On November 30 last year, two activists who opposed Australia’s offshore detention policy abseiled down the front of Parliament House to unfurl a banner calling for the closure of offshore processing centres.

That incident came amid proposals for a $60 million security upgrade to Parliament House, which along with beefed-up surveillance included a 2.6-metre perimeter fence which would restrict access to the house’s grassy slopes.

Reaction from the design community was swift. Pritzker prize winner Glenn Murcutt said the changes were terrible from an architectural perspective and would see Australia becoming a gated community. Australian Institute of Architects national president Ken Maher was ‘deeply outraged’, arguing that the plans were contrary to the original design intent as envisions by the late Romaldo Giurgola. That intent was to foster a sense of openness and to enable the public to walk above their representatives.

Reaction from parliamentarians was mixed, with the Greens claiming the moves attacked basic principles on which the house was built but One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson saying that any senators who believed this was not necessary should ‘wake up.’

That episode highlights an interesting conundrum surrounding the need to both ensure adequate security within critical buildings yet maintain the openness and accessibility of democratic institutions.

Parliament is not the only arena in which these issues are playing out. In 2014, researchers at the University of Western Sydney sought to understand the extent to which seating arrangements within courtrooms influence criminal trial outcomes. That study involved more than 400 mock jurors who watched a 45-minute live trial about an alleged terrorism conspiracy. The seating position of the accused was swapped for each of three different ‘juries’, with the defendant being seated at the Bar table with their lawyer, behind an open dock or in a glass dock. It found whereas only 32 per cent returned a guilty verdict when the defendant was seated beside their lawyer, those numbers increased to 46 per cent and 60 per cent when seated behind an open and closed dock respectively. This, the researchers concluded, indicates that the physical layout of a court room may impact the outcome of trials.

Maher, who is also Professor of Practice at the University of Sydney and the executive chairman of Hassell, said concerns that security measures were detracting from the openness of democratic institutions were not unjustified.

Whilst acknowledging the need to be mindful of dangerous behaviour, Maher said that Australia was an open democracy and nothing should change that. For one thing, given the unpredictable nature of dangerous behaviour, Maher said fences and barriers were often not effective in terms of preventing harm and in some cases merely provided an illusion of security. More effective, he says, are surveillance and monitoring capabilities which detect dangerous behaviour and facilitate appropriate responses.

In fact, he said, open environments are generally safer as there are more ‘eyes’ and fewer spaces in which those intent on creating dangerous behaviour can carry out such behaviour without being seen.

“It is a concern. I think the concern can easily lead to overreactions,” Maher said when asked whether or not there was a danger that security considerations were being allowed to compromise the openness of democratic institutions from a built asset perspective.

“There is an amount of security in openness. Often when barriers are introduced, it is really for a demonstration of security rather than real security. Obviously, we need to be mindful of people’s unacceptable or dangerous behaviour. But as we see, (the behaviour) is often very unpredictable and often barriers which are put up are not necessarily effective.

“It is a balance, but what I am really against is the idea of things that are not necessarily helping but are there to give people a sense of comfort. Often, a false sense of comfort arises from that.”

In terms of strategies, Maher said thoughtful design is critical. In the case of Parliament House, he noted that following modifications, the fencing will now be blended within the natural landscape.

As for courts, Maher says effective strategies involve opening up the court and placing the defendant within a normalised setting. This is more effective, he says, than placing them behind barriers which not only influenced perceptions about them but added to an already a stressful environment – thus in fact increasing the likelihood of aggressive behaviour.

Whilst some separation measures are needed, especially for judges, Maher says mixing rather than separating has a more calming impact upon behaviour within the remaining court environment.

Mark Wilde, a director at Architectus, says the level of complexity regarding secure design is greater with a retrofit than a new build. In the case of the latter, Wilde says security measures can be inbuilt from the beginning. Take, for example, the new International Criminal Court building in The Hague. Wilde says security features include a single public forecourt, a moat (a low height perimeter wall but with sufficiently deep water) around the building to disconnect people from the building, a singular point of public crossing for this moat via a bridge with obligatory scanners at the public entry, different and separate entries for varying occupant types, supporting spaces for each occupant type which are accessed from their entry via separate and discreet circulation systems that connect only and directly at the court room and intentionally vague expressions of elevations which make it difficult from the outside to determine where the judge or the individual on trial would sit.

When retrofitting existing buildings, Wilde says this is more challenging (although not impossible) especially when the new measures are permanent and issues such as heritage considerations are involved.

Overall, Maher says openness is conducive to safer environments.

“I would argue that they are complimentary to each other,” he said.

“Openness leads to better visual surveillance. If we talk about an activated public realm, that is safer than one which is screened off and secured and where people can behave in anti-social ways and not be so visible. The best thing is direct observance which happens when there are many eyes on the street – whether it’s people looking over streets, cafes, bars and shops or public spaces.

“That is much more effective in an open environment. Putting up barriers (a) gives negative signals and (b) allows people to behave without surveillance.”