How September 11 changed architecture and urban design forever


Security has been an integral part of metropolitan areas for millennia. From the ancient walls that surrounded Marrakech and Munich to the barriers erected during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the threat of urban violence has always been a reality for cities large and small. Design-wise, however, the risks to non-wartime townspeople were hardly worth considering.

“Whenever anyone thought about safety, it was an afterthought in the design,” explains Jon coaffee, professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick who focuses on terrorism and urban resilience. Although violence and unrest have long been known in urban areas, the relative rarity of these events was not enough to truly influence the way buildings and spaces were designed.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed everything.

Almost immediately, the design of buildings and urban spaces began to reflect the new tensions and security concerns of a world in which any place could be a target. Fences, concrete barriers, security cameras and armed guards have become a common and disturbing sight, especially in dense urban areas.

“First you saw the temporary security go up quickly [in Washington, D.C.]», Explains Diane Sullivan, director of the division of urban planning and revision of plans at the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the federal government’s central planning agency for the DC region. Concrete traffic dividers, or Jersey barriers, were lined up in front of buildings and around public spaces to create buffer zones and direct the flow of cars and people. “Unfortunately, there are still examples of this around Washington, DC,” Sullivan said.

Over the years, most of the ad hoc security elements have been better integrated into the capital’s design and planning process. “I think we recognize that permanent security is reality, and we’ve seen many projects transform what was temporary – the Jersey fences, the planters that have grown – into very good models of public domain security.” , Sullivan said.

ATF headquarters [Photo: Flickr user David]

These safety concerns have also been reflected in the design of some federal buildings, both at DC and abroad. The headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), designed by Safdie Architects, has a crescent-shaped arcade at the perimeter of the construction site which serves as a security barrier, forming an architectural blockade against a vehicle attack. Designers call this type of element transparent security, technically part of the building but built specifically to protect people and prevent damage.

Kenyan residents outside the US Embassy in Nairobi days after a terrorist bombing killed more than 200 people in 1998 [Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images]

According to Barbara Nadel, director of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York and editor-in-chief of a book on the design of embassies and other high security buildings. After the terrorist attacks on embassies in Lebanon, Kenya and Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s, building security became a high priority in volatile areas. The 2001 attacks in the United States only underscored the need.

US Embassy rebuilt in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2003 [Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images]

“Depending on the region of the world, such as Afghanistan versus London, the design of the site and building reflects local conditions,” says Nadel. “Sometimes visible security is necessary and desirable.”

Even for low risk sites, there are considerations such as how far a building should be placed from the street and the type of monitoring systems and building materials used. “We are seeing greater integration of technology into the building envelope,” says Michael Sherman, director of the policy and research division at NCPC. “We’re seeing a greater use of blast resistant materials which would allow you to have less recoil requirements. More careful use of materials, he says, may help some of these projects avoid embodying what he calls “a bunker mentality.”

More and more, the concept of security is moving beyond the building and into the landscape. “The threat has changed. It’s constantly changing, ”says Sullivan. “After September 11, we immediately protected the buildings. Now that we have projects submitted to us, it is really a question of protecting public spaces, people lining up in museums, for example. Where you have a lot of people gathering at once, that’s a greater risk.

Landscape architects play a more dominant role in the design of safety and security features for these types of spaces. Sullivan points out National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where the protective elements are perfectly integrated into the landscape surrounding the museum in the form of planted gardens, fountains and embankments. “I think you’d have a hard time knowing where the security is,” Sullivan says.

[Photo: Massimo Giachetti/iStock]

Coaffee also indicates Times Square in New York City, which has been closed to automobile traffic and received a redesign by the Sn architecture firm??hetta. Carved granite benches underline its status reserved for pedestrians while also serving as protective barriers. And in Paris, ahead of the city’s turn to host the Summer Olympics in 2024, plans are underway to use landscaping to eliminate the risk ram car attacks around the Eiffel Tower.

Defensive installations at the Eiffel Tower, circa 2018 [Photo: Christian Böhmer/picture alliance/Getty Images]

This mix of safety in the urban environment adds layers of safety to public spaces, but it is also a source of concern, says Coaffee. “It is normalizing. It fixes itself in the cityscape and in people’s experiences with urban spaces to the point where you don’t notice it anymore, ”he says. In England, for example, a large network of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras has been shown to capture images of people dozen or even hundreds of times a day. Favored by the police, these systems have become so ubiquitous that they affect the physical design of cities. “There are examples of entire public places being redesigned so that the lines of sight of the CCTV are very clear and visible,” Coaffee said.

[Photo: Andy Wasley/iStock]

It’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away, according to Coaffee’s new book, The war on terrorism and the standardization of urban security, released later this year. The ethics of these forms of urban security remain worrying. “It may be acceptable for politicians to put in place fortress-type security, but whether it is acceptable to the general public, I think this issue has never really been addressed to a large extent,” he says.

The U.S. Embassy in London [Photo: Moussa81/iStock]

While aware of government overbreadth, Coaffee is also an advocate for improving the way security is designed in spaces, and has been teaching these approaches for over 20 years. He argues that design professionals need to be better trained to understand security risks and work with security advisors early in the design process to determine what kind of security is needed. “I don’t think what we mean to designers is, ‘You have to make this whole fortress,’” he says. “It’s about thinking about it when it’s appropriate and it’s in their toolbox and considerations. “

In Washington, DC, these considerations are becoming more common and the design responses more elegant. In a place so concentrated with national government functions and officials, strong security measures are often inevitable. “It’s a balance,” Sullivan says. “It’s a city that’s meant to be for people and open to people, and it’s something we struggle with all the time. “

In the post-9/11 city, this balance has become a major concern for designers and planners. But even in the face of deadly attacks and terrorist threats, there are limits to what the design of security can provide, and also what people want in terms of security.

“You accept a number of risks in the decisions you make,” Sullivan explains. “We cannot fortify and set up a perimeter of security absolutely everywhere. No one would want to live in this city.


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