Architecture and Security
You’ve seen them: those large concrete blocks in front of skyscrapers, monuments and government buildings, designed to protect against car and truck bombs. They sprang up like weeds in the months after 9/11, but the idea is much older. The prettier ones doubled as planters; the uglier ones just stood there.
Form follows function. From medieval castles to modern airports, security concerns have always influenced architecture. Castles appeared during the reign of King Stephen of England because they were the best way to defend the land and there wasn’t a strong king to put any limits on castle-building. But castle design changed over the centuries in response to both innovations in warfare and politics, from motte-and-bailey to concentric design in the late medieval period to entirely decorative castles in the 19th century.
These changes were expensive. The problem is that architecture tends toward permanence, while security threats change much faster. Something that seemed a good idea when a building was designed might make little sense a century — or even a decade — later. But by then it’s hard to undo those architectural decisions.
When Syracuse University built a new campus in the mid-1970s, the student protests of the late 1960s were fresh on everybody’s mind. So the architects designed a college without the open greens of traditional college campuses. It’s now 30 years later, but Syracuse University is stuck defending itself against an obsolete threat.
Similarly, hotel entries in Montreal were elevated above street level in the 1970s, in response to security worries about Quebecois separatists. Today the threat is gone, but those older hotels continue to be maddeningly difficult to navigate.
Also in the 1970s, the Israeli consulate in New York built a unique security system: a two-door vestibule that allowed guards to identify visitors and control building access. Now this kind of entryway is widespread, and buildings with it will remain unwelcoming long after the threat is gone.
The same thing can be seen in cyberspace as well. In his book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig describes how decisions about technological infrastructure — the architecture of the internet — become embedded and then impracticable to change. Whether it’s technologies to prevent file copying, limit anonymity, record our digital habits for later investigation or reduce interoperability and strengthen monopoly positions, once technologies based on these security concerns become standard it will take decades to undo them.
It’s dangerously shortsighted to make architectural decisions based on the threat of the moment without regard to the long-term consequences of those decisions.
Concrete building barriers are an exception: They’re removable. They started appearing in Washington, D.C., in 1983, after the truck bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut. After 9/11, they were a sort of bizarre status symbol: They proved your building was important enough to deserve protection. In New York City alone, more than 50 buildings were protected in this fashion.
Today, they’re slowly coming down. Studies have found they impede traffic flow, turn into giant ashtrays and can pose a security risk by becoming flying shrapnel if exploded.
We should be thankful they can be removed, and did not end up as permanent aspects of our cities’ architecture. We won’t be so lucky with some of the design decisions we’re seeing about internet architecture.
This essay originally appeared (my 29th column) in Wired.com.