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Katherine Shonfield

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The tales of persistent child abuse that have emerged are too serious an issue to be dismissed as just another news item.

When watching and hearing harrowing details the mind does what it can to distract itself from the full onslaught. Architects inevitably unconsciously consider the spatial and stylistic qualities of the places where such outrages take place.

We will have noticed that these children were persistently abused over years in the very essence of what estate agents call a 'desirable home': a large Tudorbethan detached suburban house, set back from the road, with front garden and drive. The architectural term that has been perverted here, as so often, is the word 'home'. 'Home' has connotations of privacy and retreat .

But retreat and privacy protected only the criminals: they provided the wherewithal for them to persist in their tortures, unknown and unexposed, and for no passers-by, no neighbours, no shopkeepers, to notice the signs.

It is the horrendous isolation from the everyday humanity of the public world, the folding away of the private that allowed this problem to go unnoticed. Social workers can only do so much: calls for ceaseless vigilance are unforgivably naive. Evil is not new and will not go away.

One thing that hinders it are the mechanisms of vigilance that occur automatically in public space, a multiplicity of people, and exposure to an anonymous and largely benign public eye.

We need to acknowledge the care of unwanted children as a public duty.

Five hundred and fifty years ago, Brunelleschi designed what is regarded as one of the first truly public buildings. It was the Ospedale dei Innocenti, a hospital in the sense of 'haven', for the innocent: abandoned children. Its facades form one of the world's most beautiful public squares.

Architects should be part of this overdue re-think of children's homes, and we could do worse than start there.

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