• United States



Security Design and Architecture: Hidden Strengths

May 01, 200311 mins
Access ControlPhysical Security

Does security have to be as ugly as a jersey barrier? Or can it be both effective and attractive? Planners in the nation's capital are putting well-designed security to the test.

The stately white mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has survived fire, scandal and an attack by the British. Someone even crashed a small plane into its facade. All the while, “America’s House” has sat, just yards away from its citizens, as a powerful symbol of the freedom and accessibility of democratic government. But in recent years, a wave of security threats has added layer upon layer of visual armor to the grounds and surrounding streets. Now the once elegant White House, like much of Washington, D.C., resembles a cluttered, battle-weary fortress, apprehensive and unreachable.

But even as security threats continue to multiply, signs of a more touchable terrain are emerging in Washington. A new initiative spearheaded by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) is putting forward the almost treasonous idea that security and historic urban design can coexisteven complement one another. The commission’s $878 million “Urban Design and Security Plan” focuses on restoring the beauty, grandeur and accessibility to areas such as the White House, the Washington Monument and the Federal Triangle, which all have been blighted by jersey barriers and bollards in the recent “siege-chic” approach to security. The plan solicits proposals for ways to build security into the landscape in subtler ways that still provide an obvious deterrent to a terrorist but become virtually invisible to the average visitor.

The concentration of high-risk iconography in such a small area makes Washington the ideal test bed for what security and landscape design can achieve together. But the NCPC’s project is about a lot more than urban beautification. It’s founded on the notion that security doesn’t have to look and feel so oppressive. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, so many of the security measures at airports, national landmarks and public gathering places that are aimed at making citizens saferor at least making them feel saferhave had the opposite effect. How many people truly feel reassured by the sight of an antiaircraft missile launcher parked next to the Washington Monument?

“The fundamental paradox in security is that it seldom makes you feel secure,” says Richard Farson, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. “When you have armed guards going through baggage at the airport and the government is issuing alerts, people become very anxious and afraid. But safety measures can be unobtrusive. People don’t even have to know they exist.”

Good security—and by that we mean the measure most likely to prevent a breach—is about balancing the visible and the invisible; deterring the criminal without scaring off the public at large. That’s the real challenge of the work currently being done in the nation’s capital. And the success or failure of that effort will have a tremendous impact on everyone’s collective expectations for how security should look and feel in the future.The Bollardization OF D.C.It’s been said that if you had a dollar for every bollard in Washington, you’d be pretty flush. But those squat, reinforced concrete posts that dot the entries to forbidden roadways now share the city’s streetscape with still uglier jersey barriers and oversized concrete planters. The security threats of the past year and a half have certainly elicited a noticeable buildup in street-side fortifications, but the changes to the city’s landscape have actually happened more gradually.

“Security creep” is how one Washington insider puts it. “Over the last 15 years, more and more security devices have been employed in a helter-skelter fashion without any coordination or careful thinking about the impact,” says Richard Friedman, whom President Clinton appointed in 2000 to chair the NCPC’s interagency task force on security design.

In the early 1990s, lines of thick cement bollards were erected like giant teeth along the Pennsylvania Avenue curb, presenting a stark contrast to the graceful Federalist style White House fence behind them. Security was ratcheted up again after the Oklahoma City bombing, when Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to traffic, creating a vast concrete no-man’s-land bordered by jersey barriers and makeshift guardhouses. The White House answered public protest of the changes with promises to seek more aesthetically pleasing long-term solutions. But, predictably, those initiatives eventually became bogged down in Washington bureaucracy.

Then came September 11.

At the White House, and elsewhere in and around Washington, bollards, planters, jersey barriers, metal crowd-control stands and even sewer pipes sprouted as omnipresent street fixtures. They were piled haphazardly along curbs, in thoroughfares, across sidewalks and in front of steps in a panicked effort to protect vulnerable buildings and historic monuments from the threat of bomb-laden vehicles, the delivery method of choice for the vast majority of terrorist attacks. Although some of these barriers create a necessary distance between vulnerable buildings and the roads nearby, many have been plopped on random street corners where they seemingly protect nothing, or in front of sculptures and buildings that are unlikely targets for terrorism. “In the short term, [the buildup] is understandable, even laudable,” says Martha Droge, a landscape designer and urban planner with Ayers, Saint, Gross in Baltimore. “[The government] threw as many resources as it could manage at the problem, but doing so sent a poor message to visitors about our quality of life and sense of confidence in the country.”

In typical Washington style, the degree of visible security protection outside a building has even become a bit of a status symbol. “I don’t know whether the Agriculture Department needs to be totally fortified,” muses noted architect Arthur Cotton Moore, who has protested the security blockades that have sprung up around the city. “Terrorism is a PR effort; [terrorists] are going to go after the most dramatic thing they can hitwhich is probably not the Department of Health and Human Services.”

However, the overreaction to the terrorism threat did have one positive result: It infused with new energy the campaign for a more sensible and discreet approach to security design in Washington. In November 2001, for example, the NCPC task force released a series of recommendations for improving security and urban design in the city’s Monumental Core, and followed that up with a comprehensive plan for achieving those recommendations in October 2002. For Friedman, the key to breaking through the bureaucracy was getting all the various stakeholders including the Secret Service, FBI and CIA together in one room and get them talking in a confidential setting. “It was a matter of asking them, What are you afraid of?” says Friedman, and then stepping back and deciding how to design for those fears. The task force provided its recommendations to landscape architecture companies and asked them to submit proposals for many of the city’s famous sites.Moats Are BackAt a time when physical security is increasingly a technology-driven function, it’s interesting to note that many of the innovative landscape security design proposals are distinctly medieval in concept. For example, the sunken walkways that will surround the Washington Monument are derived from old agricultural devices called ha-has. Historically, landowners used these walled ditches to keep the animals on their property from reaching the house without disturbing the landscape’s visual continuity. From a distance, the ditches aren’t even visible. Another design that has been given new life by security-minded landscape architects is the tank trap, a low ditch that prevents small and large vehicles from reaching a building. Frequently they are filled with water to provide an attractive feature on a property (you might recognize the concept as a moat).

Dennis Carmichael, a landscape architect with Edaw in nearby Alexandria, Va., used a similar strategy in several spots including Capital One’s new headquarters in Richmond, Va. At that site, an 18-inch-deep depression surrounds an outdoor dining terrace where it enhances security without obstructing the landscape. “Security does not have to be ugly, and it doesn’t have to look heavy or dense and fortress-like,” says Carmichael. “It can look lightweight and reasonably transparent. I believe [tank traps] are going to become quite standard.” Coordinating The FabricIn parks and at monuments, architects may be able to disguise security within the natural landscapes, but along Washington’s busy streets, the challenge is greater. Many federal buildings sit just feet away from the curb, where they have very little setback to cushion the impact of a truck bomb. And any blast consultant will confirm that every single foot of distance that a building can put between its facade and a bomb blast makes a huge difference in terms of structural damage and lives lost. As a result, streetscape furnishingsplanters and benchesthat would normally be found next to doors have been placed instead in long monotonous rows along curbs. Each building has taken a different approach to hardening the perimetersome sidewalks are bordered by a thick wall of planters, and others have mixed bollards and metal fencing. The effect of this individualized approach to security is quite jarring for the average pedestrian. “Imagine if the Champs Elysee were designed by every café owner,” says Friedman. “It’s one thing to have subtle differences, but the basic urban fabric has to be coordinated.”

In an effort to ensure that the streets make sense again, the NCPC is proposing that improvements be undertaken in a centralized fashion. Instead of everyone creating his own perimeter security solution, Friedman is tackling the political challenge of getting the White House to move the security budgeting for all the different buildingsfrom the Treasury and Justice departments to the IRSinto a central budget that will pay for and implement street site security. The NCPC is looking into hardening common items like streetlights, low walls, planters, fencing and seating that can then be applied to the street in a more natural fashion. Like a dental implant, these street fixtures would be rooted in heavy steel moorings underneath the surface and could be reinforced to a greater or lesser degree depending on the security requirements that the General Services Administration has set for each federal building. “Ordinary street furniturewater fountains, newspaper stands, telephone boothscan be used as effectively as a blob of concrete,” says Friedman. “Even a properly selected tree can be a fabulous defensive mechanism.”

But to date, the city’s trees have been among the most noticeable victims of the security buildup. Verdant avenues and promenades that once gave Washington so much of its natural beauty and identity have been felled in the name of national defense. At the Capitol building last year, 68 trees from the city’s historic landscape design were chopped down to create an access point for a new underground bunker and visitor center built beneath the Capitol. Jeff Lee, principal with landscape architecture firm Lee & Associates in Washington, D.C., argues that the cost of security should be weighed not just in dollars but for its cultural impact as well. “It’s like the MasterCard ad,” he says. “A commercial steel bollard: $3,000. A concrete footing: $20,000. The 60-year-old American elm that graces Independence Avenue: priceless.”

The resurrection of greenery in Washington can be found in the Van Valkenburgh design for Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a wonderful example of balancing security measures with aesthetics (for more on this, see “The Architect,” Page 36). Part of the NCPC’s plan for the rest of the city is to surround trees with hardened street furnishings and place posts around some tree pits to give added protection.

But in weighing the threat of terrorism against all the costs of hardening and protecting a building or monument, the landscape architects and security experts are floating around another somewhat treasonous ideathat is, to do nothing. While Moore notes that areas such as the White House and Capitol must be secured, he scoffs at the notion that every monument and memorial should receive the same treatment. “People don’t live and work in them,” he says. “They are objects. And if they are damaged, we can build them back.

“There’s a very low percentage of possibility that somebody would attack the Jefferson Memorial, but there is a 100 percent certainty that all these things we’re putting in will disfigure it,” he adds. “We shouldn’t be shooting to be totally safe. Total safety is an illusion.”

While architects and security experts agree that a middle ground between safety and aesthetic beauty does indeed exist, the challenge of reaching it in Washington’s fickle political climate is far from over. With a great deal of government bureaucracy still to wade through, Washington denizens may have to live with the barricades a while longer. But the NCPC hopes that when its security design work in Washington is finally completed, the result will be a teaching tool for public and private institutions around the country. “A fish stinks from the head,” says Friedman. “If we can show others how to [implement security] properly and beautifully in Washington, that will have a huge ripple effect.” If the project is a success, it will stand as an example of how much can be achieved when security, design and common sense come together.