The paradox of the barricade: its whole point is to be seen, but no one really looks at it. We read the warning at a glance. Danger. Don’t bump that ladder, don’t kick that shim, don’t drink the soda. The barricade intrudes on our field of vision, disrupts the geometries of the city, blocks the path we habitually take. It does all it can to arrest our attention, yet we simply step to the side and move on.
As an architect and professor, I’ve been taking pictures of transitory barricades for the past 30 years, which in the age of Instagram is not so strange a hobby as it once seemed. I don’t bother with every barricade I pass (certain types are so common that they offer no new insights), but over the years I’ve collected nearly 1,000 examples, illustrating a wide range of materials, uses, formal types, and contextual responses.
Their intuitive sense of symmetry, hierarchy, layering, and rhythm makes them more appealing than many structures that are intentionally designed.
I am drawn to barricades for the reasons that others are drawn to vernacular architecture. They are structures built for a clear purpose, without any pretensions of “design,” below the radar of codes and regulations. Yet they follow discernible conventions, often exhibiting an intuitive sense of symmetry, hierarchy, layering, and rhythm that makes them more appealing than many structures that are intentionally designed. No trained professional submitted drawings for approval. Design is determined in the act of building. The resulting compositions can be funny or intriguing or beautiful. They may comment on their surroundings or offer an implicit critique, which is important to record before it vanishes.
People who catch me in the act of taking pictures are generally confused. Their heads snap back and forth between camera and subject, trying to discern what I could possibly find interesting about a sawhorse wrapped with tape. Barricade makers tend to worry that I am documenting some defect as the basis for a lawsuit. If they question me, I explain my interest and express admiration for their art — although that hardly lessens the confusion.
As my study grows, I classify barricade designs by their material, functional, and formal properties. In this slideshow for Places, I share highlights from my collection.
Barricade materials usually fall into one of two types: bricolage or kit-of-parts. Bricolage barricades are built from whatever is at hand. That can be lumber, plywood, concrete blocks, rebar, and other materials commonly found at a work site. Or it can be the stuff of everyday life: milk crates, pallets, chairs, garbage cans, sticks, branches, straw bales, shopping carts, cardboard boxes. Regardless, the bricolage style is often inventive and entertaining. Some of these barricades are elegant and minimal, displaying a highly-refined structural sense. Others are a mess: random piles of stuff that work only because of the sheer volume of accumulation.
The kit-of-parts was once the domain of utility companies, contractors, public agencies, and other large institutions that need barricades on a regular basis and can invest in an armory of prefab elements: sawhorses, traffic cones, sand-filled barrels, steel fencing, and the like. You’d think this type would be boring, but actually these barricades offer a valuable historical perspective. In the past, sawhorses were built on site from interchangeable parts that could be broken down, reconstructed, or discarded as required; but in recent decades, sawhorses have changed. First came the molded-plastic leg assemblies, to which users added their own wooden crossbars. Then the wooden crossbars disappeared too. New sawhorses are entirely plastic, and utility workers have become the deployers of barricades, not their makers. Here we see a reflection of larger cultural trends: the outsourcing of economic activity, the reliance on a global supply chain of cheap manufactured products, the increased cost of labor relative to materials, and the demand for certified and standardized safety products in a litigious society.
We may mourn the loss of the olde hand-crafted barricade, but we can find comfort in the works of modern bricoleurs.
Finally, the sawhorse itself is vanishing. Where sawhorses were once used to delineate an edge, without a need for real strength, they have been replaced by traffic cones or by the perforated orange plastic sheeting that comes in a roll and can be draped as fencing. (On a trip to Paris in 1986, I was excited to see this innovative barricade product for the first time, not recognizing it as the invasive species it would become.) Similarly, where sawhorses were once needed for physical protection, they have been replaced by water-filled plastic barriers that interlock like giant Lego blocks and have enough mass to resist automobile impact. The sand-filled barrels and concrete Jersey barriers that dominated highway construction projects are giving way to a plastic alternative that makes highway barriers practical for use on city streets.
The democratization of commerce has further shaped the art and architecture of barricade design. Twenty years ago, when I was given a roll of yellow caution tape, I was careful to hold onto it, as I didn’t know where I could buy the tape again. Today it’s everywhere. Previously arcane construction materials are now available to anyone within range of a Home Depot. The barricade kit is so accessible that pure bricolage may die out completely, at least in the developed world. While we may decry the hegemony of the orange cone and mourn the loss of the olde hand-crafted barricade, we can find comfort in the works of modern bricoleurs who are integrating kit parts in unexpected ways.
Barricades can also be classified according to a functional typology. Does the barricade keep people inside or outside the space it defines? Does it aim to protect objects from people, or people from objects?
Shelters contain people inside for their own safety. Consider the guardrails installed on each floor during the construction of multi-story buildings. Meanwhile, cages contain people inside to protect objects on the outside, as in a temporary traffic lane where drivers must stay within the barricades. Next we have danger zones, which keep people outside for their own protection, away from holes, tripping hazards, sidewalk vaults, open elevator shafts, falling-branch zones, wet floors, broken glass, dust, chemical exposure, active or extinguished fires, car accidents, vacant buildings, rotted or collapsed structures, and so on. Conversely, precincts exclude people in order to protect objects or areas within the boundary: new pavement, wet paint, fragile environments, no-parking zones, crime scenes, event spaces, or artwork and other precious objects. These categories are not mutually exclusive, of course. Walls around construction sites protect pedestrians from hazards and also prevent theft of building materials. Some barricades seem to exist primarily to protect property owners from lawyers.
Finally, there are barricades which have no purpose at all, or barricades whose reading doesn’t coincide with their actual function. These are among the funniest images in my collection. Sometimes it seems as if an object has been caged for our protection, when in fact it is being protected from us. And let’s not forget the meta-barricades, which exist solely for the purpose of protecting other barricades.
Form and Context
Most barricades are built quickly and intuitively, which may be why they conform to spatial and compositional archetypes.
Symmetry can be dictated by materials or by the circumstances of the site, such as an object that requires protection on both sides. But many builders default to bilateral symmetry even when an asymmetrical barricade would serve just as well. Rotational symmetry is less common, although it shows up surprisingly often in installations that involve one-legged sawhorses. Rhythm, too, is inherent in many designs, especially in barricades built with standardized parts. Protected sites are often linear, so deploying repetitive elements at equal distances along the perimeter is a sensible design strategy.
Layering of materials can be seen in many barricades. The layers may serve distinct functions (e.g., stopping vehicles, defining a safe zone, disrupting visual access), but not always. Many builders take a redundant, belt-and-suspenders approach, reasoning that if one barricade layer doesn’t work, two might. At the extreme, this strategy produces large, complex assemblages that do not appear unified in their construction. While redundancy is the default mode of the professional with a large kit-of-parts, minimalism is often the preference of the bricoleur. The desire to achieve maximum effect with minimal effort produces an elegant simplicity.
Most barricades are highly tectonic, revealing all of their parts and articulating their nature through the means of deployment. In contrast, some barricades manifest as facades that conceal the underlying structure. This might be done intentionally — to conceal activity or contain debris, or for reasons of aesthetics or marketing — or the mere thinness of the barricade may cause it to be read as an envelope system.
Whatever the formal arrangement, interpretation begins with the observer. An inquisitive critic may discern beauty, counterpoint, composition, balance, and historical reference, even where it is unlikely that such moves were intentional. Many works lend themselves to multiple interpretations. When a dangerous object is barricaded, we may read the divider as a cage that protects us from the object, or we may read it as a frame that isolates and emphasizes the dangerous object as a discrete work of art.
Barricades have inherent formal qualities, but our perceptions of them are shaped by context, both physical and cultural. It is impossible to see a barricade in a museum without wondering whether it is a functional barrier or an art installation. A cone beside a manhole cover doesn’t normally draw attention, but it raises questions in Marfa, Texas. Barricades are much simpler than intentional works of architectural design, and that very simplicity allows us to see their multiple meanings — functional, personal, cultural — so clearly.