I AM A FORTRESS

If you haven’t read Phillip Kennicott’s brutal critique of the new USIP building by Moshe Safdie, you probably should. There’s a lot to think about in it.

I don’t buy his assessment of Safdie’s career (namely that his only good building was Habitat ’67) or that Safdie is somehow different than Terragni, OMA, Yeang or any other architect that has produced institutional work for a statist client. If anything, his work for these groups is a less seductive option simply by virtue of his staidness. Regardless, Kennicott hones in on the idea that the building is a duck: a work of architecture where all formal characteristics are subsumed into an “overall symbolic form.” Yes, the dove-shaped roof is easily the worst formal decision in the building. Except that in a more important sense, the building is not a duck.

USIP Headquarters by joelogan on Flickr

The idea of the duck was developed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour while teaching at Yale and eventually published. The main target of the critique was not the literal use of symbolism in vernacular structures, but rather the abstracted formal symbolism of “heroic, original” buildings that totalized structure and program into an exploration of space, form, or ideas. This, they said, was more insidious than the overtly ridiculous Long Island Duck.

What the building is not is a security duck. Contrast this with Safdie’s other work in DC, the ATF Headquarters Building. That fortress in Northeast is a security system for itself, where its defensive features become an architectural statement. The grand gesture is an enormous, inaccessible pergola developed from the moat, fence, setback, and blast walls required. Other features, like the gateway-within-a-gateway front entrance and the row of shops on 2nd St. reflect the primary design concept: security. Security subsumes form gloriously. But the ATF building has taken enough of a critical beating, so let’s examine two other examples:

US Mission to the UN

Gwathmey Siegel’s US Mission to the UN indexes the required distance for blast resistance through the size of its windows. The walls of the building simply could not be further from the edge of the small urban site to meet US embassy requirements, so the architects manipulated the windows on a tower already set back into absurd slenderness. The only way you know it’s not the bitter provocation of a grad student is its desperate banality.

More recently, KieranTimberlake’s US Embassy in London, scheduled to be completed in 2017, improves on the ugliness of buffering, but is unable to escape duckhood. The building is set upon a plinth that creates private assembly spaces above, and a security perimeter below. By emphasizing the severe cubic form set within a circle and again in the middle of a field, the architects have called all the attention to the space between the building and its context, at least compared to the looser glancing forms some of the other competitors’ entries. Richard Meier’s design is particularly distinguished because the renderings show bollards: discrete, non-architectural supplements that do not change the fabric or utility of the building.

US Embassy, London

Venturi & Scott Brown’s alternative to the duck was the decorated shed: a relatively banal structure, with a highly articulated facade conceptually detached from the overall functional design. His examples were renaissance palazzos and the Vegas Strip: big, bold facades loosely related to the interior. Now, Meier’s design may be a formal duck, but the security is attached loosely, a protected shed. The same is true of the USIP building, where Kennicott’s review demonstrates that security was not a conceptual concern for the project. The building has large, clear atria one can get close to. It has relatively good permeability, and its security pavilion is prosthetic to the main building. Perhaps it does not need the security of the Pentagon. But even many of the most effective safety measures at DOD headquarters have not been grand design choices, but rather building system details like laminated glass in windows and column casings.

This applied, rather than integral, security is already common. Like the Las Vegas Studio, we have to look at the disreputable defenses of Washington: the bollards, the planters, and the barriers that are almost all right. Those dumb little planters are an embarrassing icon of Washington, but they have their virtues. Ugly and ordinary, they offer both protection and the symbolism of security. They’re not part and parcel with the architecture, letting designers focus on expressing more important things. Maybe most importantly, they’re temporary. Eventually (theoretically) we can get rid of them and the buildings will not be compromised.

Dumb, ugly, replaceable.

These not-so-great forms of security do not have to be so ugly and haphazard. The classicist bollards and walls around the Capitol and congressional office buildings are an attractive and historically sensitive application to the buildings they defend. They’re not ideal, but for something more innovative, take a look at the IMF’s Headquarters 2 in Foggy Bottom. For all the banality of the aesthetics, Pei Cobb Freed combined the barrier structures with small-scale elements like planters, benches, bike racks, street lights, and even a water feature. It creates a livelier streetscape than setbacks and walls.

The formalization of security is a tempting venue for architectural expression. The culture of the past twenty years has been one where institutions have had to fortify and militarize against threats both real and perceived. Making architecture of that defensibility is a tacit acceptance –  if not embrace – of a perpetual security culture. That public buildings need protection against specific threats is undeniable. But that those protections need to exist forever and be manifested significantly in buildings, I believe, is an irresponsible and sad architectural position.

ATF Headquarters by dbking on Flickr

Is there a building you think is a security duck? Suggest it in the comments.

5 Comments

  • Noam
    June 20, 2011 - 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The UN building in NY is one right? Shouldn’t DC be littered with these?

  • June 20, 2011 - 9:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the UN building is one, because the security features are not major features of design.

    DC doesn’t have that many, primarily because most buildings were built before 1995.

  • dw
    June 24, 2011 - 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Provocative post. The idea of the “security duck” is an interesting one, though I’m not sure it works. I’ve never liked the Manichean distinction VenturiScottBrownIzenour make between duck and decorated shed, because most buildings have always been duck-decorated shed hybrids. Perhaps it was useful at the time to help end Modernism’s denigration of ornament, by flipping the pejorative label from ornament to sculpture. With ornament back in vogue, though, I think its safe to say that the argument is more a useful ideological parry than one that helps us usefully classify buildings. Even odder is the fact that the focus of VenturiScottBrownIzenour’s ire was the work of Rudolph who these days is understood as being one of the first modernists to attempt to introduce ornament into post-War American modernism.

    Nor am I convinced that the “duckness” of a building get to the heart of the troubling issue involving security and public buildings. Take the Gwathmey-Siegel. The complaints you make are actually about ornament, manipulation of flat applied details (in this case windows) on the building’s surface to communicate a message, rather than a duckish reaction. It is a surface manipulation that tells the user about the security elements that have subsumed the design on the inside of the building. As such it is much more of a Venturian billboard announcing “I am a really really secure building.”

    The issue in my mind is whether we try to pretend the security elements are other than they are, i.e. whether we dumbly disguise them, or whether we admit what they are plainly and authentically, i.e. write into the building the kinds of sacrifices we are making to our free society. The former position actually links the “almost alright” planters and the work of KieranTimberlake, rather than groups them in disparate categories as you do. Both try to prettify the security elements to pretend they are objects whose purpose is other than they are. And both ultimately insult our intelligence and look ridiculous.

    This is why ultimately, I like the Gwathmey-Siegel building (and I generally consider Gwathmey the least of the New York Five), because whether the architects intend it or not, and I think they must, the building is a clear indictment of the security demands made of them. By expressing the security features inherent to the building in all their oppressiveness, the building is showing what a draconian, illiberal, and ultimately un-American effect they are having on the built environment. The building’s inner cylindrical core is almost completely encased by the horrible blocky exterior, but there is hope. It has not yet completely succumbed and may still break free again.

    Incidentally, I think the rendering of the Meier building disguises some of the kowtowing that the building makes to security that go a lot farther than the bollards. If you look at the models on their website, you’ll see landscaping decisions determined by security that are fairly similar to the winning design.

    Still, this issue is one of the most important facing architecture today and needs more of your kind of thoughtful analysis.

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