"Architecture of Fear"

I like the phrase:

Németh said the zones not only affect the appearance of landmark buildings but also reflect an ‘architecture of fear’ as evidenced, for example, by the bunker-like appearance of embassies and other perceived targets.

Ultimately, he said, these places impart a dual message—simultaneously reassuring the public while causing a sense of unease.

And in the end, their effect could be negligible.

“Indeed, overt security measures may be no more effective than covert intelligence techniques,” he said. “But the architecture aims to comfort both property developers concerned with investment risk and residents and tourists with the notion that terror threats are being addressed and that daily life will soon ‘return to normal.'”

My own essay on architecture and security from 2006.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): Here’s the full paper. And some stuff from the Whole Building Design Guide site. Also see the planned U.S. embassy in London, which includes a moat.

Posted on December 20, 2010 at 5:55 AM32 Comments


RogerBW December 20, 2010 6:28 AM

The message sent is “the world outside Us is a dangerous and scary place, so we will build a wall to keep it away from Us”.

When it’s called a “gated community”, everyone outside laughs at the silly people who lock themselves into their own prison. Time to do the same for embassies and similar.

dot tilde dot December 20, 2010 7:02 AM

umberto ecos “theory of semiotics” is an interesting read on how architecture is used to communicate.


BF Skinner December 20, 2010 7:18 AM

But the world outside IS a dangerous and scary place. Has been since we lit our first fires and saw the eyes looking back at us out of the dark.

While gated communities may look silly the wealthy are very clear, and explicitly understand the effect and reaction of the class war they are waging on the rest of us.

Of course the problem for them is that they can’t seal out the world. Trucks go back and forth. Planes go up and down and ‘domestics’ and other service people go in and out.

Clive Robinson December 20, 2010 7:33 AM

The architectural choice must be a deliberate one.

Because it is quite easy to achieve the same or greater degree of protection using natural and less formidable looking designs.

And guess what in some cases it is actually cheaper and encorages people to use the “zones” thus giving the place a real feeling of being in place, not a “Nazi” style symbolic statment.

Dave Morris December 20, 2010 7:48 AM

Thing is, if the architect is any good they’ll build in a degree of physical security as a passive part of a pleasant design. For instance, look at the original bollards surrounding the recent Scottish Parliament:


They included lighting, they doubled as a good seat, they were playfully distributed throughout the landscape, and they were also built on steel dug over a meter in to the ground. They added to security but they projected a fun feeling rather than one of fear or paranoia. If all moving vehicles disappeared from the surface of the earth, they would still form a good part of the architecture.

Contrast that with the new ones they put in this year:


They’re just massive steel posts, unrelated to the rest of the architecture, distributed ruthlessly in a stright line which forms a visual wall, AND they’re even in front of a massive concrete blast wall – brilliant thinking! They speak of nothing but fear, and add to neither the architecture or its security.


Clive Robinson December 20, 2010 7:54 AM

Another thing about the “bunker look” style of architecture,

Has anybody considered what it does to the mental health of those who work there?

In London we have the “ring of steel” around the city but it all looks like a cross between a “Blake’s 7” idea of a detention camp and a run down East German boarder check point (yes I am that old that I’ve seen both first hand).

Due to “security reasons” often the “closed streets” are not cleaned and it looks depressing.

Worse a young lady I know gave up a well paid city job and took a much lower paid job outside the ring simply as she put it ‘I feel like I’ve a machine gun on me and I should have my hands above my head in surrender every time I cross it’.

It brings the secondary question just how much extra economic damage does this do to the economy. In the UK we have the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) and they are always spouting billions of pounds lost due to “sick mentality” of workers, and other organisations put the days lost where stress is a contributing factor as something like 60-70% of all sick days…

noble_serf December 20, 2010 8:27 AM

it reeks of fear, and perhaps more importantly in the US, it says “we’re ok in here because we’re protected, you folks out there, our neighbors; you are on your own.”

a good example is how military bases and government buildings are in the US are now compared to 15 years ago.

this is a serious barrier to participation in government (both physical and in perception) and leads to fragmentation

john December 20, 2010 8:35 AM

‹(O0)›– yet those protestors didn’t pose a real security threat except in the minds of those in power.

AlanS December 20, 2010 9:01 AM

The article relates the “architecture of fear” to 9/11. I would have thought it had more to do with the bombing of the Murrah building and other earlier events.

Hugh Mannity December 20, 2010 9:02 AM

Back in those oh so innocent days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I lived in Bahrain.

The British embassy had a low wall surrounding the compound and a bored local guard in a guard box at the gateway. Anyone who wanted to could come in and use the library, attend various cultural functions. There was significant security surrounding the embassy offices and ambassador’s residence, but it was all very discreet and mostly invisible until you looked for it.

In contrast the US embassy had a 10-ft wall with razor wire on top, a zigzag of Jersey barriers going up to the gate, US soldiers on duty at the gate, and an armoured car parked right inside.

Needless to say, the Bahrainis were both amused by the “frightened” Americans and insulted by the thought that any harm would come to the embassy from the local population.

Of course, this was after the Tehran embassy incident, but the Bahrainis were quick to point out that they weren’t Iranian.

NobodySpecial December 20, 2010 9:57 AM

The first time I had to visit the US embassy in London in the 80s I was amused that there was an Irish builder’s van parked outside. Possibly the only building in London where this wouldn’t have created a massive security panic back then

xl December 20, 2010 9:59 AM

Material for the next blog entry?

The 5 most surprising revelations from the Post’s ‘Monitoring America’ investigation

The FBI’s “Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative” currently contains 161,948 suspicious activity files on tens of thousands of Americans that include employment history, financial documents, phone numbers, photos and any other information authorities can gather. In many cases, the Americans in these files have not been accused of any crime but have attracted the suspicions of a local sheriff, FBI agent, cop, or even a fellow citizen. The files have led to five arrests but no convictions, the FBI says. Some of the files are unclassified so that local police agencies and even businesses can submit reports on anyone they deem suspicious.

Eric Grunin December 20, 2010 10:24 AM

“For example, 35.7 percent of New York’s civic center district is within a ‘security zone,’ meaning it is accessible only to for those with proper clearance”

Um, what?

The pedestrian restrictions in the Financial District are what they were before 9/11: you can’t go inside private buildings or into construction sites.

The vehicular restrictions remain considerable, and I agree that the bunker-style fortifications in front of large buildings are offensive and oppressive.

Dirk Praet December 20, 2010 10:35 AM

It’s human condition that fear and paranoia lead to short term thinking and bad decisions that for more than one reason are difficult to reverse in the longer term. They make us revert to a caveman state of mind buying into caveman rhetoric from both those in power and those challenging them. Civilisation and humanity are but a thin layer over what’s underneath, and it tends to come off rapidly when we are challenged or threatened.

There is no greater victory for terrorists than turning an open and free space into a steel and concrete fortress with ubiquitous CCTV, check points, armed officers and guard dogs. Bombing planes and buildings are just a tool to achieve their ultimate goal of a society of fear, hearts and minds controlled by those inspiring it.

Any individual, organisation or government agency contributing to such a scenario – whether it be on grounds of a hidden agenda or by shere incompetence to put in place more efficient controls – for all practical purposes to me is a terrorist accomplice and should be treated as such.

mcb December 20, 2010 11:48 AM

@ AlanS

“I would have thought it had more to do with the bombing of the Murrah building…”

Good point. The vulnerability of buildings to car bombs (VBIEDs) has been demonstrated time and again, at the Beirut barracks and embassies bombings in 1983, in the 1995 OKC bombing, at Khobar Towers in ’96, and the embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in ’98. Then as now, principled security practitioners informed their clients that the best defense against explosives is standoff distance, the more the better. Regretably there is little room to provide standoff in urban city centers.

In the aftermath of 9/11 many of us in the physical security trade were told to “do something…anything” to show employees and other constituents the client was serious about terror. In came the Jersey Walls, up come the bollards, and out came the M4s. Then, as Jeremy Németh and the http://www.securecities.com/ project note, our civic leaders (well, at least those persons in positions of authority) began to close the streets as though they might create green zones in the hearts of our great cities.

BTW the entire paper can be found here http://www.securecities.com/docs/Nemeth_EnvPlanA.pdf

Thomas December 20, 2010 6:05 PM

“Bottom-line: Effective security need not be oppressive. ”

That depends on the effect you’re trying to have.

Carl December 20, 2010 8:30 PM

I think a lot of the people that dont want covert responses to embassy and public building bombings are actually more scared than the supposed “fearful” people that erect said protections.

perhaps because they dont want to be reminded of the realities of the world we live in?

I also know for a fact that the downtown gov’t center of one of the cities mentioned does not in any way shape or form resemble a “bunker”. You have to know what to look for to recognize the protections as protections, and not just part of the design of the landscape.

Carl December 20, 2010 8:37 PM

Bruce: if we arent supposed to design things now, to thwart the attacks we know of, and attempt to thwart attacks that we project will be coming (based on our best analysis current threat trends), why are you building skein? why not just stick with md5?

Dont you feel that by building skein, you are just acting out of fear? Arent you sending a message that “the hacking world out there is a dangerous and scary place?”

lol, guess not hunh?

mcb December 20, 2010 9:37 PM

@ Carl

The difference between network security threats and transnational terrorism is that there really are thousands of bad guys, and tens of thousands of their bots, attacking assets on the net 24/7. Timely application of computing security precautions are largely effective in helping preserve the intended function of those mostly private assets.

Transnational terrorists are scarce, real live attacks are uncommon, and the countermeasures chosen by our governments are arguably ineffective, consume limited public resources, and threaten our liberty, privacy, and dignity.

If network intrusions, information theft, and cybervandalism occurred at the rate of Al Qaeda terror attacks Bruce would be out of a job.

Carl December 20, 2010 9:51 PM

Actually, can you think of a single exploit of md5 that has resulted in a financial loss for anyone?

I could list hundreds of actual terrorist attacks on US interests domestic/overseas..

Network intrusions, information theft are unrelated to the security of the md5 as Bruce himself will correctly point out. The strength of your crypto is NOT your vulnerability. 95% of successful attacks are related to just run of the mill poor asset adminstration and social engineering attacks.

The only real attacks on md5 is by the researchers themselves.. who then come up with a new algorithm.. and get paid for it.. hmmm.. clive, quick, get your conspiracy checklist!

Thomas December 20, 2010 11:12 PM

“If network intrusions, information theft, and cybervandalism occurred at the rate of Al Qaeda terror attacks Bruce would be out of a job.”

Plenty of restaurants out there to be reviewed…


Once ONE person can break MD5 (or perform some some other attack), EVERYONE can.

Real-world attacks cannot be replicated that way.

Securing one digest algorithm secures all electronic transactions.

Securing one building just makes the bad guys drive another half a block.

Jay December 21, 2010 12:37 AM

@Carl: This being a cryptographer’s blog, you’re going to get smacked down pretty hard claiming MD5 attacks are irrelevant. Does SSL, and all commerce over the web, sound irrelevant to you?

But it has been done, and only the fact the white-hats did it first and got people to do the fixes (stop issuing MD5 certificates, f’rinstance) is what stopped it causing financial loss…

Yeah, most practical attacks don’t attack the crypto.

As for architecture, I wonder how much this ties in with the feminist idea of the “protection racket” – oppressive security creating fear, reinforcing our desire for oppressive security…

Carl December 21, 2010 3:03 AM

I guess you all misread my comment, what I said was this:

“Actually, can you think of a single exploit of md5 that has resulted in a financial loss for anyone?”

Ashamed December 21, 2010 3:28 AM

Following is a re-post of a comment I put on another thread, a couple of weeks earlier. It seems even more fitting here:

I recently passed a US embassy in a country where (in my judgment) the risk to American institutions is fairly low. The embassy building was surrounded by huge concrete obstacles, putting one in mind of the Siegfried Line. My first thought was, “this is shockingly ugly.”

And my next thought was, “what a shameful display of American cowardice.”

I am old enough to remember when my countrymen took pride in their courage to face risk. A great part of the US is apparently so frightened of a microscopic risk of dying on their feet, that they are willing to live on their knees.

P.S. Within walking distance of that US embassy was the embassy of another country that has been strongly targeted by terror attacks — it resembles an office building, rather than a bunker.

Sungam December 21, 2010 5:12 AM

On the note of the the US Embassy in London, the current one is bunker like and oppressive enough. Whenever I point it out to friends visiting from the US they usually shake their heads in disbelief.

I mean, it is an Embassy… Is this really the kind of image the leader of the free world and land of the free wants to prject tro everyone?

mcb December 21, 2010 9:30 AM

On reflection I realize a more accurate statement is:

“Transnational terrorists are scarce, real live attacks are uncommon, and [some of] the countermeasures chosen by our governments are arguably ineffective, consume limited public resources, and threaten our liberty, privacy, and dignity.”

mcb December 21, 2010 10:04 AM

@ Thomas

“‘Bottom-line: Effective security need not be oppressive.’

That depends on the effect you’re trying to have.”

To paraphrase, we need not “attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by” a lack of imagination, reliance on FM 3-19.30 for design standards http://www.wbdg.org/ccb/ARMYCOE/FIELDMAN/fm31930.pdf urgent delivery schedules, tight budgets, and a lack of aesthetic sensibilities.

Bob Staudenmaier January 26, 2011 9:46 AM

“Architecture of Fear” – That was an “Outer Limits” episode back in the ’60s.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.