Security and Architecture of Fear

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Thursday, March 19th, 2015
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Since 9/11, designing for increased security needs has taken on a whole new dimension, but is safety coming at the cost of architecture?

It is important that our built environment continues to reflect that we are an open and inclusive society and that in interpreting these requirements, our buildings do not convey that we are driven by security measures or a siege mentality.

“An essential approach to the design of buildings and the spaces between them will incorporate counter-terrorism measures in a discrete and proportionate way and designers should encourage their clients to adopt a proportionate and pragmatic approach in briefing. The designers’ skill will be to incorporate these as constraints but not inhibitors of good design,” said Ruth Reed, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Crowded places remain an attractive target for international terrorists because of their ease of access, lack of protective security and the prospect for high casualty rates and political impact in the event of a successful attack. From transport hubs to sports stadia, even public realms such as parks and squares, these areas all have to consider counter-terrorist design.

One of the most effective means terrorists have for the delivery of large bombs onto a target is through the use of vehicles.

In 2007, Glasgow International Airport was the subject of an improvised bomb attack when a car loaded with propane canisters was driven into the glass doors of the terminal. Security bollards outside the entrance stopped the car from physically entering the terminal, although the doors were damaged.

arch sec1As part of the redevelopment and extension of the airport, work worth £2 million began in June 2010 at the airport’s drop-off zone which included the construction of 300 security bollards in front of the terminal.

In addition to static/passive barriers around buildings, which are not particularly attractive, projects that have engaged creatively with re-routing traffic have shown the positive consequences that can be produced. These include the pedestrianisation of inner city zones and the creation of more public gardens on what would have previously been parking space.

The most significant protective measure one can implement is perhaps also the most basic: sufficient stand-off. Blast loading reduces substantially with distance, with an ideal stand-off of 30 metres for small cars.

Of course, such large stand-offs cannot always be achieved, especially in dense urban situations. In these cases, alternative design solutions such as zoning of the building to put low occupancy areas in the more vulnerable locations and treating these as sacrificial zones to protect and provide stand-off to the occupied zones can be used.

A good example of incorporating a set of raised security requirements associated with a government building with the need for open access to the public is the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. As well as hosting official sessions for Assembly Members, the building includes a café and public galleries which are accessible to all.

Image credit: Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners

Image credit: Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners

The scheme takes advantage of the public plaza around the building to achieve sufficient stand-off through landscaping. A series of staircases, strengthened street furniture and a controlled sequence of vehicle and security checks all contribute to the building’s counter-terrorism and general security program.

One of the hardest buildings to get right in these times of heightened security is embassy design. Much criticism has been laid at certain buildings for becoming concrete bunkers rather than reflective, representative and celebratory of the nation they are built for.

Architecture critic Hugh Pearman, writing for the Sunday Times, has likened the new US embassy in the UK capital, for example, to “the second Tower of London.”

Image credit: Kieran Timberlake/studio amd

Image credit: Kieran Timberlake/studio amd

Pearman referred to the building repeatedly as a “fortress,” complete with “a moat, and defensive embankments, and a clear line of sight for the archers, the lot.”

The design was opened up to competition to ensure the new facility reflected the best of modern design. Although it incorporates the latest in energy-efficient building techniques, one has to question whether it truly “celebrates the values of freedom and democracy” as stated in the brief.

The project is due for completion in late 2016.

More successful is Rem Koolhaas’ Dutch Embassy in Berlin, which ensures the safety of civil and diplomatic services after 9/11, while preserving transparency. Like the US Embassy in London, it is a cube, but unlike its American counterpart, with its defensive embankments, it completes and closes the urban island (classic and essential to Berlin) by constructing the diplomatic residences in the form of an L-shaped complex adjoined to the walls of neighbouring buildings.

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From an Australian perspective, much praise has come the way of Denton Corker Marshall for the five-storey chancery in Jakarta which is being built on a 45,000 square metre brownfield site.

Image credit: Denton Corker Marshall

Image credit: Denton Corker Marshall

Designed to be a monument to the success of modern-day Australia, the building’s brass, copper, zinc, steel and aluminium cladding is meant to represent the country’s mineral riches. It is a fitting design, which at the same time satisfies the security requirements of the day.

It is certainly a tricky balancing act to make sure we avoid architecture of fear.

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