The Blast-Proof City

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

A few years ago I saw first-hand how DC had become a city of planters and bollards. Even before 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building had led to the Marshals Report, which suggested security measures for government buildings. Now DC could be called the blast-proof city — or blast-resistant:

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.)

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.

Bollards are hardly new — Baroque Rome was full of them. But the attractive marble bollards that Bernini placed in St. Peter’s Square or those that prevented carriages from driving into his fountain in the Piazza Navona are a far cry from the security bollards of today. Old bollards were typically low enough to make a convenient seat and were spaced far apart, sometimes linked by chains. Cast-iron bollards were installed by 19th-century Dutch townspeople in front of their houses, but those decorative so-called Amsterdammertjes (little Amsterdammers) were not intended to stop a speeding truck, only to discourage driving on the sidewalk.

Modern post-Oklahoma City bollards are not so delicate. Designed to halt a 15,000-pound vehicle going up to 50 miles per hour, they are big: 8 to 10 inches in diameter, typically 3 feet high, and spaced no more than 4 feet apart, according to current standards. A large, block-size building might be encircled by several hundred of these oversized fireplugs. To reduce the monotony, architects have tried mixing in hardened fences, low walls, flower planters, reinforced benches, and light poles. When a security line occurs at the curb, however, as is usually the case, solid barriers are impractical because people need to be able to exit cars, so bollards remain the chief perimeter protection. Whether they are clad in stainless steel or granite, they are a visual intrusion on the streetscape; they also pose a nuisance for pedestrians and bicyclists.

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.

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