(l to r): David Kelly, Assistant Commissioner, Counterterrorism Bureau, New York Police Department; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA, Co-Chair, AIANY Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee; Claire Fellman, RLA, ASLA, Project Manager, Snøhetta; Barbara Nadel, FAIA, Principal, Barbara Nadel Architect; Jeffrey Venter, Senior Principal, DVS; and Huston Dawson, PE, Senior Associate, Weidlinger Associates. Credit: Eve Dilworth Rosen

Commodity, Firmness, Delight, and Blastproof: The New Normal

The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, with violent fanaticism still very much in the headlines, makes a look at the built environment’s security a timely exercise. For the “Are We Safe Yet?” program, architects involved with public spaces and structures joined specialists in security and engineering to deliver expert commentary on this sobering aspect of design, illuminating the concepts and negotiations behind features that have become commonplace since the attack. The hot-button term “terrorism” wasn’t prominent in the discussion, perhaps implicitly for the sake of keeping the emotional temperature under control; as events elsewhere in the city recognized the tragedy of 9/11, this conversation focused on the nuts and bolts of preventing or mitigating another one.

Superstorm Sandy appeared nine months after the launch of the Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR), and the group’s swift marshaling of expertise on natural disasters established its credibility in that area. Yet as founding Co-chair Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, mentioned in introducing the panelists, manmade disasters have also been part of DfRR’s mission from the outset. Critical questions remain 12 years after that transformative day: What have the relevant specialties learned? Can the design and operation of buildings, plazas, and streetscapes maintain safety while retaining their public nature, their conduciveness to free activities in a democracy? What do we all need to get used to living with?

Behind the sculptured barriers by Rogers Marvel Architects near Wall Street, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s highly visible security presence near Ground Zero, the dimensions and hardened lower walls of One World Trade Center, the new pavement at Times Square, and other components of today’s public realm, a complex series of analyses has blended risk estimation with architecture’s traditional goals. American embassies abroad are inevitably targets, and Barbara Nadel, FAIA, observed that contemporary U.S. embassy design strives to achieve safety, security, and sustainability, while presenting a public face for the nation’s democratic values. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) models its efforts after the Design Excellence Program of the General Service Administration (GSA), enhancing site security through standoff distances, hardened exteriors, landscaping, water features, public art, and street furniture, with artists and sculptors working alongside security specialists. For security to dominate design, a building could easily resemble a bunker behind added-on Jersey barriers and other intimidating afterthoughts. In contrast, OBO’s new Embassy Perimeter Improvement Concepts program integrates security into design features early in the process. The U.S. Embassy in London designed by KieranTimberlake, the first project in this program, eschews perimeter walls, fencing, and daunting façades in favor of an open appearance that still (at least in an early iteration) meets State’s security standards. Building features can create synergies between security and energy performance, Nadel added, as in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Denver headquarters, which uses perforated-metal fins (replacing an initial glass design) for both solar-gain control and blastproofing.

In his first address to the design community, New York Police Department Assistant Commissioner for Counterterrorism David Kelly explained that the NYPD counterterrorism bureau was created in 2002 during the period of deep uncertainty over the possibility of further attacks. Involvement in the unfamiliar realm of design and construction, with only the building code as a rough guide to details such as standoff distances and glazing, led to the controversial 2005 redesign of One WTC (then named the “Freedom Tower”), which he called “a good result, but not a good process.” Working with developers and observing emerging patterns from case studies, the bureau hosted a professional conference in 2007, and eventually developed the 2009 manual Engineering Security: Protective Design for High-Risk Buildings, which scores buildings in low-, medium-, and high-risk tiers (the vast majority, Kelly pointed out, are low-risk), and offers strategies against not only explosives, but chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. The document is now publicly available as a guide for developers and architects.

The roots of these efforts extend further back than 2001, noted security consultant Jeffrey Venter. Though specific, enforceable standards and guidelines are scarce, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing led the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other branches of government to develop qualitative and quantitative threat-analysis methods (many of which must remain secret for obvious reasons). Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the first project to use the NYPD engineering document, presents special risks, combining the arena itself with the transit infrastructure below. With implementation of those standards, it may be the nation’s safest major venue. As explained by Weidlinger security specialist Huston Dawson, PE, because motor vehicles are common weapons for terrorists, extensive research has also gone into the design of bollards and other types of passive and active anti-ram structures. Their height, bulk, material strength, depth of anchorage, and other variables, as Dawson showed in dramatic video clips, can make the difference between stopping a speeding car bomb and letting one ramp over or through into a target building. Yet, as Rogers Marvel’s downtown barriers demonstrate, functionality and aesthetics need not be at odds.

Other sites must consider the risk of violence but not allow precautions to deaden the space. Snøhetta’s Times Square redesign renders the Department of Transportation’s pedestrian-plaza pilot project permanent. Claire Fellman, RLA, ASLA, described the firm’s efforts to balance complex variables within this tight multifunctional space, accommodating pedestrian movement and stasis, multimodal transport, the remaining vehicular flow (Seventh Avenue, she pointed out, has higher speeds now that the complex intersections with Broadway no longer involve multiway vehicular traffic), the intense visual energies within the five-block bowtie area, and the range of events held in the pedestrian zones, from yoga to bullfights. The parti for the district integrates surface markings using stainless-steel pucks embedded in dark pavement, reflecting the bright signage and delineating spaces for diverse users moving at various speeds.

Panelists stressed the need to match security strategies to users’ needs. Some property owners are reluctant to make precautions perceptible at all, while others want them obvious to reassure occupants (a frequent desideratum in the Middle East, Nadel observed). The “what trumps what?” question is culturally specific: a sense of security may come either from intensive surveillance or from a freedom from surveillance. Brown referenced Israel, where citizens routinely present open bags to security personnel and expect everyone else to do the same; they’ve seen enough trouble to take these measures for granted. London’s “ring of steel” security cameras, a legacy of the era of Irish Republican Army bombings, contrast sharply with other cities’ approach to safety, such as Amsterdam’s unfenced canals, which public plebiscites continually indicate are preferred over a barrier-intensive environment. American expectations about privacy probably make high levels of surveillance a hard sell. The appropriate balance between security and free public movement can never be decided formulaically. Still, this design specialty becomes more refined and more indispensable as relevant experience, regrettably, keeps accumulating.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, IconThe Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

Event: Are We Safe Yet? NYC Progress in Designing against Man-Made Disasters
Center for Architecture, 09.11.2013
Speakers: Barbara Nadel, FAIA, Principal, Barbara Nadel Architect, author of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning & Design, and recipient of the 2009 Edward C. Kemper Award (keynote); David Kelly, Assistant Commissioner for Counterterrorism, New York Police Department; Jeffrey Venter, Partner, DVS Security Consulting & Engineering; Huston Dawson, PE, Senior Associate, Weidlinger Associates Consulting Engineers, specialist in Protective Design Physical Security Group; Claire Fellman, RLA, ASLA, Project Manager, Snøhetta New York; Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, founding co-chair, AIANY Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee, 2014 AIANY President, and co-editor of Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space (moderator)
Organizers:  AIANY Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee (DfRR)