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  The Security Paradox
April 2002

By Robert A. Ivy, FAIA

Think of where you feel most secure. Lying fully prone on a warm beach or snuggled in your own bed? Lost in swirling crowds during a lunchtime break or hiking in the high country? Few would answer, “Behind locked doors and high walls.” As psychologist Richard Farson has observed, the term “security” is bound in paradox: Where security systems assert themselves most forcefully—in prisons, for example—fear, discomfort, and even danger often flourish; conversely, the absence of visible protection can promote the feeling of well-being.

In recent months, security by design has leaped from a single item on the architect’s programmatic checklist to the headlines. Architects and other design professionals are engaging in a national debate, spawning a mini-industry of consultants, Web sites, and AIA conferences in their wake, to discuss safety and security for the built environment. If you take Farson’s point, however, you quickly realize that security engages both fact (statistical reality) and perception, with design at the fulcrum, balancing the two.

When terrorism shattered our world, did facts dictate that all buildings become bunkers? Two building types illustrate the dilemma, with differing solutions. As Jane Loeffler, Ph.D., has written, embassies evolved, by policy, from projections of American culture (remember Edward D. Stone’s embassy in India) to thick-walled, heavily protected, interior-oriented structures with little room for architectural involvement. Despite the Nairobi bombings and contemporary realpolitik, critics decry these fortresses, with their unintended negative connotations of America’s image abroad.

By contrast, American courthouses, under the direction of the General Services Administration (GSA) and prompted by an ethos passionately articulated by former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had begun to open up. In buildings from Las Vegas to Boston, we began to see symbols of justice that democratically engaged the city, opening a transparent, public face to the community, while sequestering judges chambers, juries, law enforcement, and defendants in more protected, private areas. Courtrooms became the mediating space between the two exposures. Can this openness continue?

In this murky time, risk assessment can help provide direction for decision making by architects. By isolating the types of potential threats and addressing each as a design dilemma, imaginative solutions can produce buildings that enhance our feelings of well-being while simultaneously providing protection. Our plans may change: As in the new GSA courthouses, layered zones may progressively increase in wall thickness, in material strength, and in active protective systems from public to private realms. Buildings at high risk for blast damage can offer greater setbacks, wall hardening, minimized adjacency, and mitigation of projectile damage, none of which need affect the public’s appreciation of transparency or accessibility. It should be possible to appear open and be safe.

Make no mistake, the moment is dangerous. The list of potential security challenges can seem daunting—biohazard, theft, crowd control, arson, chemical attack. However, if we are able to determine which threats to address dispassionately, our solutions can become part of our overall design palette, much as we design for fire safety today. New products and systems may be invisible components of total building safety, similar to systems for fire suppression or thermal comfort. Speaking from his experience with airport design, architect Laurence Speck offered, “If it’s designed in, it should be as natural as a stove in a kitchen.”

Architectural Record wants to help. While this April issue includes the latest definition of “home,” our most sacrosanct environment, we wanted to address the notion of security in other types of buildings and structures. Together with our sister publication, Engineering News Record, we offer a special publication, Building for a Secure Future, that addresses the security paradox, encouraging us to design buildings that are simultaneously transparent, welcoming, and safe. Do you feel secure where you are today?

Join Robert Ivy as he jots down notes on his travels and the state of architecture today in the Editor's Journal. Check out our index of past editorials.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.

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