Designing for Privacy: Architecture in the Surveillance Age
As artificial intelligence-enhanced surveillance and facial recognition becomes more sophisticated and prevalent, how is architecture responding? Luke Christou explores how societal concerns surrounding the technology are giving rise to new architectural typologies, and how it could become a key factor in future residential design
Images courtesy of Perkins+Will
Mecanoo's design for Futian Civic Culture Center in Shenzhen, China, features numerous sky gardens | Image courtesy of Mecanoo
While China continues to set new benchmarks for mass surveillance, having recently introduced a requirement for smartphone users to scan their face when registering new devices, the rest of the world is following in its steps with the increased deployment of artificial intelligence-enhanced surveillance technology.
Last year, King’s Cross station in London – the world’s most surveilled city outside of China – confirmed that it was using facial recognition to track the tens of thousands of visitors that pass through the area each day.
“We use cameras around the site," a statement from developer Argent confirmed. “These cameras use a number of detection and tracking methods, including facial recognition, but also have sophisticated systems in place to protect the privacy of the general public."
According to Argent, the property developer behind King’s Cross, these cameras were deployed “in the interest of public safety”. However, following backlash from the public, academics, and government officials, the developer scrapped the use of facial recognition at the site.
While studies show that most people are accepting of surveillance technology when there is a clear public benefit, there is also widespread concern that its use could normalise surveillance and erode privacy. A recent study by the Ada Lovelace Institute, for example, found that 70% agree with the use of facial recognition during police investigation. In contrast, just 4% would support the use of facial recognition in the workplace, citing a lack of trust in the private sector to use the technology ethically.
The paint colour Coolest White is designed to reduce absorption and emission of the sun's rays by 12% | Image courtesy of UN Studio
House of Fluctuations, designed by Satoru Hirota Architects, provides its occupants with extra privacy in one of Tokyo’s dense residential neighbourhoods. Images courtesy of Satoru Hirota Architects
Designing for privacy
“AI-enhanced surveillance is of course, vital for public safety, however, it also has a significant impact on privacy,” Dorothy Edgar, a spokesperson for London-based digital modelling firm Modelling Architecture, says.
Increased concerns over privacy are already giving rise to new architectural typologies that offer greater privacy from the outside world.
House of Fluctuations, designed by Tokyo-based architecture firm Satoru Hirota Architects, was built to offer residents extra privacy in one of the city’s densely packed residential neighbourhoods. The firm achieved this by placing a double-height terrace at the front of the building, which covered a parking area that is flanked by concrete walls. These high walls help to prevent a view into the building from the public street.
FujiwaraMuro Architects’ House in Toyonaka project tackled a similar problem by minimising the number of openings in the building’s facade. The design uses offset boxes with small gaps between them to provide light and ventilation while limiting the outside view into the building.
“ Architects now have to think of innovative ways to give their clientele the privacy they need whilst protecting rights of light, improving exterior design and considering local residents’ needs. ”
However, designing for privacy presents additional challenges - most notably, ensuring that residents have access to ample amounts of natural light and ventilation.
“This presents issues for architects, as they now have to think of innovative ways to give their clientele the privacy they need whilst protecting rights of light, improving exterior design and considering local residents’ needs,” Edgar says.
The House in Toyonaka project demonstrates this challenge. While it offers optimal privacy, access to natural light and air flow is limited.
The firm’s House in Takamatsu project offers privacy, light, and ventilation by using ‘voids’ in each corner of the building, and thin, high windows around the facade to allow plenty of natural light in. An open-plan interior and high ceilings are also used to improve airflow inside the building.
Similarly, Japanese firm Chop + Archi Kamiuma House project demonstrates how dead spaces can also be used to increase light and ventilation in homes designed for privacy by converting these spaces into high-walled courtyards.
Designed by Chip + Archi, Kamiuma House turns dead spaces into opportunities to increase light and ventilation. Images courtesy of Chop + Archi
FAAB's design for Pilsudski Square in Warsaw is designed to combat the heat island effect | Image courtesy of FAAB
As technologies such as facial recognition become more widely used, the industry could see a rise in demand for these fortress-like homes and buildings. However, while design features such as high-walled terraces and interior courtyards offer protection against more traditional privacy concerns, technology will present unique threats for architects to address.
Researchers from the University of Leeds, University of Massachusetts and Northwestern University in Xi’an in China, for example, recently developed a drone-mounted scanner that can detect humans through walls. While developed to aid emergency workers, there are also ways that such technologies could be abused.
According to Edgar, architects will also have to consider the potential for advance audio surveillance.
“Implementing walls, roofs and shelters are traditional ways of protecting privacy, however, as tech gets more sophisticated, architects will have to think of ways to protect clients from audio surveillance as well as video surveillance,” Edgar explains.
Despite being the cause of the problem, Edgar believes that technology may hold the answer to protecting against these concerns and maintaining the privacy of building residents in the surveillance age:
“Small scale audio-jammers and counter-surveillance devices have worked in the past, but it’s likely that architectural design will need to incorporate these technologies more discreetly in future in order to offer true privacy to clients.”
“ Architects are under an ever-increasing amount of pressure to design and deliver workplaces that are as respectful of the end user’s privacy as they are innovative, or beautiful. ”
Elaine Rossall, chair of the British Council for Offices [BCO] research committee, agrees that embracing technology will be key to finding the balance between reaping the benefits of emerging technology and maintaining privacy - particularly in the workplace, where technology has the potential to boost productivity and efficiency.
“Architects are under an ever-increasing amount of pressure to design and deliver workplaces that are as respectful of the end user’s privacy as they are innovative, or beautiful,” Rossall says. “Add to that a world where there are increasing demands for collaborative work and spaces that, in their very nature, bring colleagues closer together and the challenge for architects to protect privacy become tougher still.”
“The key to finding harmony between privacy, collaboration, optimal space utilization, and worker productivity is in embracing technology, and finding a natural purpose for it rather than shoe-horning it in for vanity’s sake.”
The BCO’s Fast and Slow Buildings report explores some of the ways this could work, from detection systems that use cameras placed below knee height to monitor footfall, to thermal cameras used to optimise air temperature while anonymising the end-user.
Technology has the potential for both good and bad. The architecture, engineering, and construction industry will play a role in finding that balance and designing new-age buildings that reap the benefits of emerging technologies without compromising its occupants’ right to privacy.