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Pacification by Design

An Ethnography of Normalization Techniques

This page is accompanying a book chapter which can be read in full in the volume Negotiating Urban Conflicts : Interaction, Space and Control edited by Helmuth Berking, Sybille Frank, Lars Frers, Martina Löw, Lars Meier, Silke Steets, and Sergej Stoetzer, published by Transcript Verlag, 2006, pp. 249–262.
Those parts of the text that have been left out in this online version are marked with an ellipsis in square brackets: […], longer additions/changes that are not in the printed text are also put in square brackets. If you have any questions regarding this article, feel free to contact me.


Conflicts are produced in specific spatial and material settings. The placement of things, the way visibility is established or barred, the accessibility of areas – all of these aspects of built space participate in the production of human action in the city. Drawing on ethnographies of the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, and of several railway stations and ferry passenger terminals in Germany and Scandinavia, this text will analyze the processes by which normalities are produced in tangible socio-spatial constellations.

Author: Lars Frers (2006)

The full chapter is also available as a PDF file: pacification-design.pdf
and in ebook format: pacification-by-design.epub

The contents of this page, with the exception of the linked PDF and ebook, are published under the Creative Commons License.
Creative Commons License


The design of urban places is an integral aspect of the conflicts emerging or taking place in urban space. In cases of open conflict, the spatial and material aspects of the situation configure its development, while at the same time, the action might reconfigure the spatial and material setup. Cobblestones present themselves as thrown weapons, cars become barricades, dead ends become traps, and in the streets of Beijing, bicycles can become effective messenger vehicles (cf. Dingxin 1998). However, space and materiality usually play more subtle roles in urban life. They are silent participants in everyday life, nudging people in certain directions, hiding things or exposing them; they can induce pain and uneasiness, comfort and pleasure. Taken together, space and materiality participate in the production of localized normalities that have a regulating influence on the behavior of people in these localities. In this paper, I will reconstruct the ways in which these normalities are produced in publicly accessible spaces like plazas and terminals, focusing on the mostly silent and successful evasion of conflicts: pacification by design. [1]

Although I will analyze digital video recordings, [in the printed article,] I will only be able to present them as stills, loosing what is most important about this valuable source: its temporal or dynamic character and the recorded sound. This material is then enriched by [text describing] my perceptions both of the surroundings and of myself, of how I feel and how I react to certain situations. An advantage of systematically analyzing your own perceptions and feelings is the privileged access one has to one’s own sensual perception. I deal with these perceptions in a phenomenologically informed way, mostly based on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1962). In this perspective, sensual perceptions are not seen as a set of instruments that split the world into different parts. The act of perceiving is a process that unfolds in a specific context.


Figure 1: Spatial relations and materiality

color photo, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, main hall

Main hall, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, June 2004

The above photograph, taken with a digital camcorder during the early afternoon of a pleasant day in June can be used as an introduction into the spatial relations and material aspects that permeate situated social behavior. The photo has been taken in the main railway station of Leipzig. People using this terminal experience its architecture, the things inside the building, the distances, the volume. Entrances allow access into the building, opening a horizon of activities. Entering the station with the escalator from the shopping mall that lies below, one is confronted with more than forty paces of open space directly in front, a distance that has to be crossed to reach whatever goal one is looking for. To get to where they are, the young couple on the photo had to turn left, passing between the trashcan and the signpost. Continuing on to the escalator, the man with the backpack had to make a sharp right turn around the trashcan. Others walk through the enormous hall that stretches itself over a length of more than 200 meters. The privileged police officers in the central background of the photo entered the station with their car, only walking the short distance from its doors to the entrance of the terminal’s police station.

All of these people are in viewing and shouting distance to each other, not necessarily taking note but potentially being aware of each other – the boy, for example, is looking straight at the observer while he passes by. These are a few of the socio-spatial relations that can be discerned in this printed photograph. Let’s take a look at the materiality of the place. The floor is made of polished stone tiles in light colors with darker stripes sweeping through the hall. Most of the time, this kind of floor is too cool to sit on. It also reflects the light that is shining in through the milk glass roof and through the train hall in the back of the figure. Opacity is of great importance; both the railing of the escalator and the wall that separates the terminal hall from the train hall are made of glass, exposing the things that happen behind them visible to the eyes of others. The signpost and the trashcan are anchored to the ground; even though they might be in the way, they will resist being moved without the use of tools.

In the following part of the paper, I will analyze the spatial and material aspects of social settings along the lines offered by distinct experiences: those of the eye, of the moving body, of the eyes and ears in conjunction, and those of the lingering body.

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Visibility – Self Regulation


Figure 2: Visibility

color photo, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, waiting booth

Waiting booth, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, June 2004

In the case shown in figure 2, opacity is a carefully implemented feature of the glass walls surrounding the waiting booth on a railway platform. The waiting booth is a place that serves several purposes that are potentially conflicting. For many people, one of the most important aspects of waiting for their trains is the fear of missing their train. Having a view of the track on which the train will roll in is the best way to provide a sense of security and control to waiting passengers (cf. Radlbeck 1981, p. 14). At the same time, a relaxed waiting atmosphere also requires both protection from unpleasant environmental influences, and some degree of intimacy for those waiting. The glass walls of this booth are adapted to these requirements, allowing a view of the tracks on both sides of the platform, and providing some protection from harmful micro-climatic effects. Their most outstanding feature probably is the way in which the opaque stripes provide more protection from sight for the lower part of the body, especially when sitting, while allowing a view out of the booth (and into it for people on the outside). It is opaque enough to reduce the exposedness of those inside while at the same time the gaze can pass into and out of the booth. Due to this specific arrangement another effect is achieved: the waiting booth is a place in which many kinds of deviance could be observed from the outside. Vagrants and homeless have a hard time hiding here, if one was singing or playing music on a boom box one would be heard; a fight would be seen and heard too. The design of this booth manages visibility in such a way that people using this place are made aware of their partial visibility. They are made aware of the fact that they are supposed to regulate a significant part of their conduct according to the expectations of others.[2] Gestures and movements that are big enough and/or that take place on a sufficient height should comply to the rules of the house and, even more so, to the unspoken rules of conduct in a terminal.

This self-regulation according to the expectations of others works particularly well in that it does not require the presence of dedicated personnel or technical devices that exert more or less open control. Architecture that offers many niches and corners on the other hand is inviting shady activities. As can be seen in figure 3, in the local context of a niche these activities might even be openly displayed – the adolescent in the center of the group of five is smoking a cigarette and puffing the smoke in my direction.

Figure 3: Niches

color photo, smoking adolescents on stairs

Linkstraße, Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, May 2001



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Movement – Channeling


Figure 4: Water as an obstacle

colored map

Map of the Quartier Daimler Chrysler at the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin

The map shows the layout of the surroundings of the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz (marked with a star), the width of the arrows indicates how many people come and go into which direction. The musical theater to the left also serves as the Berlinale Palace during the annual film festival, when large crowds are common in this area. The setup of water around the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz serves as a rather peculiar, and particularly efficient crowd management device. It blocks access to the entry of the Berlinale Palace without blocking sight, and it keeps the crowd from pressing into the fences that are set up for the span of the Berlinale. The water, along with fences and walls blocks certain areas, channeling people into the remaining paths. Open spaces are organized into sections with specific uses, degrees of visibility, and more or less restricted access.

Other ways to channel moving people into certain directions are bottlenecks. Entry gates at airport terminals, the gangway that leads to an entrance into the ferry’s hull, doors and portals in general necessitate that people collect and move through a small, easily observable and controllable opening. Often, this passage causes a reduction in speed, because the bottleneck will only allow a small number of people to pass through at a time – in situations where people want to flee from a place, these bottlenecks can become deadly traps, during other times, they might become mere annoyances. The stairways leading down to tracks in many railway stations are overcrowded when commuter trains arrive and people spill out of the train, wanting to get home as quickly as possible. For frail people these situations can be dangerous; they might not be able to keep up with the crowd, urging them to wait until the crowd has passed. In addition, the chance of getting into physical contact with others increases. Those that have to carry bulky items might become the target of unfriendly remarks or even shoving. In times of increased traffic, bottlenecks can produce hierarchies that center around physical power, recklessness, and male chauvinism – however, they are also places where beneficial social exchanges can take place, ranging from helping each other out to flirting and being explicitly polite.


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Noise – Atmosphere


[In the following, I will analyze a setting that irritated me when I encountered it. I recorded to video immediately after arriving by train in Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (Leipzig’s main railway station). As I left the train, I heard loud sounds that I couldn't immediately recognize:]

Audio sequence 1: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Main hall, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, September 2004

I am using modern web standards (HTML 5) to present the audio and video on this page. For the best experience you need a standards compliant browser like Firefox (version 3.5+), Safari (version 3.1+) or Google Chrome (Version 3+). For offline use of the video an application like the open source player VLC or Apple’s QuickTime Player is necessary.

After a brief moment, my perception shifted and I realized that I was listening to music, probably barrel organs. Leaving the platform and walking up to the main hall of the station, I quickly realized that a throng of people was gathered around a group of barrel organ players who where playing their organs in synchrony, creating a loud and, at least for me, quite unusual musical experience. I quickly readied my digital camcorder and started recording the events.

Video sequence 1: Barrel organ concert

Main hall, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, September 2004

The loud hand barrel orchestra music added with the general background noises of the train station to a confusing mixture that made it necessary for me to reorient myself and spend some effort in the interpretation of the situation at hand. However, as soon as I made up my mind about what was going on, I was able to make use of the situation for my research. Others made use of this situation in different ways. [As can be seen in video sequence 1, some people are standing around the ensemble in a loose semi-circle, watching the band and listening to the music. Many others are just walking by – or, as can be seen in the video sequence too, being pushed by on a wheelchair by a member of the Bahnhofsmission (a christian welfare organization for railway stations). Others changed their route and passed through on the other side of the hall, where no throng was making the passage difficult.

To get a grip of what is going on in the video sequence, it is necessary to watch it several times. Paying attention to the group of adolescents that is walking through from right to left, it becomes obvious that they are taking this setting as an opportunity for a contrasting activity. While they are approaching the scene, one member of the group starts to raise and shake his fist in time with the rhythm of the music. A few steps later the frontmost boy, who is carrying a bag over his shoulder, picks up on the characteristic of the setting itself: the music. He starts to bawl to the rhythm.]

Audio sequence 2: Bawling to the rhythm

Main hall, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, September 2004

His shouting is being acknowledged by visible consternation in case of some of the bystanders and musicians (see the last seconds of video sequence 1), and grinning faces in case of fellow members of his peer group. As I demonstrated with this example, music in this particular setting is used as an opportunity for more or less active entertainment, and as an opportunity for provocation and the conflict-laden challenging of norms.


Video sequence 2: Relative calm

Color Line Terminal, Oslo, December 2004

Soundscapes have a significant impact on the mood of a setting. People in the western world have experiences with the implementation of sound in shops and warehouses. Depending on clientele, product and season, music is played that supposedly improves sales and binds customers to a particular chain or brand. In terminals, the playing of music is not part of the usual setup. This does not mean that sound cannot participate in the creation of an atmosphere that fits the experience of traveling. In the case of the Color Line Terminal in Oslo, captured in the photo above, the low roof which is tiled with pin-holed panels that muffle sound to a certain degree, helps to create a feeling of calm and orderliness that fits the rest of the setting: comfortable chairs, many benches with thick upholstery, plants and models of Color Line’s ships – sound, noise, music; all these are important participants in the creation of atmospheres (cf. Böhme 1995) that can be anywhere on the spectrum from calm over stimulating to chaotic and even outright aggressive.

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Body – Comfort and Suffering

The comfortable upholstery in the ferry terminal makes it easier to use the waiting time for relaxation, idle chatter or just watching others do the same until boarding time begins. During the last minutes before the gangway becomes accessible and the boarding gates are opened, the boarding area of the terminal is rapidly filling with people, and many will leave their seats to join the queue. Those that remain seated – either because they do not want to squeeze themselves in with the rest or because extended periods of standing or slow shuffling are not convenient to them – will often be literally faced with a wall of human bodies that is thickening more and more before it starts seeping away through boarding gates.

Figure 5: Edges

color photo, railings

Railing in front of the Casino and Muscial Theater; Marlene-Dietrich-Platz Berlin, May 2001

When an extended period of time is being spent in a single place, either in a ferry terminal’s lobby, in a waiting booth at a railway station or in some other publicly accessible place, the need for some kind of seating or bodily support grows steadily. In the case of the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz (Figure 5) this may become a serious problem. As can be seen on the map, the Platz has characteristics of a dead end. When people arrive, they tend to slow down, look around and finally stop. A decision has to be made: should I stay or should I go now? Staying will be trouble. There are no benches or ‘official’ resting facilities at all. What about commonly used substitutes? The architecture here does not include stone slabs on which on could sit. There are stairs tough. The Marlene-Dietrich-Platz itself is lowered into the ground a bit, in a slight reminder to an amphitheater. However, there is a significant difference to the steps of an amphitheater: the height of the steps is only about ten centimeters [four inches]. Sitting on these steps is like sitting on the floor, making it an invalid option except for people who are bodily fit enough and don't care about the stigma that is associated with sitting on the ground, i.e. adolescents and some younger adults.

One other option remains and is used by those who cannot or will not sit on the ground: the railing that runs along part of the water channels in front of the musical theater. Several times, I observed elderly people, who were waiting for others at the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, looking out for a spot where they could rest. Not finding anything suitable, they would lean against the railings visible on the figure. In one case an elderly women, after leaning on the railing for almost ten minutes, finally tried to squeeze herself into the railing to sit on the lower bar. However, sitting on either of the bars is causing pain too. The bars are wide enough to offer some support, but they have sharp edges that quickly begin to hamper circulation and cause discomfort. Spending more than a few minutes on this place is a problematic occupation too.

Most people will quickly leave this place, those that remain will have to manage their corporality in a way that allows them to either ignore their physical discomfort[3] and remain standing somewhere, or that allows them to ignore potential stigmatization as loiterers who sit on the ground.[4]

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Space and Materiality – Normalization

Regarding the evidence that I have presented about the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, it can be argued that it is on the one hand a place that is secured and pacified by its design, exposing deviant behavior and preventing certain movements and activities. The behavior that establishes itself as normal is one of passing through, looking at the unusual architecture, and perhaps spending money in one of the local entertainment or food consumption facilities. What struck me as particularly interesting about this place is the fact that there is almost no visible presence of security personnel – very much opposed to the interior of the close-by Sony Center on the other side of the Neue Potsdamer Straße. The design of the Sony Center includes many corners, benches and a fountain around which people gather to watch and talk. In this place, security personnel are patrolling regularly and openly. I would argue that the design of the Marlene-Dietrich-Platz makes this kind of policing mostly unnecessary. This does not mean that police or security personnel is not available – its visible presence is just not needed to establish a specific kind of self-controlled normality at this place: one of passing through, one of consumption of a tourist’s place with unusual architecture and entertainment facilities. This orderly normality is based on the reduction of risk: encounters are brief and visible to everyone, extended stays are made difficult.

On the other hand, the design of this place produces a certain degree of uneasiness, discomfort or even physical suffering for the people that want to use this place. A similar statement could be made about the halls and waiting facilities in train stations. The acoustic setup makes disturbances perceivable over long distances, this helps in securing the place to a certain degree while at the same time this design could also make people more vulnerable and uneasy. Other places, like the lobby in the ferry terminal or even the somewhat covered part lower part of the waiting booth allow for a higher degree of relaxation. In both of these cases, hired staff is present helping to keep up an orderly normality. Hired staff does not necessarily mean security personnel – other employees, in particular the members of the cleaning personnel, play an important part in the production of sanitary design. Places that offer hideaways, that are somewhat shielded from sight and listening make it possible to engage in other activities, be they harmless as loitering or flirting or extending into the realms of the criminal and unlawful.

One could say, therefore, that design can produce specific, highly controlled normalities that are based on spatial and material constellations in which principles of visibility or perceivability in general are governing. However, this kind of pacification by design has at least two limitations. Firstly, this kind of design does not prohibit conflict and provocation per se. As has been demonstrated in the example of the adolescents who challenge the normality of the barrel organ entertainment setting, the design can also be a resource for the open display of deviance. Secondly, this kind of pacification by design also produces specific feelings of uneasiness, making it harder for some people to use the places and causing specific vulnerabilities. The Marlene-Dietrich-Platz can make you feel uneasy, watched, and insecure about what you should actually do here, the non-existence of seats and benches or the unwieldy design of similar objects like stairs and railings can make it hard for frail people to spend time in a place, and the display of people can also make them vulnerable to harassment, especially if they belong to ‘weaker’ groups like women, or ethnic minorities.

The design of places, the spatial arrangement of walls, obstacles and other objects, the channeling of people through a place, the opacity of barriers, the texture of surfaces, the acoustics of a place, and other features that did not fit into this text like the micro-climate, olfactory circumstances, and electro-magnetic design (wireless networks, radio, mobile phone networks etc.) all participate in the production of local normalities. These normalities are not completely stable and rigid, they may be challenged. Accordingly, I define these normalities as dynamic constellations. These constellations, however, contain spatio-material components that are of a greater stability and persistence than many social and situative ones. Temporary, even regularly occurring disturbances can happen, but the constellation quickly returns to the previous, stable setting.