomina argues, the traditional domestic ideal “can only be produced by engaging the home in combat” (20). If, as Colomina’s comment suggests, ontological security is at least partially dependent on physical security, then this article explores the ontological effects of our home security systems.

Houses at War: Targeting the Family

As Beatriz Colomina reminds us, in times of war we leave our homelands to do battle on the front line, but battle lines are also being drawn in our homes. Drawing inspiration from Virilio’s claim that contemporary war takes place without fighting, Colomina’s article ‘Domesticity at War’ contemplates the domestic interior as a “battlefield” (15). The house, she writes, is “a mechanism within a war where the differences between defense [sic] and attack have become blurred” (17).

According to the Home Security Precautions, New South Wales, October 1999 report conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 47% of NSW dwellings were ‘secure’ (meaning that they either had a burglar alarm, or all entry points were secured or they were inside a security block) while only 9% of NSW households had no home security devices present (Smith 3). In a similar report for Western Australia conducted in October 2004, an estimated 71% of WA households had window security of some sort (screens, locks or shutters) while 67% had deadlocks on at least one external door (4). An estimated 27% had a security alarm installed while almost half (49%) had sensor lights (Hubbard 4-5). This growing sense of insecurity means big business for those selling security products and services. By the end of June 1999, there were 1,714 businesses in Australia’s security services industry generating $1,395 million of income during 1998-99 financial year (McLennan 3; see also Macken). This survey did not include locksmith services or the companies dealing with alarm manufacturing, wholesaling or installing.

While Colomina’s article focuses on the “war with weather” and the attempts to control environmental conditions inside the home through what she calls “counterdomesticity” (20), her conceptualisation of the house as a “military weapon” (17) provides a useful tool for thinking the relation between the home, architecture and security. Conceiving of the house as a military weapon might seem like a stretch, but we should recall that the rhetoric of war has already leaked into the everyday. One hears of the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on crime’ in the media. ‘War’ is the everyday condition of our urban jungles (see also Diken and Lausten) and in order to survive, let alone feel secure, one must be able to defend one’s family and home.

Take, for example, Signal Security’s website. One finds a panel on the left-hand side of the screen to all webpages devoted to “Residential Products”. Two circular images are used in the panel with one photograph overlapping the other. In the top circle, a white nuclear family (stereotypical mum, dad and two kids), dressed in pristine white clothing bare their white teeth to the internet surfer. Underneath this photo is another photograph in which an arm clad in a black leather jacket emerges through a smashed window. In the foreground a black-gloved hand manipulates a lock, while a black balaclava masks an unrecognisable face through the broken glass.

The effect of their proximity produces a violent juxtaposition in which the burglar visually intrudes on the family’s domestic bliss. The panel stages a struggle between white and black, good and bad, family and individual, security and insecurity, recognisability and unidentifiability. It thus codifies the loving, knowable family as the domestic space of security against the selfish, unidentifiable intruder (presumed not to have a family) as the primary reason for insecurity in the family home – and no doubt to inspire the consumption of security products.

Advertisements of security products thus articulate the family home as a fragile innocence constantly vulnerable from the outside. From a feminist perspective, this image of the family goes against the findings of the National Homicide Monitoring Program, which shows that 57% of the women killed in Australia between 2004 and 2005 were killed by an intimate partner while 17% were killed by a family member (Mouzos and Houliaras 20). If, on the one hand, the family home is targeted by criminals, on the other, it has emerged as a primary site for security advertising eager to exploit the growing sense of insecurity – the family as a target market. The military concepts of ‘target’ and ‘targeting’ have shifted into the benign discourse of strategic advertising.

As Dora Epstein writes, “We arm our buildings to arm ourselves from the intrusion of a public fluidity, and thus our buildings, our architectures of fortification, send a very clear message: ‘avoid this place or protect yourself’” (1997: 139). Epstein’s reference to ‘architectures of fortification’ reminds us that the desire to create security through the built environment has a long history. Nan Ellin has argued that fear’s physical manifestation can be found in the formation of towns from antiquity to the Renaissance. In this sense, towns and cities are always already a response to the fear of foreign invaders (Ellin 13; see also Diken and Lausten 291).

This fear of the outsider is most obviously manifested in the creation of physical walls. Yet fortification is also an effect of spatial allusions produced by the configuration of space, as exemplified in Fiske, Hodge and Turner’s semiotic reading of a suburban Australian display home without a fence. While the lack of a fence might suggest openness, they suggest that the manicured lawn is flat so “that eyes can pass easily over it – and smooth – so that feet will not presume to” (30). Since the front garden is best viewed from the street it is clearly a message for the outside, but it also signifies “private property” (30). Space is both organised and lived, in such a way that it becomes a medium of communication to passers-by and would-be intruders. What emerges in this semiotic reading is a way of thinking about space as defensible, as organised in a way that space can begin to defend itself.

The Problematic of Defensible Space

The incorporation of military architecture into civil architecture is most evident in home security. By security I mean the material systems (from locks to electronic alarms) and precautionary practices (locking the door) used to protect spaces, both of which are enabled by a way of imagining space in terms of risk and vulnerability. I read Oscar Newman’s 1972 Defensible Space as outlining the problematic of spatial security. Indeed, it was around that period that the problematic of crime prevention through urban design received increasing attention in Western architectural discourse (see Jeffery).

Newman’s book examines how spaces can be used to reinforce human control over residential environments, producing what he calls ‘defensible space.’ In Newman’s definition,

defensible space is a model for residential environments which inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself. All the different elements which combine to make a defensible space have a common goal – an environment in which latent territoriality and sense of community in the inhabitants can be translated into responsibility for ensuring a safe, productive, and well-maintained living space (3).

Through clever design space begins to defend itself. I read Newman’s book as presenting the contemporary problematic of spatialised security: how to structure space so as to increase control; how to organise architecture so as to foster territorialism; how to encourage territorial control through amplifying surveillance. The production of defensible space entails moving away from what he calls the ‘compositional approach’ to architecture, which sees buildings as separate from their environments, and the ‘organic approach’ to architecture, in which the building and its grounds are organically interrelated (Newman 60).

In this approach Newman proposes a number of changes to space: firstly, spaces need to be multiplied (one no longer has a simple public/private binary, but also semi-private and semi-public spaces); secondly, these spaces must be hierarchised (moving from public to semi-public to semi-private to private); thirdly, within this hierarchy spaces can also be striated using symbolic or material boundaries between the different types of spaces. Furthermore, spaces must be designed to increase surveillance: use smaller corridors serving smaller sets of families (69-71); incorporate amenities in “defined zones of influence” (70); use L-shaped buildings as opposed to rectangles (84); use windows on the sides of buildings to reveal the fire escape from outside (90). As he puts it, the subdivision of housing projects into “small, recognisable and comprehensible-at-a-glance enclaves is a further contributor to improving the visual surveillance mechanism” (1000). Finally, Newman lays out the principle of spatial juxtaposition: consider the building/street interface (positioning of doors and windows to maximise surveillance); consider building/building interface (e.g. build residential apartments next to ‘safer’ commercial, industrial, institutional and entertainment facilities) (109-12).

In short, Newman’s book effectively redefines residential space in terms of territorial zones of control. Such zones of influence are the products of the interaction between architectural forms and environment, which are not reducible to the intent of the architect (68). Thus, in attempting to respond to the exigencies of the moment – the problem of urban crime, the cost of housing – Newman maps out residential space in what Foucault might have called a ‘micro-physics of power’.

During the mid-1970s through to the 1980s a number of publications aimed at the average householder are printed in the UK and Australia. Apart from trade publishing (Bunting), The UK Design Council released two small publications (Barty, White and Burall; Design Council) while in Australia the Department of Housing and Construction released a home safety publication, which contained a small section on security, and the Australian Institute of Criminology published a small volume entitled Designing out Crime: Crime prevention through environmental design (Geason and Wilson). While Newman emphasised the responsibility of architects and urban planners, in these publications the general concerns of defensible space are relocated in the ‘average homeowner’.

Citing crime statistics on burglary and vandalism, these publications incite their readers to take action, turning the homeowner into a citizen-soldier. The householder, whether he likes it or not, is already in a struggle. The urban jungle must be understood in terms of “the principles of warfare” (Bunting 7), in which everyday homes become bodies needing protection through suitable architectural armour. Through a series of maps and drawings and statistics, the average residential home is transformed into a series of points of vulnerability. Home space is re-inscribed as a series of points of entry/access and lines of sight. Simultaneously, through lists of ‘dos and don’ts’ a set of precautionary behaviours is inculcated into the readers. Principles of security begin codifying the home space, disciplining the spatial practices of the intimate, regulating the access and mobility of the family and guests.

The Architectural Nervous System

Nowadays we see a wild, almost excessive, proliferation of security products available to the ‘security conscious homeowner’. We are no longer simply dealing with security devices designed to block – such as locks, bolts and fasteners. The electronic revolution has aided the production of security devices that are increasingly more specialised and more difficult to manipulate, which paradoxically makes it more difficult for the security consumer to understand. Detection systems now include continuous wiring, knock-out bars, vibration detectors, breaking glass detectors, pressure mats, underground pressure detectors and fibre optic signalling. Audible alarm systems have been upgraded to wire-free intruder alarms, visual alarms, telephone warning devices, access control and closed circuit television and are supported by uninterruptible power supplies and control panels (see Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers 19-39).

The whole house is literally re-routed as a series of relays in an electronic grid. If the house as a security risk is defined in terms of points of vulnerability, alarm systems take these points as potential points of contact. Relays running through floors, doors and windows can be triggered by pressure, sound or dislocation. We see a proliferation of sensors: switching sensors, infra-red sensors, ultrasonic sensors, microwave radar sensors, microwave fence sensors and microphonic sensors (see Walker). The increasing diversification of security products attests to the sheer scale of these architectural/engineering changes to our everyday architecture. In our fear of crime we have produced increasingly more complex security products for the home, thus complexifying the spaces we somehow inherently feel should be ‘simple’.

I suggest that whereas previous devices merely reinforced certain architectural or engineering aspects of the home, contemporary security products actually constitute the home as a feeling, architectural body capable of being affected. This recalls notions of a sensuous architecture and bodily metaphors within architectural discourse (see Thomsen; Puglini). It is not simply our fears that lead us to secure our homes through technology, but through our fears we come to invest our housing architecture with a nervous system capable of fearing for itself. Our eyes and ears become detection systems while our screams are echoed in building alarms. Body organs are deterritorialised from the human body and reterritorialised on contemporary residential architecture, while our senses are extended through modern security technologies. The vulnerable body of the family home has become a feeling body conscious of its own vulnerability. It is less about the physical expression of fear, as Nan Ellin has put it, than about how building materialities become capable of fearing for themselves.

What we have now are residential houses that are capable of being more fully mobilised in this urban war. Family homes become bodies that scan the darkness for the slightest movements, bodies that scream at the slightest possibility of danger. They are bodies that whisper to each other: a house can recognise an intrusion and relay a warning to a security station, informing security personnel without the occupants of that house knowing. They are the newly produced victims of an urban war.

Our homes are the event-spaces in which mediated fear unfolds into an architectural nervous system. If media plug our homes into one set of relations between ideologies, representations and fear, then the architectural nervous system plugs that back into a different set of relations between capital, fear and the electronic grid. The home is less an endpoint of broadcast media than a node in an electronic network, a larger nervous system that encompasses the globe. It is a network that plugs architectural nervous systems into city electronic grids into mediated subjectivities into military technologies and back again, allowing fear to be disseminated and extended, replayed and spliced into the most banal aspects of our domestic lives.

Author Biography

Gilbert Caluya