Security Measures Need Not Create Barriers to Beauty

Benches outside the new IMF building combine protection, aesthetics.
Benches outside the new IMF building combine protection, aesthetics. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

I have seen the sidewalk of the future, and it is on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Specifically, it is the long concrete expanse in front of the sleek new International Monetary Fund building on Pennsylvania -- and also along the shorter sides of the same building on 19th and 20th streets. And along H Street, too, in the back of the block-filling edifice.

This is in many ways a pleasant sidewalk, with an attractive fountain and more benches per linear foot than most pathways in urban parks. It has young willow oak trees that will grow to handsome maturity, interspersed with those always appealing, double-crowned "Washington" street lamps.

But it is also strange. The sturdy-looking benches are really sturdy. They have been constructed to withstand the head-on impact of a car or truck laden with explosives. So, too, have the burnished steel cylindrical bollards that punctuate the spaces between the benches -- and the snazzy-looking bus stop shelter, with its sharply angled steel-and-glass canopy.

These sidewalks, you see, are the first to be constructed for the most part in accordance with guidelines established three years ago in the National Capital Planning Commission's "Urban Design and Security Plan." They are proof positive that, up to a point, you can combine safety with beauty in street design.

That, in short, was the point of the plan, which was initiated by a feisty, smart Boston developer named Richard Friedman when he was a commission member in search of a creative response to a pressing problem.

Washington was becoming uglier by the day with the assortment of barriers and concrete flower pots being thrown up around federal buildings and monuments. Friedman wanted to enlist the nation's design community in an effort to meet the capital's security needs while eliminating the spreading security mess.

The resulting plan established minimum design standards for a variety of conditions and Washington locations. There were no one-size-or-shape-fits-all prescriptions. The sidewalk guidelines, for instance, set maximum distances between elements and emphasized that lots of ordinary street furniture -- benches, trash cans, lampposts -- could be strengthened to withstand a significant impact.

Individual clients and designers were expected to rise to the challenge. The IMF and its distinguished architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners of New York, voluntarily sought the planning commission's advice on sidewalk fixtures, and the architects then went about their business.

They did well. By deploying just a few abstract shapes -- rectangle, circle and trapezoid -- and by using a harmonious palette of materials -- fine concrete, mottled granite panels, brushed steel, square Belgian block pavers -- they ensured that the IMF sidewalk would be read as a (mostly) appealing whole.

Ingeniously, the architects combined benches with that tired staple of curbside security, the heavy flower pot, to make the basic, repeating unit of their design. Measuring about 9 feet long by 4 feet wide by 3 1/2 feet high, this clean-lined unit looks very solid.

Yet it is unquestionably attractive. A wooden bench is set securely into the structure, most times on one side only. A trapezoidal basin filled with seasonal flowers (pansies, for now) makes an emphatic, yet gentle, end piece. On a breezy fall day, this is indeed a pleasant place to sit.

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