Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bollard Envy

In this 9/11 anniversary week Foreign Policy is running a rather nice retrospective article on how the threat of terrorism has changed the built environment of Washington DC, and in particular, the perimeters of federal facilities. See The Blast-Proof City, and its accompanying slideshow Washington's Barriers to Entry.

The author, an architectural critic, correctly dates the beginning of the present concern with physical security to 1995 and the Oklahoma City federal office bombing, and not to 9/11, as is commonly assumed. He also correctly identifies the State Department as the leading contributor to new federal facility security guidelines that were published by Executive Order within weeks of the OK City attack.

A few quotes:

It used to be that D.C. architecture consisted of graceful Georgetown mansions, neoclassical federal buildings -- and, of course, the monuments. When the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was founded in 1910 to guide Washington's architectural development, it reviewed designs such as those of the Lincoln Memorial and the Federal Triangle. Over the seven years I've served on the commission, however, an increasing amount of time is spent discussing security-improvement projects: screening facilities, hardened gatehouses, Delta barriers, perimeter fences, and seemingly endless rows of bollards. We used to mock an earlier generation that peppered the U.S. capital with Civil War generals on horseback; now I wonder what future generations will make of our architectural legacy of crash-resistant walls and blast-proof glass.

How did we become so insecure about our buildings? Although the 9/11 attacks loom large in the public's imagination, the event that changed the way federal buildings in the United States are designed and used -- perhaps forever -- was a presidential directive issued six years prior to the attacks ... President Bill Clinton, whose most prominent addition to the White House was a hot tub, is not known as an architecture buff. But by issuing Executive Order 12977 in October 1995, he set in motion a process that thrust politics squarely in the center of the design process.

The executive order was the result of the Oklahoma City bombing. The day after the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives and injured more than 680 people, Clinton directed the Justice Department to assess the vulnerability of all federal facilities to acts of violence.

The resulting report, prepared by a large team headed by the U.S. Marshals Service, is generally known as "The Marshals Report." To implement the report's recommendations, Executive Order 12977 established an interagency security committee charged with developing standards for all federal facilities as well as "long-term construction standards for those locations with threat levels or missions that require blast resistant structures."

-- snip --

The Marshals Report proposed no fewer than 52 specific criteria, which resulted in the deployment of a host of building security devices. Some, such as reinforced structure, blast-resistant glass, and hardened curtain walls, have a small impact on a building's appearance. That is not the case with perimeter security.

"Depending on the facility type," the report cautions, "the perimeter may include sidewalks, parking lots, the outside walls of the building, a hallway, or simply an office door." Because truck bombs are the simplest and cheapest way of creating large detonations and given what happened in Oklahoma City, the focus has been on keeping vehicles far away from their target by creating a so-called "standoff" distance. The optimal standoff is large -- at least 100 feet -- and new buildings, such as the ATF headquarters in Washington, achieve this standoff by creating a sort of landscaped demilitarized zone between the building and the street. (Note that the Marshals Report came out at a time when the federal agency with the greatest experience of terrorism was the State Department, which had developed expertise in hardening diplomatic buildings abroad in the wake of several embassy bombings. This may explain why federal buildings are protected as if they were divorced from their surroundings and why so many federal buildings today, surrounded by barricades and layers of security, resemble foreign outposts: They're actually modeled after embassies.)

-- snip --

But existing urban buildings are generally too near the street. The only alternative to closing a street completely -- as with Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House -- is to keep the potential truck bomber from driving right up to the building. This is achieved by a device that could serve as a symbol for our insecurity: the bollard.

-- snip --

Some agencies don't seem to mind this intrusion, as it's an external marker of their building's strategic importance. In Washington, we've come to see the bizarre phenomenon that one federal official characterized to me as "bollard envy," where the degree of protection becomes a symbol of bureaucratic status, like a choice parking spot or a corner office. Perhaps the most egregious example is the screening center for visitors that Congress built for itself; by the time the underground facility was finished it covered half a million square feet and cost $620 million.

Government officials regularly speak of integrating perimeter security "unobtrusively" into a building's design. A rare case where this has been achieved is the landscape improvement to the Washington Monument. Designed by the OLIN landscape architecture firm, the perimeter security is disguised as a set of curving stone retaining walls that are invisible from the monument and are designed for visitors to sit on. A similar retaining wall provides security for the Lincoln Memorial, but here the topography requires additional intrusive bollards as well.

The security plan being designed for the Jefferson Memorial will depend on walls as well as scores of bollards. Where to put the perimeter security is a Hobson's choice: put it farther away and you need more bollards; nearer and you need fewer, but they are more visually intrusive. In either case, the experience of John Russell Pope's handsome building will hardly be enhanced. The directive to secure the Jefferson Memorial is intended to protect a precious national icon. It may end up having the opposite effect.

Since the author blames the State Department for exciting bollard envy among its domestic counterparts, he really ought to have mentioned that it was also the State Department that took the lead in introducing the National Park Service to those unobtrusive anti-ram retaining walls that are currently in place around the Washington Monument. Give credit where credit is due.

Actually, I think he gives the State Department far too much of the blame - and I agree that some blame is deserved - for adverse architectural impacts of the 1995 Marshals Report (see Vulnerability Assessment Of Federal Facilities). The Marshal's Report was the work of all federal agencies, and they were trying to come to terms with the threat of large vehicle-borne bombs. Domestic federal buildings are really not modeled on Fortress Embassies, and to the extent that they now have similar perimeter security measures, that simply reflects the reality that they now face the same type of explosive threat we once faced only overseas. The State Department was there first, and other agencies saw no reason to reinvent the wheel, or the bollard, as the case may be.


OSB said...

I don't think FP has it's facts quite straight. The major impetus for hardening State Department facilities abroad was the 1998 East Africa fiasco. Before the bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam (and the subsequent Inman report) there was no concerted effort to harden diplomatic facilities abroad.

TSB said...


Hi! The FP article is just about Washington DC domestic buildings, and it's correct that there was little to no facilities security (other than at federal courthouses) before the 1995 OK City bombing.

That bombing was the domestic equivalent of the 1982/83 Beirut and Kuwait attacks in that it lead to a whole new era of prominient physical security. The 1995 Marshals Report was more or less a domestic version of the 1985 Inman Report.

The author is an architect who often writes about public buildings, and he is a critic of using overseas-style perimeter security techniques in DC public buildings. I agree with him much of the time; anyway, I want to see effective secure perimeters, and if they are also low-profile and don't look like barriers, all the better.

Anonymous said...

Great Post TSB! As for 9/11 I am with Tom Engelhardt ( "Haven't we had enough of ourselves?"

Let’s Cancel 9/11
Bury the War State's Blank Check at Sea
By Tom Engelhardt

Federale said...

As my class advisor said, you were hired because of the bombings in Africa. Too bad that Al Queda had more in store. But that was a CIA and FBI failure, not DSS.

TSB said...

That was another key event. I was also hired after the East Africa bombings (as a direct-hire employee, having been a contract employee since the Inman years).

Beirut/Kuwait lead to the first big wave of hiring by DSS; Khobar Towers lead to DOD's force protection programs; Oklahoma City lead to domestic facility protection programs; 9/11 lead to DHS. The pattern keeps repeating, and programs keep getting bigger, but I don't know they're getting any better.

Anonymous said...

TSB:Finished "The Wars of Afghanistan": Peter Tomsen (2011) He was special envoy to Afghan Resistance (1989-92) and was on the ground there after 9/11. Were you familiar with him? Best book yet to understand Afpak. gwb