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Designing for disaster

How the need for security leads to enhanced public spaces.

By Carol Strickland/ Correspondent / December 14, 2011

The exterior of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., features protective bands of rough-cut limestone extending from the building, as well as elevated sidewalks that serve as barriers. Nonlinear paths, pools, and mini-grasslands and wetlands add a veiled and attractive defense.

Dennis Brack/Newscom/File

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New York

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," a Robert Frost poem begins. As the glee greeting the downfall of the Berlin Wall proved, this feeling is especially true for public spaces. But in a post-9/11 era when security concerns dominate, walls are rising, not falling.

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"We've gone from being America the beautiful to America the besieged," says Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune and author of "Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age."

The mission facing architects today is fusing aesthetics and armor. In the aftermath of attacks on US embassies abroad, the 1995 truck-bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the 2001 terrorist takedown of the World Trade Towers, guidelines for government buildings and other potential targets such as museums and monuments assumed a quasi-military character. Architects had to grasp new concepts like ballistic-resistant design, learn new terms like "hostile-vehicle mitigation," and employ new products like blast-resistant glass. No longer is it enough to protect against rain, snow, wind, and fire; the architect's brief now includes minimizing threats from at-tackers. The challenge is to design defensively without offending aesthetically.

Architectural first responders erred on the side of bulk, converting vulnerable public spaces into fortresses.

"Early reactions were crude and overbearing in how they tried to secure the perimeter," says Leonard Hopper, a past president of the American Society of Land­­scape Architects. Sidewalks bristled with bollards, concrete jersey barriers (used to define lanes on highways), and precast planters called "­bunkerpots."

Necessity becomes opportunity

Gradually, architects and landscape designers are transforming necessity into opportunity. "Any good architect is going to make lemonade out of lemons," says Jeff Garriga, an architect specializing in courthouse design with Finegold Alexander & Associates of Boston.

One sweet result of the bitter reality is the recommended 100-foot "standoff zone" between a new building and the curb (to keep bomb-laden vehicles at bay). The setback creates new public spaces, planted plazas for pedestrians. And while buildings themselves may be "hardened" with concrete cores, thick masonry walls, and wide stairways as escape routes, softer measures on the outside effectively accomplish the three D's of defense: ­detect, deter, and delay.

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