Skip to content
Federal buildings don armor of nation under siege
They are ruining Washington, ruining it in the name of saving it.
Five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this once-lovely city of broad diagonal avenues and open vistas conceived in 1791 by French engineer Pierre L'Enfant is becoming an ever more-militarized zone that illustrates the profound tensions roiling throughout government buildings around the nation. Playing out in big cities such as Chicago as well as small ones such as Peoria, that tension is between security and openness, the imperative to fortify and the desire to beautify.
And in this struggle between armor and aesthetics, armor is invariably emerging the victor, marring public buildings and public spaces that symbolize the highest ideals of democracy and help hold together a diverse, often-fractious society.
Capitol Hill is a zone of fear, welcoming the tourists with fences, slanted concrete barriers, steel walls that pop out of the pavement and steel posts called bollards that are designed to hold a vehicle-delivered bomb at bay. The bollards trample the picturesque grounds of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, like the battalion of Mickey Mouse's endlessly multiplying brooms in the movie "Fantasia."
The sidewalks of the Federal Triangle, that wedge of lordly classical office buildings between the Capitol and the White House, are cluttered by an ever-expanding assortment of fat planter pots and closely spaced steel and concrete bollards. Despite their clumsiness, no bureaucracy can resist them.
The two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which then-President Bill Clinton closed to traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, has been transformed into a bland pedestrian mall, a soulless precinct that drums out vitality from the cityscape.
To visit here now is to realize that America has entered a new phase, in which various arms of the federal government have started replacing the temporary security measures installed in the aftermath of Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 with permanent ones.
Yet these designs, while less obviously ugly than their makeshift predecessors, are visually monotonous, functionally one-dimensional, insensitive to treasured landscapes and debilitating to city life. And they are costing taxpayers big-time, not just in the modern-day equivalents of medieval walls and moats but in the beefed-up structures of the federal buildings themselves.
Since a yellow Ryder truck driven by Timothy McVeigh exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 850, the federal government has spent at least $1.2 billion on protection against a vehicle-delivered bomb, according to "Security Planning and Design," a primer for designers introduced in 2004 by the American Institute of Architects.
Officials at the General Services Administration, the federal agency that erects, manages and leases federal buildings in 500 cities nationwide, declined to comment on that figure. But David Winstead, the GSA's commissioner of public buildings service, acknowledged that the cost of surrounding one city block with bollards and other perimeter security measures is about $1 million. A single bollard, secured in a concrete foundation, costs $5,000 to $8,000 apiece, according to interviews with designers and planners.
Then there are the intangible costs, which go beyond ugliness to the locked doors and closed streets that restrict movement or hinder citizens' ability to have direct contact with those who govern them. When the overriding purpose of government buildings becomes warding off danger, these structures invariably lose the chance to become centers of community or to communicate traditional American values of openness and optimism. Instead of government buildings that open their arms to welcome us, as Helmut Jahn's James R. Thompson Center in Chicago does with the tiers of curving exterior glass, which invite passersby into its soaring atrium, we get buildings that elbow us away.
America the Beautiful becomes America the Besieged.
If you doubt that, look at the temple of the Treasury Department, ringed by a fence and a guard house, and greeing you with this sweet sign: "Passholders and Appointments ONLY." If this is how we're going to treat federal buildings, then why not simply move them, like the Vice President, to an undisclosed location?
The bunker mentality is bipartisan, however, so the self-inflicted damage is hardly confined to Washington.
The self-inflicted damaged, though, is hardly confined to Washington.
In Chicago, it ranges from the Chicago Federal Center in the South Loop, where tombstonelike granite posts disturb the minimalist openness of the complex of matte-black high-rises designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, to an FBI building that opens Tuesday on the city's West Side. It is surrounded by the mother of all fences, a generic, government-issue barrier of metal and concrete close to 6 feet tall that stretches endlessly along Roosevelt Road.
In St. Louis, over the objections of local architects who fought for a more creative solution, graceless steel bollards surround Eero Saarinen's glistening, gracefully soaring Gateway Arch, which at 630 feet is the nation's tallest monument. A Humvee blocks a sidewalk leading to the Arch from downtown St. Louis. Even small cities cannot escape the scourge. Peoria's federal courthouse, a classical gem whose walls are adorned with lovely sculptures, is now ringed by stumpy concrete bollards that are completely unsympathetic to its design.
Yes, the nation is fighting a war on terrorism, a war that struck directly here on Sept. 11 when terrorists crashed a hijacked jet into the west wall of the Pentagon, killing 184 people. And the dangers of that war remain clear and present, as underscored by last month's revelation of a terrorist plot to use liquid explosives to blow up several trans-Atlantic airliners. It would be foolish to do nothing.
But what is happening in Washington and other concentrations of federal power raises vexing questions, to which there are no simple answers.
Because McVeigh was a homegrown terrorist rather than a foreigner, and because he struck at a nondescript federal high-rise in a medium-size heartland city, it is not easy for anyone in the government to say: "It'll never happen there." It could happen anywhere. The trouble is, where do you draw the line between negligence and overreaction in confronting the specter of terrorism?
If there is real risk, what physical designs constitute an appropriate response, not only to protect the lives of federal employees but also to preserve everybody's quality of life? To what extent can architects and landscape architects effectively cooperate with security consultants and law enforcement officials who have directly conflicting priorities over how a city should be shaped?
Washington offers some model examples for confronting these questions, such as the subtly elegant remake of the grounds around the Washington Monument. But, on the whole, it reveals what happens when security concerns become paramount: The city becomes a fortress or a stage-set shadow of itself, less a symbolic representation of democracy's ideals than a reminder that democracy and the American way of life are under siege.
The remade two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House offers a dispiriting taste of the stage-set phenomenon: When it was shut to traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing, the reason was simple: to carve out what security experts call a "standoff distance," in essence a big enough moat so another vehicle-delivered bomb could not do serious harm to the White House and those inside it.
In time, a variety of unsightly measures were installed at the intersections of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th and 17th Streets -- guard houses, operable metal barriers, concrete planters and "Do Not Enter" signs. Between them was nothing but barren asphalt.
After it dawned on people that this was a national disgrace, the government held a design competition in which a plan by distinguished New York City landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh was selected the winner and finished the project in late 2004.
In essence, his plan called for beautifying the gateways into the closed zone and turning the area into a parklike setting, one that would visually unite the White House's north lawn and Lafayette Park across the street. Trees would be planted in what is now the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, creating a boulevard effect while leaving an opening for a view of the White House. A narrow, streetlike corridor would be left open along the park, anticipating the day when a public-transit circulator system would zip through and reconnect this area to the rest of the city.
The drawings looked beautiful.
The result is anything but.
For Chicagoans, the prospect inevitably recalls the dreary, lifeless State Street bus mall dreamed up during the mayoralty of Michael Bilandic and completed in 1979. The mall proved so debilitating to the urban and economic well-being of the Loop that it was ripped up and replaced by a normal street open to cars in 1996.
While the flanks of the Pennsylvania Avenue security zone are well-handled -- the new guardhouses are done in a handsome classical style and the bollards that control access to the street are ellipse-shaped, not cylindrical, to make them look less stocky -- its center is a lifeless void. That row of trees destined for the middle of the street? Gone. The narrow lane for the circulator? It's not there, either, though the people-mover could still come through someday. Such omissions destroy Van Valkenburgh's attempt to stitch the street back into Washington's urban fabric. Pedestrians can walk there without fear of getting smacked by a speeding car, but except when demonstrators gather, they stroll in lonely isolation.
Adding ugliness to injury, a new reddish-brown synthetic pavement, which is supposed to look rustic, has cracking joints and oil stains from the police cars that whip up and down the street. A police officer stands guard in the middle of it all, presiding over the emptiness.
It's easy to see what happened on the journey from vital vision to lifeless reality. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the Secret Service, which reviewed the plans and helped devise the final outcome, has fought to bar all vehicles from coming anywhere near the White House. In addition, historic preservationists fought to maintain Pennsylvania Avenue's historic street width even though it would no longer be used for traffic.
They have won a Phyrric victory.
This is a textbook case of how to protect the president and kill the city.
Because of its heavy concentration of government buildings, Washington offers an extreme example of the impact that defensive barriers can have on public spaces. In most American cities, a federal building or two might be sprinkled amid the skyscrapers of downtown. But they are ever-present in Washington's heart, especially in the Federal Triangle, which stretches along Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. Chicago architect Edward Bennett, Daniel Burnham's co-author on the 1909 Plan of Chicago, laid out this right triangle-shaped grouping in the City Beautiful style of grandly scaled, harmoniously assembled buildings.
What you see on the sidewalks of the Federal Triangle today, however, is hard to describe as beautiful.
One example is the parade of fat concrete planter boxes that march in front of the Commerce Department Building on 14th Street -- squat, vaguely classical tubs that were installed as a temporary measure after 9/11. They go on endlessly, monotonously, uselessly. You can't sit on them, though they provide a convenient place to dump cigarette butts. And they may be providing a false sense of security. Patricia Gallagher, the executive director of the National Planning Commission, a federal agency, expressed skepticism that defenses such as these would stop a car or truck bomb. More likely, in her view, the planters would fall over if a vehicle rammed into them.
"The appearance is oppressive, and functionally they don't do much," she said.
Even more oppressive is Capitol Hill, where since 9/11 the Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, has allowed the installation of hundreds of dark green, fluted bollards that make a weak stab at blending in with the Capitol's monumental classicism. What they do instead is trash the necklace around the Capitol -- Frederick Law Olmsted's picturesque landscape of lush plantings and low granite walls that offers a beautiful contrast to the building's rigid symmetry. And the bollards are permanent, not temporary. (Hantman declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The planning commission has encouraged a more enlightened approach to perimeter security, one that takes a more holistic approach to security design. It looks with favor on defense measures that are site-specific rather than generic, such as the Museum of the American Indian's appealing combination of large rocks, low walls and bollards. It also favors planter boxes that are both useful and attractive, such as those at the International Monetary Fund, which echo the building's sleek modernism, and double as benches and bus shelters. The idea is to design places, not just barriers. And it can be expected to be repeated when the GSA issues its guidelines for perimeter security early next year.
But can we really design our way out of this problem? Block upon block of planters and bollards are apt to look heavy -- and intrusive -- no matter how well they are designed. There's only so much that tasteful camouflage can do.
Which leads to the big questions: Is all this necessary? And doesn't it strive for an aura of invulnerability that, in reality, is impossible to achieve?
When one building has concrete barriers in front of it, those in charge of another building may feel they have no choice but to have concrete barriers too. At a 1999 conference here about the conflict between security and openness, the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a champion of good design in Washington and a rare voice of sanity in the security versus openness debate, termed this phenomenon "the iron law of emulation." The ugly aftermath of 9/11 has made his warning against a disproportionate reaction to the terrorist threat--"We've begun to look as if we're afraid," Moynihan said -- sound piercingly prophetic.
Too bad he has been virtually ignored.
The multitude of defense precautions gives Washington a surrealistic air -- a city of majestic buildings that project power and authority while conveying the impression of an Old West stockade readying for an attack by marauding Indians wearing war paint. The passionate Washington classicist, architect Allan Greenberg, calls the phenomenon "bollard acne on the face of Washington."
To the casual passerby, this "acne" represents the most visible aspect of costly security design. But as architects and structural engineers well know, it is the less visible changes to a building -- the bones, not the skin -- that really wind up burning money.
After Oklahoma City, at the direction of an influential committee representing the major federal departments, the GSA began beefing up structures to prevent a repeat of what happened when McVeigh's truck bomb knocked out a single, essential column, whose demise led to broad structural failure, a phenomenon called "progressive collapse." Since 9/11, GSA officials said, the requirements have only become more stringent -- and more costly. The agency stretched the required standoff distance for new buildings to 50 feet from 20 feet; those occupied by law-enforcement agencies, such as the FBI building in Chicago, have a standoff distance of 100 feet. A building that once required three acres of real estate now requires four, which means the government has to buy more land.
As the range of threats multiplies, so does the cost of defending against them. To defend against a terrorist who might bring a small bomb inside a government building and blow it up in an attempt to score a direct hit on a building's structure, the GSA has pulled security screening outside some buildings and is instead erecting security pavilions nearby.
"We're trying to be forward-looking with the threats," Winstead said.
But being forward-looking has its price. Eight percent of the construction budget for a typical new courthouse is devoted to security costs, GSA officials said. Six percent of the budget for the average non-courthouse project goes to security while 5 percent is allocated for security in the repair and renovation of existing buildings. With the agency's total annual construction budget averaging $1.1 billion, a conservative estimate of security costs is at least $60 million, nearly enough to build a medium-sized federal courthouse, based on figures provided by the GSA."It's not a drop in the bucket," said Les Shepherd, the GSA's acting chief architect. "That's a considerable amount of money. It's a serious responsibility that we don't take lightly."
Still, there are signs that the talented architects the GSA hired through its design excellence program are able to rise to these challenges. In Washington, for example, architect Michael Graves' William B. Bryan U.S. Courthouse Annex, to be dedicated in October, handsomely holds down what was the last open piece of land on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House.
The building, an addition to a courthouse built in 1952, consists of four bays topped by barrel-vaulted roofs that house courthouses and support facilities, plus a circular pavilion topped by a cone-shaped roof. The pavilion marks the corner along Constitution Avenue and clearly echoes the nearby Capitol dome.
Despite the need to fulfill the GSA's blast-resistance requirements, which led Graves to use laminated glass for office windows and bulletproof glass for windows on the first floor, the courthouse annex is a civilized urban presence, projecting an image that is at once powerful and permeable. It borders, indeed, on playful, with vertical stripes of red precast concrete providing a taste of Graves' signature bursts of color.
While the barrel vaults are cartoonish and the custom-designed benches outside the building are squat and heavy-handed, the design on the whole strikes the right balance. It is dignified but not dour; security-conscious but not fortresslike, respecting the vision of Washington's first planner, L'Enfant, while extending it into the 21st century. Washington and the nation are on a steep learning curve, as the capital's marquee example of security design -- the reshaping of the grounds around the Washington Monument -- also reveals. For even as it shows how designers can marry security and openness, it reflects the disruptive influence that security concerns can have on the public realm.
Designed by Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin and completed last year, the project replaces the twin rows of concrete Jersey barriers that were hastily installed around the monument after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Not only were the barriers ugly, but they also destroyed the beauty of the hill because they were set in the middle of it. Tourists hated them.
Charged with creating a barrier to block a vehicle-delivered bomb from harming the grand obelisk, Olin had the inspired notion of putting his wall at the bottom, or "toe," of the hill -- 400 feet from the monument, not 200 feet away, as the Jersey barriers had been.
His wall is, in effect, a curving bench -- a 30-inch-high wall clad in granite. It is high enough to stop a vehicle laden with explosives but low enough to provide a spot for the beleaguered tourist to sit. Olin even provided a stone footrest at the base of the wall. Realizing that some eagle-eyed cost-cutter would ask, "Why do we need a footrest?" he cleverly called it a curb.
The outcome, which includes low marble benches around the monument itself, is beautifully unobtrusive. When the monument is seen from the Lincoln Memorial, the wall even seems to disappear. This is precisely the creative approach that should have been used around the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
The trouble is screening people who get into the monument. The National Park Service, which administers the monument, remains concerned about the possibility of a terrorist with a small bomb strapped under a coat or hidden in a backpack, Olin said. Someone like that, he said, could blow up the monument from the inside.
To keep the shaft of the obelisk pure, Olin proposed using an old building at the bottom of the hill for security screening and taking visitors through an underground passageway to the monument. But opponents charged that the plan would disfigure the National Mall and even undermine the monument's structure.
So today, there is a screening facility attached to the base of the monument, one that looks absolutely foolish in its attempt to echo the monument's monumental blocks of Maryland marble. The screening booth sticks out like a fat toe. It constitutes a highly visible reminder of how far Washington and the nation still have to go when it comes to satisfying the needs of both security and design, and thereby protecting the public buildings and public spaces that both symbolize and sustain community.