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Design to save lives as well as give pleasure

Will Wiles

We love tall buildings, but architects must ensure they don’t present hidden dangers for vulnerable people. That means designing to avoid opportunity for self harm

How can architects steer people away from the pernicious idea?
How can architects steer people away from the pernicious idea? Credit: Stock / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Samaritans, the charity that helps people experiencing mental health crises, has a number of extremely detailed and useful guides on its website for people writing about the topic of suicide. One thing these guides advise is that any discussion of suicide should be preceded by a warning – so, please, consider yourself warned. Besides that courtesy to the reader, the number one instruction is: do not mention the method used. 
Why such caution? The Samaritans website quotes Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford: ‘There is abundant international evidence that media... portrayal of suicide can be extremely influential. Poor media practice can cause further loss of life, especially in more vulnerable groups such as the young and people with mental health problems.’

Suicide begins as a stubborn and insidious idea, that can spread and be influenced by others. If the reporting of a celebrity’s death at their own hand includes the method, others turn to that method. This can lead to a vicious cycle, one with grim implications for architecture. In January, the Vessel observation tower at New York’s Hudson Yards was temporarily closed after a person jumped to their death from an upper level. This was the third such incident at the basket-shaped structure, designed by Studio Heatherwick, and the site owner is consulting with experts over possible modifications to the attraction. 

It’s a tragedy that illustrates some of the awful paradoxes of a deadly act that manifests as a pernicious idea. Once  a place begins to form a reputation, it can be very hard to dispel. ‘Don’t refer to a specific site or location as known for suicides,’ says the Samaritans guidance, ‘… refrain from providing information, such as the height of a bridge or cliff.’ But even if all reporting was conscientious, we can be ghoulish creatures, and notoriety spreads. For years a grisly reputation attached to a popular rooftop restaurant at a landmark City of London office building, for precisely this reason. At my college, there was a constantly circulating story that the authorities installed netting below the library’s first floor gallery at exam times to stop people jumping. This was false – no nets ever appeared – but the myth persisted because people like to be the holders of dark secrets. It would pop into my head when I looked up at the gallery, or down from it – a thought that could be very dangerous for a more vulnerable person. 

This creates difficulties for anyone trying to prevent people coming to harm. We are familiar with the little signs that organisations including the Samaritans place in certain locations, such as bridges and railway platforms. Small, discreet and carefully worded, they aim to steer people in crisis towards help without advertising the suitability of a spot for self destruction. This is a delicate balance to achieve.

But some spots must advertise. In the last decade there has been a boom in high viewing platforms, observation towers, cantilevers, decks and scenic bridges. Many trade on fear of falling, with glass floors and scary rides. The inclusion of such attractions can oil the wheels of official approval for tall buildings. Destination architecture is in part about creating and spreading an idea that’s easy to grab hold of and understand, spreads from person to person and sticks in the mind. You want your attraction to be there when people are thinking of places to visit. But in some cases that might also mean that your attraction comes to mind at the unwelcome time when someone is experiencing a crisis. The more successful the idea, the greater the chance that a dark seed will be planted. It’s an unpalatable job, but that chance should be considered at the design stage for some projects. Having that bleak idea early might prevent a deadly idea forming later.

Suicide watch

These grim incidents don’t mean that places are necessarily unsafe. Anything can be unsafe to someone sufficiently determined, and architects cannot be expected to prevail over every possibility. A comparison might be drawn with crime prevention: the first thought is removing temptation and opportunity.