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Designing for disaster

How the need for security leads to enhanced public spaces.

(Page 3 of 3)

"The most interesting things are not what's been done before," Mr. Rogers says. "What they teach in architecture school is problem solving. That's the adventure of being an architect – where the intrigue and excitement lie."

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The plan for a new US Embassy in London illustrates how a standoff zone does not mean standoffish design. The KieranTimberlake architectural firm of Philadelphia recently won the commission with their design for what James Tim­ber­lake calls "an urban building in an urban park." The building itself will be a see-through cube atop a colonnade, surrounded by curving paths, trees, berms, gardens, and a pond that acts as a moat. Instead of being foreboding, the blast-resistant glass and polymer skin of the building creates, Mr. Timberlake says, a welcoming, crystalline "beacon," an "open, transparent, sustainable icon of democracy." Timberlake calls the security requirement not a "constraint but an opportunity." By incorporating it in the design process rather than as an add-on or afterthought, he hopes their approach "will have a transformative effect on the expression and presence of barrier design."

Although the aesthetic appeal of buildings with these new design parameters isn't always impaired, public access is, which diminishes social cohesion and inclusiveness. Carol Willis, director of New York's Skyscraper Museum, laments how the flow of foot traffic has been reduced to funneling people single file to a checkpoint.

Destroying civilization to save it?

"Buildings are safer," Ms. Willis admits, "but against what? Airplanes crashing into them? That shouldn't be an engineer's problem." She would like to see – ideally – a return to fully free, public space open at all times to everyone.

"What's the point of protecting your civilization if you're going to destroy it in order to save it?" Mr. Kamin, the critic, asks. "We're talking about the effects buildings have, not just on their functions but on the spirit of people who encounter them every day. If they're dour and fortresslike, it casts a cloud over urban life, and that hands a victory to the terrorists."

"The design message you send," Hop­per says, "should not be totally contradictory with the architecture of the building, or the space and the democratic ideals we're looking to promote." More and more, architects are integrating physical security into holistic designs that are not off-putting but graceful and inviting.

"Security is not the most desirable thing, but it's become a fundamental thing," Rogers says. "We must engage it and make it an exercise that improves the public realm."


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