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How Cities Keep People Out

A short history of barricade design.

There was once a time when entire cities were designed as fortresses. Ringed by city walls and fortifications, these settlements were always prepared for war. And though such large-scale systems may no longer be relevant—especially in modern cities, which are designed more for pleasure and efficiency rather than protection—the violent side of human nature probably won’t be going away anytime soon. Someone, somewhere is always going to be in need of a bit of architecture to take the blow, and there are plenty of barricade systems that often come to the rescue. (And save us from other, more natural threats too, it turns out.)

On an urban scale, insurgent barricades become key pieces for manipulating space in a game of strategy, and their architectural heft reveals political intent or power. Take the protests in Ukraine: Found objects and sandbags vs. shielded bodies. The contrast is stark.


Image via CNN/AP Photo by Alexander Zenlanichenk.


Image via Kiev Ukraine News Blog.

However, when organized forces devise plans for a longer-term posting, a different type of structure is required, where system becomes key. Former trenches become smart modules of design that can be quickly installed and reused.

Many of these modules serve additional, less violent functions. Something strong enough to withstand an RPG attack (like sandbags) would probably make a pretty good flood barrier or even a retaining wall. No wonder the military is so often called upon to help with flood control in severe weather.

This tense link between violent fortifications and aid for climate change lead to the question: Should developments in one field help the other? Whatever they're protecting from, below are some of the systems currently in use by organized forces around the world. These modules, though politically sensitive, are examples of some ingenious design.


Image via Wikimedia Commons by U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick W. Mullen III.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Hesco bunker in Restrepo, Afghanistan. Photo by the late Tim Hetherington via AmolaTV.

One of the classic contemporary fortifications is the Hesco Bastian, which uses a collapsible mesh system that can then be filled with dirt to create a solid structure. Designed by the late James Heselden, owner of the segway company, this is an invention that is actually in wide use around the world. Not only capable of stopping small firearms, the barrier can also be setup to block floods.


DefenCell system. Image via Armed Forces.

Similar to the Hescos, DefenCell is a cellular structure that is filled with earth to quickly construct a barrier. Lightweight and man-portable, a typical 4.9m long section, weighing less than 10 kgs.


Image via YouTube by Dynamic Defense Mat.


Image via Integrated By Aardvark.

The Hesco system, although much faster than sandbags, still requires a lot of manpower (and a front loader) to fill each section. Recently, an alternative was released by Dynamic Defense Materials that essentially functions like a giant Lego set. The armored wall system, called McCurdy's Armor, is a series of panels that can be stacked for easy transportation and then quickly assembled on-site by snapping them together and securing the pieces with steel pins. Ballistics windows also mean that the shelter is not only a defensive measure but also a tactical firing position.


Rapid Armor Shelter System from pki. Image via pki.

A similar system from pki, the Rapid Armor Shelter System is highly adaptable and therefore ideal for moving troops. The simple modular components can be reconfigured to protect both people and property.


Turtle Rapid Fortification System from Mifram Security. Image via Mifram Security.

The Turtle system is a similar fortification that consists of four easily-assembled components that fit together to make a robust structure. This particular design is distributed through Mifram Security, "one of Israel's building fortification experts and innovators." You can trust them, since apparently the "most advanced and effective building fortification technologies" were developed during the attacks from Gaza or Lebanon.

The MBS Portable Shelter by Mifram Security. Image via Mifram Security.

Alternatively, provided that transport is available, you could use secure containers. These portable bunkers require no foundations, and once the module has been properly assembled, it can withstand a direct hit from a light missile or rocket.


Sheep Barricades. Image via Christophe Machet.

On a slightly brighter note, these Sheep Barricades by Christophe Machet bring a bit of color to control. Intended to slow down the speeds of passing vehicles, this form of barrier has roots in more military-style interventions like dragon teeth or Czech hedgehogs. Interesting to note the animal obsession.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Alex Garkavenko is a contributor at Architizer.