Ubiquitous Security Barriers Get a Fashionable Flourish

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

They now come in a jaunty nautical style. And a somber federalist version. There's a shiny, sleek modernist type, a pueblo model -- some even fashioned into giant, pseudo golf balls. Whether made of copper or bronze, aluminum or granite, all could stop an eight-ton truck barreling into them at 50 mph.

Bollards, those crude posts once relegated to parking lots and now considered a necessity in a security-conscious era, have become as fashionable and versatile as handbags. And they are everywhere.

"I'm bollard-happy. Unfortunately, business is booming," said Rick Adler, a California inventor who has spent 27 years peddling various products at trade shows, Home Depot and on the QVC shopping network before he hit a gold mine -- shallow, fixed bollards that are certified by the U.S. State Department for the highest level of anti-terrorism security and can be dressed up.

"It's like an exercise in artistry to match the bollard to a building," said Adler, whose company, RSA Protective Technologies, has created bollards disguised as part of quaint country fences and supports for curved park benches.

The nation's capital is, of course, the bollard capital: Thousands are here, surrounding buildings, monuments, museums. At about $7,500 apiece, they absorb a chunk of the area's homeland security budget.

Legions of styles are proposed monthly: Tapered bollards at the Lincoln Memorial? Metal boxes embossed with the veins of leaves for the National Museum of Natural History? How about basket-weave bollards at the National Museum of the American Indian, fluted bollards with the presidential seal in Lafayette Square and with the congressional seal on Capitol Hill? They can be cemented eight feet below ground or can be removable or retractable. Some can drop or sprout in a three-second whoosh.

This subgenre of architecture, the architecture of security and fear, took off when Timothy McVeigh ignited a truck in Oklahoma City in 1995. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bison-size planters and anti-ram barriers multiplied across the landscape. Problem was, they looked hideous. The nexus of security and aesthetics confounded architects and designers, most of whom weren't schooled in the symmetry of blast radii and bollards.

"I think architects are really getting a lot better at dealing with that issue. . . . We're sort of catching up to the problem," said Witold Rybczynski, a U.S. Commission of Fine Arts member, architect and urbanism professor who called bollards "the steel crabgrass" of Washington. "We're learning how to design with them."

"Before 9/11, we had done bollards, but it was mostly military. The military wanted a bollard that said, 'Go away,' " said Jerry Gibson, director of sales at SecureUSA in Atlanta. "After 9/11, the demand changed. . . . So we started making decorative bollards to match buildings and themes. Sometimes, it was stainless steel or something old-timey."

And thus was born an industry of manufacturers who marry the pretty and the practical.

SecureUSA designs a bollard shaped like a waist-high golf ball for the links on military bases. Its workers have made bollards shaped like frogs, pandas and camels. They do modern and rustic, round and square, pueblo style and sci-fi, Gibson said.

"We live, eat and breathe bollards," said David Dickinson, senior vice president of Delta Scientific, a California company his father started in the family's garage 18 years ago, when the disgruntled aerospace engineer applied his smarts to the then-booming parking lot industry.

On Sept. 11, father and son were at a government test facility, rating their parking-lot bollards against crashes and crunches. "At the time, we were making a brochure on aesthetically pleasing bollards for vehicle traffic control, anti-theft, things like that. The moment we heard about the attacks, we decided to put that crash-test picture in the brochure."

Overnight, their orders tripled.

Soon after the surge, Dickinson said, the company and the clients realized that "these bollards are effective, but they're not that pretty." So their next-generation bollards -- at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California, along Broadway in New York, at the National Archives in Washington -- were designed to accept a decorative sleeve, something custom-made in aluminum or bronze, with fluting, flourishes, even the state seal of California.

Their motto -- "Bollards can be beautiful"-- is a sentiment difficult to swallow for some in Washington.

At their monthly meetings, federal planning and arts commissions are faced again and again with proposals to fortify icons in the nation's capital.

"It's really depressing, the amount of time we're spending on this," said John Parsons of the National Park Service. "What we're doing is . . . to defend against Timothy McVeigh. We're building this defense system because of what he did."

However, most say the proliferation of bollards -- whose name probably derives from the word bole, which means tree trunk -- is preferable to reviled Jersey barriers, fat concrete planters and even trash trucks pulled into the driveway of the White House.

The National Capital Planning Commission has a vision that enlists more creative ways to protect buildings and preserve open spaces. Existing street features -- lampposts, benches, bus shelters and newspaper kiosks -- would be given bollardlike reinforcement.

The marketplace is ahead of those suggestions. At a recent security trade show in New York, city planners from across the country saw the newest anti-terrorism technology.

It's a cellular concrete sidewalk called the Tiger Trap. It supports pedestrians, but collapses under the weight of a large truck, dropping into a deep pit below, the ultimate urban booby trap.

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