Architecture critic worries that ubiquitious surveillance isn't aesthetically pleasing

The DHS wants to cover America's cities with UK-style ubiquitous surveillance daleks. These are ominous curbside refrigerators bristling with surveillance gear, to be installed at every major intersection. And the only thing the Philadelphia Inquirer's architecture critic has to say about them is that they won't fit in with the quaint old buildings in central Philly.
Some signal boxes slam hard up against the walls of 18th-century houses. Others block the gracious windows of antiques stores and restaurants. A box shadows the side of St. Peter's Church, one of the city's most significant colonial buildings. And even when the big boxes find spots at curbside, their presence is impossible to ignore.

In our zeal to protect America from attack, it seems we've implemented a policy that scars one of America's most intact colonial neighborhoods.

Changing Skyline: Big boxes making us safer, and uglier (Thanks, Michael!)


  1. The things is- this argument might work better than pointing out facts like how the crime rate hasn’t dropped in the slightest in the UK and of course, the terrorism rate can’t be measured easily since the rate is currently at 1 incident per decade over the last 2 decades. Foreign terrorism at least, which is the only kind US authorities recognise as having happened.

  2. I’m sure they’ll place these ugly contraptions everywhere, but the minute I try to move a toilet onto the sidewalk, the world will be up in arms.

  3. yeah, it’s pretty ugly.

    the UK is such a joke. It’s the world’s most watched nation, but still has the highest crime rate in the industrialized world (if i’m not mistaken?)

  4. I anticipate an anarchist knitting offensive against the machines. Let’s cover them in street-cozies.

  5. The “us” in the title Big boxes making us safer, and uglier refers to “authoritarian plutocrats”.

    Constant surveillance does indeed make such folks both safer and uglier.

    The rest of us, not so much safer, just uglier.


  6. @#4: I’m afraid you are mistaken. It’s the US; we come second. (Although that’s pretty bad for a country that’s smaller than Texas, admittedly!)

    Per capita we’re sixth.

    (I googled and ended up at — I’m assuming no special bias for an internet site I know nothing about, so…)

  7. Arrgh, reminds me of the AT&T U-verse boxes they’ve been putting everywhere here. They’re huge. And they’re considered “utility” so there’s almost nothing to be done about siting, etc. Some are even in people’s front yards.

    The standard “v-rad” boxes aren’t too bad, but some of them are the size of an old transformer vault or two.

  8. In Vancouver, they’ve started wrapping these things with images (in the same way one wraps a bus with advertisements). I’ve seen wraps on everything from roadside electric transformer boxes to traffic control boxes to telephone routing boxes. It actually makes a HUGE improvement when the big green municipal box in your front yard has a photograph of a bush wrapped around it. I’ve seen ones that look like a big flower display as well. In downtown areas maybe these could be wrapped with public art or some other more pleasing display.

    (Tried to find info on the web about this or a photo but haven’t been able to locate anything – will post a link to a picture if I can spot one around town).

  9. @#8: Comcast ran ads mocking those V-RAD boxes. As if somehow switching to Comcast would make AT&T remove them… :)

    I don’t expect that an architecture critic would be a surveillance critic so this doesn’t really surprise me.

  10. In the not too distant future I’m sure the same sorts of people that post every little detail of their lives on twitter/facebook/etc. will be recording their surroundings via high-def video and audio feeds for everyone to see.

    With enough people doing this it will be enough to blanked the entire city more effectively than these things would anyway.

  11. The linked article has been updated/corrected to tell us these ate traffic control system boxes. DHS slipped out of this one.

    This “Changing Skyline” column on the installation of new control boxes for Philadelphia traffic lights incorrectly identified the federal agency requiring the city to provide for the future inclusion of video-surveillance equipment. The project is under the auspices of the Federal Highway Administration, according to Stephen Buckley, the city’s deputy commissioner of transportation. The city will have the software capability to monitor traffic lights when the project is completed, he added.

  12. Pretty please, can’t my civil liberties be abused by something with a more antiquated look!?… No? How about fuchsia?

  13. That article is hilarious and offensive.

    Philadelphia. They are talking about omnipresent surveillance of the populace in Phili and the only concern is aesthetic. This is the place they wrote the Declaration of Independence.

    “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ring any bells? How about freedom from Big Brother spying on its population?

    How the author completely missed the clash between what Philadelphia represents and the idea of omnipresent surveillance and then managed to be more concerned with the visual contrast of large black boxes versus colonial (aka the time when they wrote those “important” documents) architecture is well beyond me.

    Instead of, “gosh those black boxes look bad right there” how about, “wow those things make our concept of freedom a farce.” It’s that easy.

    -Cameron Ottens

  14. Don’t like it? Wrap it with plastic! Sure to make the gizmos inside toasty warm. Works well with other types of boxes too.

  15. It’s a valid concern. People might not think they have something to hide but if the Government is building ugly boxes outside of their historic house and driving the already stressed price down then you have a civil protest on your hands.

  16. Industrial design factors often have a substantial lag behind consumer devices. But does it have to be so in style? As for every traffic light “box” there are how many multiples of artistic Pc’s? Also we have to consider that other infrastructure being put into such boxes may make sense. From both a tech and financial standpoint. As in leasing Colo for WiMax etc nodes. Or EV charger interfacing. The same traffic light crossarm can serve many functions. Communications antennas with the comm gear in that corner box. The cameras can be multitaskers too. Make their housings ART! The waterspouts on Churches being artistic Gargoyles. Imagine a street level camera in a kid’s park as replicating Deputy Dawg or Jiminy Cricket? They can indicate an intersection’s status as occupied or empty. Pedestrians entering an intersection being protected. That Pillbox again- Perhaps literally shaping them as “Angels with a Wing gently admonishing against unwise crossings? Back to the cameras. They can serve as a fire and weather watch. Used for watching our cities they can either repress socially -or protect us from many harms. Is that “pillbox” needfully an evil Dalek exterminating freedom? Or could it become that friendly guardian angel? Painted with ominous threats it scares us. Painted with something like a winged eye used to denote protection?

    I’d also worry more about covert cameras than overt ones. Though given MY choices I’d have manned posts at many places. Even going so far as to suggest the traffic light boxes ALL be Kiosk seat fitted. So any would be criminals pause to think if it’s live or merely a camera.

    It is all in how we use the tech. Will it be our servant or our master?

  17. Unless someone wants to take on Mapping all these boxes and starting a public art project to get them all painted!

    You know, I read that as “Mapplethorpeing all these boxes”. That would be one heck of a public art project, but I’m not sure it would make them less obtrusive.

  18. I had the misfortune of living in Philly for a couple of years – only just moved away.

    “Some signal boxes slam hard up against the walls of 18th-century houses. Others block the gracious windows of antiques stores and restaurants.” The author of the text would be a bit more convincing if the house in the background of the picture did not already have boarded up windows.

    Although I lived in west Philly (West Powelton), some of the streets in Louis Theroux’s “Law and Disorder in Philadelphia” shown on the BBC last year look awfully familiar. Find the show on BitTorrent for an insight full look at Philly street life and check out the Johannesburg one too.

  19. Feh. They wouldn’t last five minutes in the wrong side of town. The less salubrious bits of UK towns have their cameras, etc on armoured, bespiked poles that wouldn’t look out of place in Belfast during the Troubles or the West Bank.

  20. As much as I like to worry about aesthetics, I’d be much more worried about what’s actually in the boxes.

    Usually when someone calls something like this for aesthetic reasons – it’s only the bourgeois neighbourhoods that matter; and even then, the real driver is probably the effect it’ll have on the house prices of directly neighbouring properties.

    Maybe someone who’s into steampunk should come up with a design for those boxes that are placed on historically significant streets?

  21. This is really unfortunate that what is one of the better local newspaper columns is thus maligned. Hundreds of people are murdered here in Philadelphia each year, you can read of a murder pretty much everyday in the paper, count on two or three for the Monday AM read. And trust me many of the murders are simply ‘wrong place, wrong time’. Four of those in 2008 were of police. But the big story here is the Mayor trying to close a dozen libraries, due to lack of funds. So I think you really missed it- the only way to move any one with the power to do something about the surveillance society IS to make an aesthetic complaint. Because they’re out of ideas in city hall.

    Meantime, here in a state that is run by the NRA, where the city is powerless to change any gun laws, I would love to hear the plan for reducing the murder rate here.

  22. I am both insulted and offended by this article. As an american servicemen serving in Iraq. I’m appalled by the utter lack of respect for the rights and liberties for which I am being told I am fighting for. I’m 30 now, grown with a house and truck payment. However when I see things like this my inner gutter punk comes screaming out. with blood boiling and hair on fire. All I can think about is finding ways to destroy or disable these things. If we cost the cities so much in maintenance, mabey they will just give up on the idea. just my two cents.

  23. what is in these boxes? i don’t see any of the stupid useless cameras we have in the UK

  24. “UK-style ubiquitous surveillance daleks”

    [Citation needed], frankly. As far as I’m aware, these do things like control traffic lights (so the lights along a busy road are synchronised). At least, if someone hits one the lights tend to go out.

    (Or there’s the other ones, with cable/phone connections.)

  25. Looks like a baby monolith. Maybe when someone runs a red light, it starts playing “Also Sprach Zarathustra”? Or is that only when monkeys discover tools?

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