Poor Big Brother. George Orwell’s famous symbol of intrusive security has acquired some frighteningly absurd lines in our time. Gone are “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength.” Instead we have warnings like “Do not iron clothes on body,” “Caution, hot beverages are hot,” “Remove occupants from stroller before folding,” and “Do not attempt to stop chainsaw blade with hands.”
In a world of many wars and innumerable threats, twenty-first-century security has surrounded us with warnings and checkpoints, routinely herding us into single-file lines with concrete Jersey barriers, steel barricades, and yellow tape—all under the watchful eyes of those who search us for bombs and weapons. Security is as likely to be discussed at the kitchen table or around a living room sofa as it is in the subdued light of a reinforced-concrete bunker. It has become both the main theme of national politics and the backstory for public life in America.
Concern for security in a suddenly uncertain age has certainly reshaped psychology, politics, and design in America, but it has undoubtedly had the most direct impact on architecture. For any public space, security has become a complex, layered concept that covers detailed blast specifications of window glass as well as issues of controlled access, electronic passkey systems, street-level vehicle barriers, and exterior surveillance. Open spaces have become either suspect urban no-man’s lands or bleak accommodations to street setback requirements, bristling with barriers and cameras that anticipate visiting trucks packed with C4 explosives, not bubbly tourists packed with cameras and guidebooks. In an era of suicide bombers, places without checkpoints seem almost naked, like windowless buildings or unfenced playgrounds.
“We need public spaces for a new era, and they cannot be fortresses,” says federal judge Michael Hogan, whose new home, the Wayne Lyman Morse United States Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, is not a fortress. It is an open, glassy, brilliantly lit reimagination of the public square for a new century, designed by Pritzker laureate Thom Mayne of Morphosis. It’s a bit surprising considering that as a federal judge Hogan himself is a terrorist target. Further, no federal building can escape the memory of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and then there’s 9/11. A fortress might have been a rational response, but not for Hogan. “I was passionate that this courthouse deliver the message that we are an open, confident society with a legacy greater than our fears,” he says.
In a 2004 article in the Eugene Weekly Hogan declared that he wanted people to “feel happy in the building and feel that they’re doing something important.” The 252,000-square-foot structure, which will be completed this summer, is also completely secure. The Morse Courthouse meets or exceeds the security requirements of the U.S. General Services Administration. Tim Christ of Morphosis, which currently has more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of federal projects, says it took some convincing, but the government has committed to openness and security. “A lot of people, myself included, think of public open spaces as essential to a functioning democracy,” he says. “Other people think of those spaces as a security risk.”
In architecturally challenging Manhattan, you can see some of the best-designed security solutions—and also some of the worst. Often you don’t have to walk more than a couple of blocks to experience the full range. At Wall Street and Broadway you’re greeted by elegant bronze-plated barriers called NoGos. The design, a warm geometric cross between an obelisk and a massive mushroom cap, was sculptural enough to make it into a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The NoGo was designed by the firm Rogers Marvel Architects, which has distinguished itself with other cutting-edge security-minded projects, such as the collapsible concrete fill—a twenty-first-century moat—around the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan. Rogers Marvel also has a secure urban-landscape system of bus shelters and benches.
Just a few blocks away from the sculptural bronze, there are two idling pickup trucks parked at William Street and Exchange Place. It’s a four-year-old “temporary” security barrier. A mile away, at Foley Square, the shiny marble facades and approaches to a group of federal buildings are defaced with police tape and choked with metal-detector screening queues.
It’s just the kind of thing that drives Vishaan Chakrabarti, former New York City director of planning in Manhattan, to tear out his dark, ample, well-groomed hair. “If you feel like you are coming to work in a fortress, then you feel like you are in a war,” he says. “It’s that simple.” Chakrabarti is now a vice president at the Related Companies, the lead developer of the Time Warner Center. He believes that the chaos on the ground in New York is the latest episode in a long dreary saga for American architects. He notes the radical changes in U.S. embassy design since World War II, which he says track both an increased priority for security and a radically changing image for America in the world.
“Embassy design was once all about projecting transparent democracies, and so you had American embassies designed by Walter Gropius in Athens and Edward Durrell Stone in New Delhi that were these very lacy, open things that sat in the heart of cities,” he says. “Now embassies are designed to be bunkers in the suburbs—a place to stand in line for your visa.”
From his office high above Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, Chakrabarti looks out on a view more befitting of a twenty-first-century Howard Roark than a man in a bunker. But he is clearly worried that U.S. cities may suffer the same fate as embassies around the world. “After 9/11 architecture is being asked to be on the front line,” he declares testily. “I mean, are you going to ask architects to design buildings that can sustain a fully fueled 777 crashing into them and remain standing? Is that the problem, or is it that nineteen guys got on planes with box cutters?”
Minneapolis-based global-security expert Bruce Schneier says building design may be an effective countermeasure for traditional disasters like earthquakes, but for a determined invader, architecture is by definition an incomplete defense. “Unlike a hurricane, an adversary will adapt,” Schneier says. “Look at computer security: it’s all based on architecture [programming], and adversaries are constantly finding ways around it.”
Chakrabarti says that the responsibility for defending cities should lie more with the broader defense establishment. Designers, he believes, should spend their time dealing with documented ground-level threats, not abstract hallucinations of Armageddon. “Architects are trained to think of our cities as public and open, so it is very challenging to now ask these same people to turn cities into bunkers. I wouldn’t ask the Pentagon to be responsible for the turnstiles in the Time Warner Center. What’s the right balance?” Chakrabarti wonders, in a tone that suggests we haven’t found it yet. “Part of the problem is that as far as terrorism is concerned, in America we went from zero to sixty in about two seconds.”
The speed of that change has left some public spaces in the dust—or at least padlocked. Lobbies and concourses constructed in the 1980s and ’90s to allow maximum freedom of movement have been choked off with checkpoints or closed altogether. And security was the reason the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage space was closed to the public after 9/11, forcing Creative Time, a public-art foundation, to find new venues for some of its most popular events. President and artistic director Anne Pasternak says she’s noticed that in addition to judging whether it offends people or is kidproof, public art is now sometimes evaluated for how it might conceal bombs. She says there is a new trip wire in public spaces, and it can be a hair trigger. In 2005 an installation of poetry projected onto the side of the New York Public Library caused trouble when an elderly observer concluded it was terrorists trying to communicate with nearby sleeper cells. She called 911, and the police and fire departments responded. “I don’t mind that phrase, ‘If you see something, say something,’” Pasternak says, referring to the ubiquitous safety campaign in the New York subways, “but it can get out of hand.”
The changing urban-security landscape remains mysterious to most of us. Often developers and planners can’t explain why or when barriers and checkpoints appear. Consultant Schneier says that security has many masters. “Principally there are strategies that make people feel secure, like the very visible presence of armed guards, and then other strategies that actually make people secure, such as invisible surveillance systems that test for chemicals and watch for intruders.” Schneier says these strategies often have nothing to do with one another.
And then there are other strategies that have no relation to security at all. Schneier, who gets his jollies out of exposing bad security designs, recalls a post-9/11 visit to a large commercial bank headquarters in New York. “It was a really schlocky system, and just because I am me,” he says with glee, “I made sure that my bag bypassed the system just to show how schlocky it was. I was talking to the chief of security for this huge bank, and I said, ‘Ha-ha, I got around your security.’ And he said, ‘Ha-ha, I don’t care. I get some million-dollar reduction in my insurance payment because I have those damn metal detectors, so I don’t care if they work.’”
There’s a certain mystery about even the most traditional aspects of security design. The basic barrier is called a bollard, a nautical term for a post used on piers and ship decks to secure cables. The term sally port had its first recorded use in the 1600s, referring to the protected openings in fortifications for armies headed into battle. Today sally ports are the multiple staged entries—often found in underground parking garages—where vehicles (or people) can be stopped and inspected before proceeding into an inner sanctuary.
Chakrabarti learned both to love and to hate bollards and sally ports in his experience with the New York Stock Exchange. He helped design a new stock exchange that was never built, but key details from the design have been rolled out in the post-9/11 rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. The 300-year-old streetscape around Wall Street has undergone a total transformation since 2001. Shortly after 9/11, Wall Street was a military-style Green Zone with heavy trucks and large chunks of concrete obstructing traffic. It took angry demands from business interests in the financial district to get the city and state to take urban planning seriously. Even then it was November 2003 before the city unveiled an upgrade. A barrier system that had consisted mostly of 14 idling pickup trucks loaded with sandbags merged with the current model of retractable bollards and sculptural NoGos. Planners hope to eventually reinstall sections of the ancient wall that gave Wall Street its name and, using a long fountain and narrow walkways, make a pedestrian space that is impervious to vehicles.
Chakrabarti says that when he was involved with the stock exchange, he and his team had a rule: no “bike racks”—the French barricades made of galvanized steel that resemble bicycle parking. But still, he says, they would pop up like metallic weeds as a result of decisions made by others. (There are three separate security forces and any number of public agencies with clout in the financial district.) He recalls a 2004 news conference with the governor and the mayor held for the security redesign. “It was beautiful,” he says. “There was just a single line of NoGos very neatly arranged; there was no yellow tape. All of a sudden we felt we’d gotten this taken care of. But since then all that stuff’s been moved around. All kinds of planters have been added back. You need to constantly go back and ask, How did this get here? Who put this up and why?”
Len Hopper has spent 28 years in the field of landscape architecture, all for the New York City Housing Authority. His desk is piled with examples of what he considers good and bad design. He points suspiciously at a picture of the Daley Center office complex in Chicago. “Here you have a concentration of stone barriers that is right on the edge of looking like a big wall.” Hopper shakes his head. “You can increase security to a point where you actually instill fear, and then you have failed spaces.” Hopper believes that the best security design relies on what crime-prevention groups learned in public parks in the 1970s and ’80s from the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design movement. The strategy was to control passages and sightlines through public spaces to make it obvious who did not belong. “Artful barriers and curvy pathways expose people who may be nervous about being identified, who didn’t come to play,” he says.
Hopper adds that the federal government has somewhat unexpectedly turned out to be as influential and visionary as a modern Medici family. Under the leadership of Robert Peck, and especially Ed Feiner, the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program has created standards and flexibility to keep government buildings from adopting the bunker style of the more unfortunate modern U.S. embassies. The Morse Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, is just one product of this effort. Feiner left the GSA in 2005 to head up SOM’s office in Washington, D.C., and now some people are worried that his departure could bring on an infestation of bollards and yellow tape.
Christ says the experience of working with the GSA was a good one artistically and operationally. Despite the complexity of the many security requirements under the new federal Department of Homeland Security, the GSA maintained what Christ calls “a rational process for achieving security goals without sacrificing great design.” A good example in a big city is the firm’s San Francisco Federal Building, which is sited in the middle of downtown with direct—what Christ calls “porous”—access to the street. “We also give floor-to-ceiling glass to ninety percent of the occupants of this building while meeting the very stringent blast requirements of the GSA,” Christ says proudly. “It was a challenge, but we proved it was doable.” Hopper believes for a variety of reasons that this is a crucial moment in American design and architecture. “You only get one chance to do this right,” he says. “If we don’t take the time, the opportunity won’t come along again.”
Getting it right has perhaps been most difficult at the site of the World Trade Center. Ground Zero lies at a nexus of what security means in the twenty-first century, a place where feelings of insecurity have so far defied architecture’s best efforts. Politics, the prolonged grief of victim’s families, and a whimsical and mercurial set of security guidelines have stalled the plans for rebuilding. The Freedom Tower project is still nothing but a hole in the ground. Some architects who would not speak on the record were harshly critical of the entire project. One bitterly described the Freedom Tower as a building that “has been enslaved by the worst impulses of security. Basically the building has embraced fear as an identity.” Creative Time’s Pasternak echoes this sentiment. “In some quarters we have come to fear controversy more than terrorists,” she says, referring to abrupt changes at Ground Zero that have removed spaces for art and free interpretation. “That’s what makes me feel most insecure, this fear of controversy.”
At the north end of Ground Zero is the gleaming glass of 7 World Trade Center. Architect Carl Galioto is a 27-year veteran at SOM. His instincts for urban security are in the gut. They come from growing up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the adjoining backyards of modest row houses were a paradise for kid play. “I grew up in a cloister of green space bordered by industrial warehouse walls,” Galioto recalls. He says 7 WTC was an epiphany for him. Late one night in his Wall Street office the lists of competing specifications for the David Childs–designed building suddenly ceased to be hopeless tradeoffs and compromises for him. “They became intersections. I began to believe that we could do this,” Galioto says almost reverently. “Our goal was for sustainable design, security design, urban design, and architectural significance, and we achieved it all.”
The tower is perhaps the most secure building in New York City. It has a spectacular, fully blast-resistant glass lobby installation by artist Jenny Holzer. The whole building is enclosed in a shell designed by sculptor and structural glass guru James Carpenter in collaboration with SOM. In his busy Tribeca office, Carpenter is happy to show off the building’s entry wall, which is composed of complicated laminated glass pieces reinforced by stainless-steel cables. “The lamination interlayer provides a lot of the intrinsic strength, but the whole concept involves myriad technologies developed for natural disasters. A lot of this we learned doing hurricanes.” Carpenter remarks sadly how much better glass fared during 2005’s devastating storms compared to levies and other infrastructure. He holds a series of interlocking pieces that move in precisely machined channels of metal and glass. “It’s basically a tennis-racket effect, and it works,” Carpenter says.
Top to bottom 7 WTC is packed with the latest in security technology. What it significantly lacks is a full slate of tenants. So far only a few groups besides the developer have agreed to move in. Indeed finding a marketing strategy for a new high-rise building in a newly insecure world entails the whole security package, its psychological, political, and structural aspects. Does a demonstrably secure building become an argument for someone to move in—or a dare for an attacker to outdo the last bloody event? The experience of the past decade has been a reminder that the entire construct of security is a moving goalpost, evolving into unforeseen identities and applications. As Chakrabarti says, “The real threat is always the thing we haven’t thought of.”