When we reimagine American public space as a fortress, we lose

‘Hardening’ the built environment won’t defeat mass murderers anyway

Jess Suttner for The Washington Post
Jess Suttner for The Washington Post

America’s gun culture, with its Second Amendment extremism, is killing our children. It also threatens an essential precondition for democracy: its public space. The fortification of the public realm, which accelerated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is likely to speed up once again as designers respond to citizens’ fear of mass shootings. Gun violence is reaching ever deeper into zones traditionally deemed safe — public schools, hospitals, houses of worship and entertainment venues — and so architects may be forced to undo or subvert values that have governed the profession over the past century. Ideals of openness, flow, transparency and access will no longer be sustainable. Everything must be “hardened.”

The word and its variants became a mantra after the shooting in Uvalde, Tex., as politicians dedicated to a no-limits gun culture struggled to define a response to the May 24 mass murder of schoolchildren and their teachers. “Schools should be the single hardest target in our country,” said former president Donald Trump at the annual National Rifle Association convention, held only days after the Uvalde massacre. He was repeating and amplifying the response of other politicians who champion the Second Amendment above all other civic virtues: that schools fortify their entrances even to the point, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) advocated, of single-entry buildings. “We also know that there are best practices at federal buildings and courthouses, where for security reasons they limit the means of entry to one entrance,” said Cruz. “Schools, likewise, should have a single point of entry. Fire exits should only open out. At that single point of entry, we should have multiple armed police officers. Or if need be, military veterans trained to provide security and keep our children safe.”

It’s not hard to imagine what this will look like, and how it will be extended from schools to hospitals, shopping centers and places of worship. Access to routine medical appointments will require the sick, frail and elderly to wait in line to pass through magnetometers and single-entry portals bristling with armed guards. Plan to arrive at your church, synagogue or mosque extra early, to get through armored checkpoints. And perhaps this will be the death knell for retail shopping. Why queue for 20 minutes to enter a department store when you can just order online?

The rapid embrace of the “hardening” rhetoric shows how quickly we are rethinking the basic aesthetics of our built environment. In November 2001, only weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York echoed the Periclean ideal of democracy when he said: “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular era were. Surely, ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in the darkness.”

Today, to maintain the primacy of the constitutional right to bear arms, some political leaders envision children passing through military-style checkpoints every morning before school. “Andrew will harden the schools,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said of his son, who is running for governor, adding that as mayor he himself had put “cops in every classroom” (he put unarmed school safety officers in each school).

None of the efforts to harden public space will actually do what we need them to do. Architects can improve security within buildings to a degree, but this is mainly through slowing rather than preventing access for attackers. The margin of improvement could be incremental changes to the body count. In future shootings, perhaps only a half-dozen children will die, rather than 19 at Uvalde, or 20 at Newtown, Conn., or 14 at Parkland, Fla.

But even that is doubtful, because gunmen will follow the crowds. Mass shooters are domestic terrorists, and they will be as resourceful as the suicide bomber in Afghanistan who blew up a crowd last summer outside a Kabul checkpoint as U.S. troops attempted to screen people entering Hamid Karzai International Airport. Or they will follow the lead of the most lethal single mass shooter in U.S. history, who killed 58 people and wounded more than 400 at an open-air country music event in Las Vegas.

Ultimately, the goal of defending internal spaces against gun violence may be obsolete, as Second Amendment absolutists push to erase any distinction between gun-free and fully armed spaces.

Architects have been responding to these threats for years, with curiously atavistic changes to the built environment. After the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the old school was razed and rebuilt with security enhancements. Among them, the building was positioned to take advantage of high ground, to improve sight lines and increase the chances that intruders can be identified as they approach the school. Its entrance was fronted by a rain garden, spanned by three foot bridges, to slow and funnel access to the space.

The first of these changes — improving sight lines — recalls one of the basic defense mechanisms of walled cities, fortresses, castles and compounds, since humans first began living behind enclosed walls. The second response, a rain garden with three bridges, evokes an idea common to the pre-democratic design of aristocratic or court architecture. The new Sandy Hook school requires children to pass through a sequence of gateways for access, including bridges similar to those that link a procession of courtyards at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

With money, and design insight, some of these architectural responses can be disguised as aesthetic enhancements. The 2005 redesign of the Washington Monument grounds by the Olin Studio defends the obelisk against car bombings with low granite security walls elegantly embedded in the 72-acre green space. One hardly notices them.

But the changes coming may be far more intrusive. The extensive retrofitting of our civic infrastructure will not only take an environmental toll, as buildings are razed and rebuilt or wholly renovated, it will continue to sort institutions into those with resources to do things well and those that must make do with provisional, haphazard and insufficient remedies. It will further enhance the power of security experts, who at the behest of our leaders have already robbed Americans of essential public places, including the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol and the front entrance to the Supreme Court. And it will further corrode democracy, as more and more people, at all stages of life, from preschool to senescence, are forced into repeated, humiliating and demeaning encounters with undertrained and often rude security personnel.

The greatest loss is to the ideal of public space as a meeting place free of authoritarian intrusion or oversight, a locus for the free flow of ideas and a leveling ground where some distant memory of “all men are created equal” is felt and enjoyed by citizens of an increasingly unequal polity. Universal, unregulated access to guns makes public space untenable. No matter how robust the fortification, mass murderers will find the gaps, reducing the entire public realm to an ungovernable Hobbesian hellscape of perpetual violence. Individual buildings will no longer be stitched together in an urban unity but isolated in a sea of mayhem. This is how ancient empires collapsed — with myriad small-scale efforts to fortify and defend public spaces that were no longer governable by larger entities.

This isn’t an overheated dystopian daydream. Because we can’t address the single, obvious and most effective solution to the problem — limiting civilian access to weapons of war — we are stuck in a civic feedback loop. Mass murder fuels calls for hardening space, which not only fails to prevent mass murder but corrodes the civic trust and rational thinking that might break the cycle.

Does this mean an architecture of stone walls, turrets and moats? No, but it does mean the proliferation of their 21st-century equivalents, including surveillance cameras, robust security databases, facial recognition technology, artificial-intelligence systems, and, of course, “hardened” entrances, thicker walls, more safe rooms and one-way doors for egress — which may or may not work when you need them.

More fundamentally, the nature of our relationship to buildings will change. Good buildings, especially schools, libraries, houses of worship and places of entertainment, used to greet us with a promise: Enter and learn, enter and pray, enter and engage with art, theater, dance or music. Now, they will greet us just as we greet our fellow citizens, with wariness and suspicion.

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