Cloaked In Security

Creative approaches to the design and retrofit of public buildings prove that safety doesn't have to be ugly.
by | January 2003

Visit New York's City Hall Park on a warm, sunny day, and you're almost certain to see a bride and groom in formal attire being photographed there. After taking vows at the Municipal Building, newlyweds can't resist crossing the street into the leafy park and posing in front of the granite fountain, with its graceful jets of arcing water and elegant bronze candelabras. Amidst the marital bliss, nobody realizes this fountain serves a double purpose. Not only is it a nice spot for pictures, it's also a blockade for truck bombs.

New York installed the fountain three years ago during a complete renovation of the grounds around City Hall. Then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered the redesign as part of a strategy to protect City Hall from terrorist attacks. This was before terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center only a few blocks away. But it came after truck bombs had killed hundreds in two American embassies in east Africa. The city's landscape architects labored to make new security features as invisible as possible. So the fountain blends gracefully with gardens of colorful blooms--and also obstructs a lane where a truck could pick up speed and ram into the front of City Hall. Security cameras hide in the tree canopy. And a new Victorian-style steel fence that rings the grounds is specially hardened to stop a vehicle in its tracks.

At their unveiling, these security features were lambasted by local critics. However, in the wake of 9/11, the ingenuity and subtlety used in City Hall Park is especially noteworthy. Take a five-minute walk north from there, and you'll see a very different approach to security. That's where the New York County Supreme Court sits in a new kind of concrete jungle. Jersey barriers--those ubiquitous and utilitarian barricades along highways--are lined up on the sidewalks. Not only are the barriers ugly and out of place in an urban streetscape but they also send the public a frightening message: You aren't safe here.

The two government complexes are just two blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan, but they are worlds apart in their attitudes toward security. One says finesse. The other says fortress. Unfortunately, since the terrorist attacks, the fortress mentality seems to be winning out in cities across the country. Many of our icons of democracy--city halls, statehouses, courthouses and federal buildings- -have been made to look like military facilities. Nowhere is the problem worse than in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of Jersey barriers are deployed around town, and giant sewer pipes still guard the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

"We cannot barricade our public buildings and deaden the streets and sidewalks of our cities," insists Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, a leading proponent among his peers for good urban design. Indeed, City Hall Park demonstrates that safety and beauty can be compatible if both are weighed in equal measure. It is a lesson that a growing number of planners, architects and landscape specialists are solidifying into a "security design" movement. As they draw blueprints for new public buildings and spaces, they are incorporating security features right into the landscape--much the way architects have learned to build wheelchair ramps seamlessly into their plans. At the same time, they are crafting creative ways to shield older structures without constructing mini-Maginot Lines around them.

Subtle security changes are being made inside public buildings as well. Designers are using new kinds of blast-proof glass so they can continue the trend toward transparency in public architecture. They utilize redundant support structures to guard against a pancake-type building collapse. Increasingly, public buildings are designed to accommodate metal detectors if they are deemed necessary and have key- card security systems that limit access within buildings.


Yet trade-offs are inevitable. There is a natural tension between security and democracy. Government buildings are supposed to be open and free. How do you keep the bad guys away while welcoming everyone else in? Sure, outdoor fences can be made to look classy. Likewise, anyone used to air travel likely won't object to passing through a metal detector in the lobby of a city hall or statehouse. But do these measures send forbidding signals? Architect David Hart thinks so. He is overseeing the design for Utah's capitol campus expansion, complete with two new office buildings and a restoration of the 1915 capitol building. "You could go so far toward the secure side that you make buildings impenetrable for the public," Hart says. "If we close them and screen everyone, then we're treating the public, whose houses they are, as intruders."

There are other sensitive and emotional questions: Would terrorists realistically strike a city hall? Are smaller cities safer than big ones? Obscurity might inspire confidence if not for two words: Oklahoma City. And what sorts of hideous acts should we be designing for, anyway? Experts say truck or car bombs are the likeliest terrorist threat. But what about shoulder-launched missiles? Anthrax attacks? "You have to ask yourself what are the likely threats," Hart says. "There's no way I can reinforce the dome of our capitol to withstand an airplane attack. We just have to pray that nobody does that."

City and state officials are finding, however, that there are creative, inexpensive and largely hidden defense measures they can take. Consider Chicago's Daley Plaza, the central square known for its giant Picasso sculpture. After 9/11, city officials worried that a bomb-laden vehicle could accelerate across the plaza and blow up the adjacent municipal skyscraper. It turned out that parts of a security solution were already in place, in the form of 2,000-pound limestone benches scattered about the plaza. The benches were simply rearranged around the plaza's perimeter. On warm afternoons, you'll still find people lounging on the benches eating lunch or reading a newspaper. Unwittingly, they are also sitting on a car-bomb barrier.

Benches are one part of the security strategy as Austin, Texas, builds a new city hall. As it happened, Austin broke ground on the new building just before 9/11. After the attacks, the city hired a security consultant, weighed its risks and decided to edit the blueprints. There were already plans for the front of the building to have some benches cut into limestone boulders. More were added. Plans for a passenger drop-off area close to the building were eliminated. The lobby was also altered to allow for the installation of metal detectors and package screening. "We thought a lot about security," says Ron Davis, Austin's city hall project manager. "But if security were the top priority, we'd have to scrap the design we had. We really felt we should incorporate security to the degree we can but not make it the overriding concern."

In California, state lawmakers feel the terrorist threat more acutely than in other parts of the country. In January 2001, a man with a history of mental illness plowed an 18-wheel truck into the south side of the state capitol building in Sacramento, killing himself and causing $16 million worth of damage. After the incident, legislators debated putting up a fence around the building, but they rejected it for fear the public would find it off-putting. Instead, they opted for a $2.7 million plan to place 600 protective planters around the building and metal detectors at the doors. "There was a great deal of consternation among members over this," says Tony Beard, the chief sergeant-at-arms for the California Senate. "But the reality is somebody tried to kill us. There's no way to deal with this without in some way, shape or form limiting access to the capitol."


In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, a visitor to Washington, D.C., may well have mistaken the nation's capital for a war zone. If federal agencies, museums and monuments hadn't already cordoned themselves in with Jersey barriers after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings, they reasoned this was the time to place an order. The wall-it-off impulse was understandable. But it went beyond reason.

The unfolding story of how the capital cleans up its concrete mess matters far outside the Beltway. For one thing, the choices Washington makes will likely set a tone for cities, states and counties facing their own security design issues. But more directly, every major city has its own microcosm of downtown D.C., in the form of federal buildings and courthouses. As Richard Friedman sees it, Washington's problems are just like any other city's--only magnified a hundred times. Friedman is a Boston developer and a Clinton appointee to the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees planning for federal land in D.C., including its monumental core. Some agencies-- the FBI or State Department perhaps--clearly require significant security measures, he says. Others tend to give in to what he calls "security creep." Building managers, each sharing the same worst nightmare, begin one-upping each other. Every building takes its own approach, and nobody's minding the overall blow to the city's urbanism. "Most often, the people making security decisions don't report to an urban planner," Friedman says. "If you want a beautiful home, you wouldn't hire the Secret Service to design it."

Friedman chairs a planning task force that even before 9/11 was looking at how to resolve these issues. In an October 2002 report, the task force issued some suggestions. Most were specific to streets and buildings in Washington. But the underlying principles are applicable anywhere, at least when it comes to preventing vehicle-borne attacks. It's important to create standoff distance around sensitive buildings: "Every foot counts," Friedman says. But rather than throw up concrete barriers or cold rows of bollards, cities should instead rely on the everyday elements of their urban streetscape. Street lights, benches, newsstands, parking meters, garbage cans, signs and bus shelters can all be hardened and anchored to stop (or at least slow down) large vehicles. "The best security item in our kit of parts is a tree," Friedman says. "Maybe it means you plant large caliper trees rather than saplings. That's expensive. But bollards cost $5,000 each. You can buy a pretty big tree for $5,000."

For now, many federal buildings, both in Washington and in other cities, seem willing to trade their Jersey barriers for an only slightly less obnoxious measure: concrete planters. Often topped with wilting pansies, these generally look exactly like the Band-Aid they are. Responding to complaints nationwide, the U.S. General Services Administration--essentially the federal government's landlord--has held design charettes with city planners and architects in Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities to come up with more attractive and permanent options. But funding is tight and landscape-design options are limited, especially with older buildings packed tightly into dense downtowns. "The Jersey barriers are no-no's," admits Ed Feiner, GSA's chief architect. "They're a temporary measure, and we're trying to replace them as quickly as possible as the money becomes available."

While some cities grumble that GSA is de-militarizing too slowly, the feds do get high marks on security design in their newest buildings. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, newly commissioned federal buildings now must meet a lengthy set of security criteria, depending on the tenant's "threat assessment." Setbacks, the use of blast-proof glass and redundant building supports are prescribed. Loading docks, garages and mailrooms are designed to absorb explosions. Air intakes guard against the release of biological or chemical agents into ventilation systems. Cameras, key cards and alarms are suggested for monitoring movement in sensitive parts of the buildings.

This list may sound like a formula for a bunker. Yet the remarkable thing is that architects, following the security guidelines, have been producing highly acclaimed buildings. Critics are raving about new federal courthouses in Las Vegas and Islip, New York, as well as designs for a replacement for the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. States and cities are taking notice, according to Kristina Feller, a director with KMD Architects in San Francisco, a firm that gets a lot of state, local and federal commissions. "One thing we've seen post 9/11 is that state and local governments are more aware of the federal security guidelines," Feller says. "They're using them as an a la carte menu to pick and choose what security measures are most appropriate for their communities."


Ultimately, every statehouse, city hall and county courthouse requires a security strategy tailored to its location and the amount of risk occupants are willing to live with. But where government buildings are clustered, it makes sense to think through design issues on a broader scale. This is what Utah is doing with its state capitol complex. "Rather than just protecting the state capitol and then protecting the other state buildings, we're looking at the overall campus," says architect David Hart.

To be sure, they weren't always thinking this way. After 9/11, Utah slapped concrete barriers and orange traffic barrels around its capitol just as lots of other states did. Last year's Olympics, however, forced state officials to deal with the situation: A city under siege was not the image Salt Lake City wanted projected to the world. For starters, they replaced the Jersey barriers with planters. Thinking longer term, however, Hart incorporated security into every aspect of the 20-year campus master plan.

Landscaping is a big part of the plan. Planners went back to the Olmsted brothers' original design for the grounds, including an oval walkway that rings the whole site. In the new vision, this path will form a border between a secure zone and a non-secure zone. Strategically placed benches and cherry trees will line the walkway to deter cars and trucks from making a charge toward any of the buildings. Chances are, they won't get that far anyway. A landscaped berm will line the street-side edge of the 43-acre site.

Building design will also play a role in security. Part of the capitol restoration, as well as construction of the new state office buildings, involves erecting a granite "podium" around each of the buildings to act as a blast shield. Inside the capitol, plans are to accommodate metal detectors for the occasional presidential visit or other sensitive events. But they will be stationed at side entrances, so that most of the time when the public comes through the main entrance into the rotunda, they won't see any visible security at all. "Our hope is that if someone comes in to do mischief and cases the place, he'll find it's not easy to pull off and go somewhere else," Hart says. "For us, the driving issue is still the concept of being open. We want to make sure that everyone is safe. But we also want to make sure the public has full access to its capitol."

Admittedly, public access was less of a consideration at New York's City Hall. This is still quite controversial. Ask any New Yorker lounging by the fountain what he thinks about City Hall Park, and he'll tell you it's beautiful--especially compared with the broken benches and scrubby grass there before. Still, you'll hear the same complaint over and over: The fence turns people away from City Hall. Just getting to the steps, a traditional soapbox for political dissent, now requires passing through a security checkpoint.

When the park opened in October 1999, the newspapers trashed it. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called the design "paranoid-schitzoid urbanism at its creepy best." Columnist Jimmy Breslin likened the fence and guard booths to a penitentiary. Most of the insults were hurled at Mayor Giuliani, who allowed City Hall access only to people who had official business inside the building. Public gatherings were capped at 50 people (although Giuliani famously made exceptions for celebrations whenever the Yankees won the World Series). A federal judge loosened those rules some, but even with a new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in office, the steps still are pretty empty most of the time.

Len Hopper, a city landscape architect who was involved with the project and is past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects, notes that nothing in the park's architecture--not even the fence--keeps visitors from City Hall. Indeed, it's the mayor who decides whether the park gates are open or stay locked. And for now, based on the most current assessment of the terrorist threat, large parts of the park are open but the zone immediately surrounding city hall is closed.

Actually, Hopper asserts, this is a brilliant design feature because it is so flexible. On 9/11, you could see this in action. Not long after the two planes hit the Twin Towers, all the gates to City Hall Park were shut and locked. They remained closed for months. By January 2002, however, city officials felt comfortable letting the public in to enjoy parts of the park again. The gates opened. Hydraulic bollards sank back into the ground. Hopper likens the design's flexibility to an onion. "You can peel back the layers as the threat level decreases," Hopper says. Should the terrorist threat drop to zero, everything can be opened up.

In the meantime, we'll have to get used to the idea that fountains may protect as well as romance us.