The Blast-Proof City

Federal buildings and monuments across the United States are now bomb-proof fortresses. But what's being lost in our relentless pursuit of total safety?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It used to be that D.C. architecture consisted of graceful Georgetown mansions, neoclassical federal buildings — and, of course, the monuments. When the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was founded in 1910 to guide Washington’s architectural development, it reviewed designs such as those of the Lincoln Memorial and the Federal Triangle. Over the seven years I’ve served on the commission, however, an increasing amount of time is spent discussing security-improvement projects: screening facilities, hardened gatehouses, Delta barriers, perimeter fences, and seemingly endless rows of bollards. We used to mock an earlier generation that peppered the U.S. capital with Civil War generals on horseback; now I wonder what future generations will make of our architectural legacy of crash-resistant walls and blast-proof glass.

How did we become so insecure about our buildings? Although the 9/11 attacks loom large in the public’s imagination, the event that changed the way federal buildings in the United States are designed and used — perhaps forever — was a presidential directive issued six years prior to the attacks. Historically, U.S. presidents have shown little interest in architecture. You can count the exceptions on one hand: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who designed his own presidential library; Theodore Roosevelt, who had many architect friends and added the West Wing to the White House; and of course America’s two great architect-presidents, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Mostly, however, presidents have preferred to leave design to designers, whether of public buildings, war memorials, or double eagles. President Bill Clinton, whose most prominent addition to the White House was a hot tub, is not known as an architecture buff. But by issuing Executive Order 12977 in October 1995, he set in motion a process that thrust politics squarely in the center of the design process.

The executive order was the result of the Oklahoma City bombing. The day after the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives and injured more than 680 people, Clinton directed the Justice Department to assess the vulnerability of all federal facilities to acts of violence. The resulting report, prepared by a large team headed by the U.S. Marshals Service, is generally known as "The Marshals Report." To implement the report’s recommendations, Executive Order 12977 established an interagency security committee charged with developing standards for all federal facilities as well as "long-term construction standards for those locations with threat levels or missions that require blast resistant structures."

The Marshals Report classified all federal buildings according to rising levels of risk. The Murrah Building, which had 550 employees and housed offices of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), would have been Level IV, a high-risk category that includes federal courthouses and all large federal office buildings, as well as ATF, DEA, and FBI offices. Level V is reserved for the highest-risk agencies such as the Defense Department, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Because the authors of the Marshals Report were security experts, they focused on the immediate security problem — that is, safeguarding the occupants of federal buildings against explosives and other domestic threats. It is hard to question the good intention of protecting federal employees. As bombings in Madrid and Oslo later showed, however, terrorism does not confine itself to official targets; hardening government buildings simply moves the threat elsewhere. It is like deciding to protect only flight crew, rather than safeguarding the plane and all its passengers.

The Marshals Report proposed no fewer than 52 specific criteria, which resulted in the deployment of a host of building security devices. Some, such as reinforced structure, blast-resistant glass, and hardened curtain walls, have a small impact on a building’s appearance. That is not the case with perimeter security.

"Depending on the facility type," the report cautions, "the perimeter may include sidewalks, parking lots, the outside walls of the building, a hallway, or simply an office door." Because truck bombs are the simplest and cheapest way of creating large detonations and given what happened in Oklahoma City, the focus has been on keeping vehicles far away from their target by creating a so-called "standoff" distance. The optimal standoff is large — at least 100 feet — and new buildings, such as the ATF headquarters in Washington, achieve this standoff by creating a sort of landscaped demilitarized zone between the building and the street. (Note that the Marshals Report came out at a time when the federal agency with the greatest experience of terrorism was the State Department, which had developed expertise in hardening diplomatic buildings abroad in the wake of several embassy bombings. This may explain why federal buildings are protected as if they were divorced from their surroundings and why so many federal buildings today, surrounded by barricades and layers of security, resemble foreign outposts: They’re actually modeled after embassies.)

But existing urban buildings are generally too near the street. The only alternative to closing a street completely — as with Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House — is to keep the potential truck bomber from driving right up to the building. This is achieved by a device that could serve as a symbol for our insecurity: the bollard.

Bollards are hardly new — Baroque Rome was full of them. But the attractive marble bollards that Bernini placed in St. Peter’s Square or those that prevented carriages from driving into his fountain in the Piazza Navona are a far cry from the security bollards of today. Old bollards were typically low enough to make a convenient seat and were spaced far apart, sometimes linked by chains. Cast-iron bollards were installed by 19th-century Dutch townspeople in front of their houses, but those decorative so-called Amsterdammertjes (little Amsterdammers) were not intended to stop a speeding truck, only to discourage driving on the sidewalk.

Modern post-Oklahoma City bollards are not so delicate. Designed to halt a 15,000-pound vehicle going up to 50 miles per hour, they are big: 8 to 10 inches in diameter, typically 3 feet high, and spaced no more than 4 feet apart, according to current standards. A large, block-size building might be encircled by several hundred of these oversized fireplugs. To reduce the monotony, architects have tried mixing in hardened fences, low walls, flower planters, reinforced benches, and light poles. When a security line occurs at the curb, however, as is usually the case, solid barriers are impractical because people need to be able to exit cars, so bollards remain the chief perimeter protection. Whether they are clad in stainless steel or granite, they are a visual intrusion on the streetscape; they also pose a nuisance for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Some agencies don’t seem to mind this intrusion, as it’s an external marker of their building’s strategic importance. In Washington, we’ve come to see the bizarre phenomenon that one federal official characterized to me as "bollard envy," where the degree of protection becomes a symbol of bureaucratic status, like a choice parking spot or a corner office. Perhaps the most egregious example is the screening center for visitors that Congress built for itself; by the time the underground facility was finished it covered half a million square feet and cost $620 million.

Government officials regularly speak of integrating perimeter security "unobtrusively" into a building’s design. A rare case where this has been achieved is the landscape improvement to the Washington Monument. Designed by the OLIN landscape architecture firm, the perimeter security is disguised as a set of curving stone retaining walls that are invisible from the monument and are designed for visitors to sit on. A similar retaining wall provides security for the Lincoln Memorial, but here the topography requires additional intrusive bollards as well.

The security plan being designed for the Jefferson Memorial will depend on walls as well as scores of bollards. Where to put the perimeter security is a Hobson’s choice: put it farther away and you need more bollards; nearer and you need fewer, but they are more visually intrusive. In either case, the experience of John Russell Pope’s handsome building will hardly be enhanced. The directive to secure the Jefferson Memorial is intended to protect a precious national icon. It may end up having the opposite effect.

The team that prepared the Marshals Report did not feel obliged to mention the potential architectural impact of new security standards, but simply assumed that the criteria would be met — somehow. That "somehow," after 10 years of the war on terrorism, has generally come at the expense of aesthetics. Standards, whether they govern the precise height of bollards or the minimum dimension of standoffs, tend to be inviolable and leave little discretion to the designer. And because everyone (at least, everyone inside the same risk-class building) deserves the same level of protection, there can be no exceptions. Most building-design decisions are tradeoffs — between cost and benefit, maintenance and durability, and appearance and performance. Yet security — "Are you ready to risk a life?" — brooks no compromises.

And yet, if that question were to be answered by citizens instead of by security consultants, the response might be different. Most decisions regarding building security have been the result of executive-branch directives, either from the president or from department heads, rather than from Congress. These decisions are not the result of public debate. The possibility of an open discussion about security — for example, when is too much, too much? — is further constrained by the necessary veil of secrecy that surrounds the subject. After all, security measures are intended to foil terrorists — whether foreign or domestic — and revealing too many details defeats the purpose.

And herein lies the problem. The design of public buildings today is usually subject to review by design boards, municipal arts councils, neighborhood associations, and various community groups. But security concerns, which can greatly affect building design, are "off the table." Instead of reasoned discussion by citizens and their representatives, debate is stifled by the unarguable pronouncements of security experts.

Last year, the Supreme Court decided that the public would no longer be able to ascend Cass Gilbert’s iconic marble steps to enter the Supreme Court building. Instead, visitors would be redirected to a side door leading to a screening facility. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the change unfortunate and unjustified, and Breyer pointed out that no other high court in the world has closed its front entrance due to security concerns. He wrote that the main entrance and the front steps of the 1935 building "are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."

But Breyer and Ginsberg were in the minority. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who supported the closure, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that from a security perspective, entering from the side is "mandatory." According to ABC News, Kennedy said that the court spent millions of dollars on an updated security facility, "but decided, after talking to experts, that visitors no longer should be able to enter through the main front entrance." Once more, the experts carried the day.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola