Seeing and Not Seeing

James Biber
Jun 23, 2020 · 8 min read

How we see design, what we see when we look, and what it means to us is not universal, and that is the point. Design is not data, not facts, not fixed narrative. Design has embedded meaning(s) but not all of them are visible, to all of us, all the time.

A few years ago we were working with the NYC Department of Probation to redesign the abysmal waiting rooms (more like prison holding rooms) that adults and juveniles were forced to wait in (sometimes for hours) for their regular appointment with a probation officer.

NYC Department of Probation Waiting Room Decor

Some of these waiting rooms, inside NYC buildings, were so decrepit they seemed more like dystopian movie sets than actual municipal agency offices, but without any of the dystopian charm. More Piranesi than ‘Playtime’, one waiting room we visited had a glass case built into a wall at eye level for notices and announcements. The manager explained that they had misplaced the key and couldn’t change the notices, so we looked at the case trying to carbon date it; the newest item in the case (and I swear this is true) was from 1984. They had not been able to open the case for nearly 30 years, and no one thought that it might be sending the wrong message.
That message was, of course, ‘fuck you’.

The probation officers had glass fronted offices that they made private by taping up old newspapers. Well, they were new when they put them up there, and I was really hoping to scare up a vintage copy of the Daily News “Ford to City: Drop Dead”, or at least a “Best Sex I Ever Had” Marla Maples cover.
So it was really a municipal museum of ‘fuck you’s’.

The message was even more layered; declaring that you (the probationer) were just lucky not to be in jail, so lucky you dare not complain about the broken furniture, missing light bulbs, 2 sets of metal detectors you passed through on the way in, not to mention the long wait for your surly P.O..
Sit down, shut up, no eating, no cell phones, no talking, no noise, no, no, no, no. This is the architecture of intimidation, making clear, if it wasn’t already, the agencies view of the probationers complete lack of worth.

It was obvious to everyone that the architecture (if we can call it that) was a tool of oppression, instilling fear and undermining any sense of agency, as a technique of control. It was accomplished more through neglect than intention (though that hardly matters) and affected the staff almost as much as the probationers. There was no panopticon, no clever tricks of scale or perspective, no eerie Citizen Kane lighting, no waterboarding or the muffled sound of screams. There was only a clear sense of disgust and hopelessness, and it communicated perfectly. This was visual language accessible to nearly everyone, though one with selective messaging of control (for the authorities) and submission (for the probationers).

On a visit to a lower Broadway location the tour guide stopped on the corner to tell us an illustrative tale:

Typical NYC Streetlight Base/Knife Filing Cabinet

Weapons are not permitted in Probation offices (if I even need to say that) but many, maybe most, probationers carry knives. They need a safe place to check their knives and the hot dog vendor [standing a few feet away from us] takes them, and for a dollar ‘files’ them in the base of the streetlight he’s next to. [Pointing to the truncated pyramid at the base of every light, each with a little door] He files them in his little ‘weapon filing cabinet’ and the probies pick them up on the way out.”

Not accessible to everyone was the invisible world, a kind of simultaneous dimension that occupied the same space but was apparent only to some. Existing in the same space, the same corner we passed by every day; the same hot dog vendor and one of tens of thousands of little silver truncated streetlight bases with tiny doors is a world of Probationers and a world of Probation Officers, each unseen by the other. This scene is one thing to most of us, but quite another to the knife-carrying public. Two superimposed parallel dimensions on the same urban street corner.

What is true in A. Hamilton’s New York City is equally true at Th. Jefferson’s University of Virginia. The campus, as designed by Jefferson, is a magnificent bit of public architecture, “not a house but a village” as he said, or a diagram of oppression, depending on your point of view. Architecture students learn about the invention of collegiality, The Academical Village, the Lawn, the hierarchy of student/professor, public/private and hardly a word about servant/served.

University of Virginia Serpentine Walls

The famous ‘serpentine walls’ are taught as an example of Jefferson’s architectural genius. They curve, we learn, because that shape is inherently more stable than a straight line, and this allows the walls to be only one brick thick. It’s a lovely instance of design in service of economy, wrought through a lens of invention and beauty. The math works, and so does the image; shared gardens enclosed by sinuous walls looking in plan more like rivers than surveyed borders.
They are iconic, but also it turns out, dichotomous.

My father attended UVA in 1937–1941, on his way to WWII. When he was there the serpentine walls were 8 feet high.
My sister attended UVA 1990–1994, on her way to Hollywood. When she was there the serpentine walls were 5 feet high.

I learned this, not in architecture school or watching ‘Hamilton’ or during a tour of the campus, but now, when UVA Athletics decided to spend a bit of its Nike money on a nearly invisible revision to the logo (designed, in fact, by the Nike Design Team).

University of Virginia Plan

Turns out the serpentine walls are more than just a clever architectural detail, and there is a good reason the walls were once (but are no more) 8 feet high. The walls define the common gardens, but also the alleys (colorfully named Green Alley, Rotunda Alley, Poe Alley, etc.) which were the service lanes that allowed the enslaved workers to access all the rooms and buildings, without being seen or heard. They were built (by enslaved workers, from bricks made by the same) as delightful, mathematical screens in service of keeping the students free of the need to confront the bothersome views of slaves working on campus. Academical Village indeed. They were lowered when the school was desegregated, in the 1950’s, so it was clear to some, then, what the walls meant, but somehow this has been lost to recent history.

Revised UVA Sports Logo, Briefly

When the squiggles were added to the hilts of the crossed swords (and how interesting that the crossed swords present zero problems) of the logo it was pointed out just what they meant to some, not all, of the community. This bifurcation was exposed only because we have finally admitted that the US was founded on the economic basis of stolen labor. Or as Hamilton sang to Jefferson debating the Revolutionary War debt;

Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.

The approved line for tour guides was that the University prohibited students from bringing their own enslaved servants to campus, therefore there were no slaves. Clever elision, as the enslaved servants (owned by the University) were second only to students in their population on campus, were occasionally beaten and abused by students, and had specific duties outlined by the faculty.

The Trump campaign’s recent use of a red triangle in conjunction with anti-antifa tirades is a less concealed case of the design of fear. Just like scheduling the Tulsa rally on Juneteenth (in a city where 99 years ago hundreds of successful African Americans were slaughtered, and 1,000 buildings were burned) it is inconceivable that this was an accident: Trump has an orthodox Jewish son-in-law and daughter and he has a team of ‘experts’ working on his campaign. Choosing between ignorance and venality, in both these cases, is easy; pure venality (that they assumed no one would notice) is the only believable option.

The symbology of the death camp insignias is perfectly German; a simple set of triangles and accessory shapes define more than 25 matrixed variations on the various violations that prisoners were tagged with. Doubled for a Star of David (red over yellow for political-Jew, etc.), with letters denoting nationality, pink for gay, black for antisocial, red for political prisoners. If it wasn’t so purely evil it might be admirably concise.

It mirrors the 2016 campaign tweet with a Star of David and “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” on an anti-Hillary image. Trump claimed it was a sheriff’s star, an utterly ludicrous response. It would be as though the serpentine squiggles on the hilt of the UVA logo was described as representing a ‘textured grip’. Nein, nein, nein.

Perhaps we need a Google Translate for design. The most magical part of the language translation app is the ability to point the phone camera at text in one language and have it instantly transmute into another language. The design version would highlight the slavery context in the UVA logo, the concentration camp precedent of the Trump antifa tweets and, pointed at any Confederate statue, would expose the lie of ‘it’s just history’.

Until then we may just have to listen and learn.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +787K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

James Biber

Written by

NYC architect: making (buildings, dinner, interiors, spoons) writing (essays, articles, post it notes) teaching (students, dogs) living (NYC, Upstate NY, Milan)

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

James Biber

Written by

NYC architect: making (buildings, dinner, interiors, spoons) writing (essays, articles, post it notes) teaching (students, dogs) living (NYC, Upstate NY, Milan)

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store