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Feature article
“Olafur Eliasson- The Weather Project, 2003” by Rory Hyde, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0).

The Architecture Of Subliminal Coercion

An architecture of coercion may seem to be a concerning proposition. Coercion is loosely defined as the act of gaining compliance, usually through the use of force, and is often associated with police brutality. But setting aside such violent associations, could coercion be used to positive effect? Could it be used to provide comfort and pleasure? And if it were able to achieve such outcomes, what would this mean for the relationship between architecture and society?

WORDS BY Alysia Bennett

Physical Coercion

Architects are familiar with the notion of compliance, particularly in relation to planning regulation and building codes. But what is often overlooked is that compliance is both an act that architects undertake and a response that the built environment yields. Therefore to comply is not a singular interaction but rather a chain of reactions that ultimately direct behaviour in the public realm. This puts architects in a very difficult position. In order for buildings to be realised they need to comply with regulation, yet equally – as independent professionals – architects have an obligation to question the validity and subsequent impact of such directives and to adjust their responses accordingly.

Such legislation is not shaped by noble cultural ambition but rather by risk aversion. Ironically, architectural devices that intend to create safety and security often exacerbate an identified problem or create new ones. This is particularly evident in traditional design for crime prevention devices, such as bollards and spikes, which are singular in their effect and consequently exclude not just undesired activity but other uses.


Perceptual Coercion

An alternative approach to crime prevention is through perceptual coercion. CCTV cameras and the ‘eyes on the street’ mantra of urban planning, advocates for a more passive approach by inciting control through an impression of surveillance. However, despite its best intentions, this can transfer the sense of fear from the observer to all that are observed and thus further exacerbates the condition.1 This reaction is similar to other perceivable aspects of the built environment that incite a psychological response, such as vertigo and claustrophobia. Given such individuals have little control over their reactions to such conditions, is it possible for the senses to be manipulated to generate a desired behaviour?

An initiative undertaken by many cities over the past decade suggests that it is possible. In malls where undesired teenage loitering was found to be preventing the elderly and families with young children from visiting the city, such occupation was disrupted with classical music. Unlike physical coercion the effect is binary: it discourages the undesirable behaviour and is either enjoyed or tolerated by the preferred user group.2 However, in this case at least, the undesired behaviour is not corrected but rather the responsible user group, and the problem, is simply relocated.

“Olafur Eliasson- The Weather Project, 2003” by Rory Hyde, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0).

“Olafur Eliasson- The Weather Project, 2003” by Rory Hyde, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0).

Subliminal Coercion

These physical and perceptual devices work through a sensory reaction, but perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson suggests that mechanisms don’t have to be visible, perceivable or even desirable to the observer to direct behaviour subconsciously.3 While this may seem inconceivable in the context of architecture, a phenomenon like ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS) is one such effect that has been widely explored over the past decade. SBS research acknowledges that both perceptual conditions such as temperature, acoustics, and humidity, and subliminal conditions such as chemical contaminants and electromagnetic radiation, have health implications for occupants.4 Subsequently this has led to new standards in Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ).

Similarly, researchers have found a link between fluorescent lighting and anxiety proving that although the human eye does not perceive the pulsation rate of fluorescent lighting, after only ten minutes of exposure it can trigger adverse symptoms. These include an increased heart rate for participants with nonspecific anxiety, and panic attacks in a substantial proportion of people identified as agoraphobic.5 With recent figures indicating that one in four people will experience anxiety related disorders in their lifetime,6 such negative psychological and physiological impacts need to be countered.

A 2003 installation by OlafurEliasson at London’s Tate Modern suggests a possible remedy to such negative impacts as well as a precedent for the subliminal choreography of public behaviour. Like many of Eliasson’s works, The Weather Project focused on the intersection of natural conditions in manmade environments, in this instance through the recreation of sunset within the Turbine Hall. The project aimed to incite new relationships between the public and the natural environment through the idea of weather. But an unexpected outcome was a renewed connection between the observer and the built environment, in this case the regulated context of an art gallery, with Londoners completely changing the way that they engaged with the piece and subsequently how they used the Turbine Hall. Instead of an orderly and detached viewing of the work visitors would sprawl across the floor, couples would engage in public displays of affection and the space became a new destination in London with some even picnicking as if it were a public park.7

Although this phenomenon was created within a private internal space it provides a precedent for public space that is able to facilitate multiple uses and meanings. It also demonstrates that the built environment is capable of subliminal coercion and suggests a new direction for architects that is mindful of this influential relationship between architecture and the public, and ensures that this is not harmful. To do so is to question the human impact of compliance to find ways that enables both obedience and subversion to promote an environment of social ambiguity that facilitates multiplicity and thus inclusion.


1. Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007, 168.

2. Anne Midgette, Classical music as a weapon. Melbourne: The Age, 2012.

3. Donald Norman, “Affordance, Conventions and Design”. Interactions, volume 6, issue 3 (1999): 38-43.

4. Sumaedha M. Joshi, “The sick building syndrome”. Indian Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, volume 12, issue 2 (2008): 61-64.

5. Jane Hazell et al. “A Contribution of fluorescent lighting to agoraphobia”. Psychological Medicine, Volume 20 (1990): 591-596.

6.”Anxiety and Depression: An information booklet”, Beyond Blue Ltd., accessed March 3, 2015.

7. “OlafurEliasson Biography”, Notable Biographies., accessed March 3, 2015.