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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)

And then there is the fountain. The city insisted that some kind of water element be included in the design, and the architects (collaborating with Wet Design of California) came through brilliantly with an enticing water wall that forms a sweeping curve next to the main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance.

Despite all that, the question remains: How many of these formidable sidewalks do we really want to see? There is a certain contradiction between city life and these elaborate, permanent security precautions.

Even this handsome effort, for instance, creates a definite wall-like atmosphere. Walking along, you feel a bit penned in, an impression only strengthened by the elimination of curbside parking on all four sides of the building. It's not quite normal, not quite expected.

And that is on the Pennsylvania Avenue frontage. On the H Street side, very much treated as a back door, we get to see a prime example of bollard mania -- a long row of steel cylinders, spaced 36 inches apart, gleaming in the sun. It raises the thought of how bad things could get when designers of lesser skill are involved.

Furthermore, as with the original IMF headquarters building immediately to the south along H Street, the nearby World Bank complex and International Finance Corp., this new IMF building is sealed off from the public at large. You cannot get into the splendid atriums nor excellent cafes and food courts without an invitation or an escort, and a security screening is necessary before you can even buy a book at the institutional bookstores.

So, like many federal buildings these days -- think of the Federal Triangle array on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between Sixth and 15th streets NW -- neither the new IMF structure nor its sidewalk is a billboard for the lively street life we'd all like to see in our downtowns.

The system of massive if reasonably comfortable benches on the avenue seems to be a sensible precaution against vehicles packed with explosives, a weapon favored by international terrorists. Homegrown ones, too, as we saw a decade ago in Oklahoma City.

And yet, sitting on one of the "hardened" benches in the autumn sun, one has plenty of time to hope that they prove to be evidence of an aberrant present, rather than projections of a normal future. All in all, I'd take a plain old street bench any day.

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