art book complaints

Occupied spaces: Hidden Hostility

A close friend called me one afternoon a few weeks ago and asked me how and what I was doing. “I am doing great. I am currently taking pictures of benches in the train station”, I answered. This happened right after I read Chapter 4 of Sara Ahmed’s »Complaint!« in which she addresses the issue of power structures, more specifically occupied spaces. With the following quote, she primarily referred to mental spaces and invisible institutional structures that exclude and discriminate against people with certain characteristics: 

“When spaces are intended for specific purposes, they have bodies in mind.”

(Ahmed 2021: 137)

However, it reminded me of classical music being played loudly in train stations during the night, spikes on balustrades and benches divided by arm rests. Those are all types and mechanisms of »Hostile architecture«. Hostile architecture describes design practices that shape public spaces to allow only the use intended by the owner (cf. Hu 2019). Through this, “a subtle expression of social division through urban design, mostly associated with the homeless” is transported (Karthik & Sanjiv 2020:  247). More specifically, hostile architecture purposefully discriminates, especially against minorities.

»Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner

The art project »Hidden Hostility« by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner aims to create awareness for invisible design strategies by directing the view of people on the pedestrian zone on examples of hostile architecture. To achieve this, the artists selected archetypal examples of hostile architecture expressed in benches and seats and dealt with them in various installative ways. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

Hidden Hostility (Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

For instance, they have wrapped various materials, like barrier tape, foam material and metal wire around public seating facilities. Watching the wrapped benches, it becomes visible how either gaps or arm rests ensure that nobody can lie down or even linger comfortably for a longer time. 

In addition to using different materials, the artists also employ statements, graphics and questions to draw attention to the mechanisms of discrimination and control inherent in the public furniture presented. Metal signs, which are attached to benches and seats by Theresa Güldenberg & Magdalena Meißner, play a particularly central role in conveying these statements. Phrases like “Der Feind ist der Freund dieser Bank” (Engl: The enemy is the friend of this bench) (Güldenberg & Meißner 2022) and illustrations, like the ones on the pictures below, express criticism and stimulate the pedestrians to think. 

In the various installations of “Hidden Hostility,” the two artists repeatedly refer to a central point that constitutes the core of their work. Thus, they state that hostile architecture serves social control, unnoticed but aggressively expressing political power in public space. (cf. Güldenberg & Meißner 2022)

»Hidden Hostility« and »Complaint!«

In addressing design mechanisms that are politically used to discriminate against minorities, the artists take up what Sara Ahmed refers to as  invisible power structures. The key point here is that these mechanisms usually remain hidden. In the case of hostilely designed seating in public spaces, this means: as long as you don’t have to spend a longer time in public, or even sleep there, you won’t be irritated by uncomfortable benches. Invisible power structures define whose feelings matter more (cf. Ahmed 2021: 169) – the feelings of supposedly “normal citizens” are more important than those of homeless people. 

On closer examination of hostile architecture against the background of this argument, it becomes clear: public space becomes an occupied space in Ahmed’s sense through hostile design mechanisms. As Sara Ahmed puts it: “you notice a structure when it stops you from getting somewhere or from being somewhere: it can hit you” (Ahmed 2021: 141). This means that even if our society is claimed to be social and solidar, it systematically discriminates against homeless people.

The way Theresa Güldenberg and Magdalena Meißner approach this fact in their installations can be understood in itself as an act and expression of a complaint. In particular, the metal plaques with messages are an expression of complaint in Ahmed’s sense and, at the same time, have an activist character due to the aim of making people think. However, the artists do not complain about a specific institution and thus not to a specific person in charge, but address society as a whole. With their work, they try to invite people to hear their thoughts, pick them up and turn them into other complaints.

Reflection on hostile architecture

Understanding both, the art project »Hidden Hostility« and Sara Ahmed’s book »Complaint!« as an invitation for reflection, I took pictures of hostile architecture in my regular surroundings, as mentioned in the beginning.

In these pictures you see a train station that I frequently use – a train station that is equipped with divided benches and that plays loud music in the hallways the whole night. A train station that claims to be part of  public transport, but in fact excludes people who can not afford  to take trains, but intend to use it as a shelter in the public. Feel free to do the same and scan your environment with a critical eye, being conscious that hostile architecture turns our environment into an occupied space. And feel free to complain about it in a creative way. 


Ahmed, Sara. Complaint!, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2021.

Güldenberg, Theresa; Meißner, Magdalena. Hidden hostility, 2022.
Retrieved from:

Hu, Winnie. ‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out, 2020. 

Retrieved from:

Karthik, Chadalavada; Sanjiv, E. Sripadma. Defensive architecture – A design against humanity. In: International journal of advance research, ideas and innovations in technology, 2019, Volume 6, Issue 1). 

complaints thoughts

Nodding: A (children’s) story about a bubblehead

Happy Oh Yeah GIF by Storymaker - Find & Share on GIPHY

Carlotta was a seven-year-old girl, living in a small town in Germany with her parents and her little brother Caspar. She was a girl with a blooming imagination who loved to wander the streets and observe. Sometimes, her dad even called her “my little daydreamer”, when she seemed to be caught in thoughts that made her forget the reality around her again.

Even on her way back from school, Carlotta always followed the same creative routines. First, she jumped out of the school door to not touch the big door threshold. She herself didn’t exactly know why – it just gave her a rewarding feeling. Just around the corner, she petted the coachman’s black stallion, when they weren’t on a tour showing tourists around the city center. Sometimes, she even fed him some of her leftover vegetables – he really loved yellow carrots. The last stop on her way home was the house of an old man called Oskar who often looked mad even though he had never been not nice to her. In his kitchen window, he had a green bubblehead that would bob its head up and down if Carlotta jumped up and down in front of it just hard enough. So that was what she did every day.She jumped as hard as she could to make the green sausage dog bob and then started laughing and dancing crazily in front of it before she finally went home for lunch.

One sunny Wednesday in March, she had just arrived at the green bubblehead and was about to start jumping when a loud drum startled her and made the sausage dog’s head nod. She felt a mixture of insecurity and anger as she turned around and saw a group of people holding signs and making noise with drums and whistles. She didn’t understand what they were doing, but she felt sad and angry, because they had ruined her play. With these feelings in her belly, she went home, threw her satchel into a corner, and sat down at the kitchen table with folded arms.

“What’s the matter my darling?”, her mum asked her.
“THEY RUINED MY PLAY”, Carlotta shouted back at her.
“Who are they?”, her mum asked while stroking her back and Carlotta started to explain what had just happened.

By the time Carlotta had told her story, her mum explained: “The people you saw are a group of activists, who demonstrate to make our city a nicer place for everybody. For example, if you want to take an official corona self-test, as we always do before visiting granny, you need to have a European passport. They are convinced that this is not fair, that it is discriminating, and they want to change it. They talked to the mayor and he always nodded and said “yes, I understand what you mean, we are going to investigate this further and come back to you” – but nothing happened afterward. They have already officially complained to the city council, but nothing changed and now they want to raise more attention by demonstrating. What I wanted to explain to you was: They didn’t want to disturb your game or even bully you.”

“Thanks for explaining this to me mummy”, Carlotta replied. As she understood that the people were demonstrating to draw attention to a topic and not just to be loud and mean, she felt a little bit guilty and made the decision to see if they would be there again on Wednesday the next week, to observe them again.

The next Wednesday, Carlotta basically ran to Oskar’s house after school and it was probably the first time she was happy that the coachman and his stallion were on a tour. When she arrived in front of Oskar’s kitchen window, she already heard the activists in the distance. As they came closer, she could see their faces. They didn’t look mean or angry at all this time, some of them she even recognized from her neighborhood. And she could really relate to what they were saying on their signs. For example, she read “No human is illegal” and although she didn’t know exactly what illegal was, she understood that it was something bad and she agreed that humans are not bad.

Turning her head a little, she realized that the green bubblehead was bobbing his head again due to the vibration of the activists’ drums. But this time, the bobbing didn’t make her feel like dancing. It even seemed like the sausage dog wasn’t really bobbing this time, but nodding at the protestants. “Just as the mayor reacted, from what mummy told me”, Carlotta said to herself, “He was nodding, but nothing changed.”

From thatday on, Carlotta’s view on the bubblehead had changed. She still took the same way home from school and sometimes she even had a little chat with Oskar when he was in the garden, but she didn’t jump in front of the bubblehead anymore. Carlotta even asked her mom if they could join the demonstration once in a while.