Philip Kennicott on the Architectural Ramifications of Terrorism

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

The impulse to do something is almost unbearable after an incident such as the June 10 shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The command structure of bureaucracy, so integral to every thought and action in Washington, requires at least the appearance of tangible change in the way we do business. But when it comes to architecture, the best response may be nothing at all.

The history of security and public architecture is generally one of catastrophic failure followed by architectural excess. Huge changes to how buildings are situated, how their entrances are structured, how much glass they show to the world, have followed major terrorist acts both here and abroad, from the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy in Lebanon to the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have led to massive security intrusions on everything from airports to museums to mass transit, reconfiguring not just architecture, but the architecture of daily life.

It's much more difficult to write a history of terrorism thwarted. And regardless of what security experts determine about what happened at the front entrance of the Holocaust Museum, this was a failed act of terror. "The man never made it in the building," Jason McCuiston told this newspaper after he and another security officer defended the museum against James W. von Brunn. The gun-wielding suspect fatally shot another officer, but was almost immediately incapacitated before he could do further harm. The security arrangements seemed to have worked, though the museum is thoroughly reviewing all its policies.Last week, crowds bustled in and around the Holocaust Museum. People queued outside the group-tour entrance on the exposed 15th Street plaza, waiting where they are most vulnerable. The public has clearly decided not to be terrorized.

The death of security officer Stephen T. Johns must be reckoned not as a failure of security, but as the tragic cost of balancing vigilance with openness in a free society: He was part of the last defense of the building, where human eyes, ears and intuition can do work that no bricks-and-mortar security feature can ever equal.

Since it opened in 1993, James Ingo Freed's Holocaust Museum has been widely praised for presenting a dual face to the city: It greets the street with a round, open portico-like structure befitting a national museum, but the details (steel plates with industrial bolts) bespeak an ugly, mechanistic brutality organically connected to the museum's memorial function. But it is also a remarkable fusion of architectural symbolism and security, with many of its architectural facets -- including its windowless walls -- performing a second, defensive function.

Thus the entrance, which is set back from the street, is guarded by wide, heavy columns that partially shield its glass panels. The entryway is also angled so that it presents an oblique face to any car or truck that might stop on 14th Street. And once you enter, you find yourself in a glass, pie-shaped wedge of space through which you must pass, and then turn twice, before being in the long central corridor of the building.

The complexity of this entryway not only slows the public, it manipulates people in a way essential to the program of the museum, which is to both teach and demonstrate, through its ambiance and architecture, the dehumanizing aspects of genocide. It stands in stark contrast to the "enlightened" entrance of a neoclassical building: a straight shot up an open staircase that delivers one directly into the center of the building. Which is appropriate given that the Holocaust was the great failure of the Enlightenment, harnessing industrial efficiency, pseudoscience, nationalism and irrationality into a toxic nexus of death.

Unfortunately, what works well for the Holocaust Museum can't be transferred directly to buildings with entrances that emphasize the old ideals of openness and transparency. After two police officers were shot and killed at the U.S. Capitol in 1998, long-standing plans for a new entrance were put on the front burner. The architectural results, further exacerbated by fresh security fears raised after 9/11, are dismal: an underground structure that keeps the Capitol at a dispiriting remove, herds visitors through huge, generic spaces, and destroys the genial face of what was once an open and inviting public building.

After the Lebanon bombings there was an obvious need for new security guidelines for U.S. embassies, which became known as the Inman standards (after a report by retired Adm. Bobby Inman). But the architectural results were dour and forbidding -- buildings withdrawn from their urban context and fortified with little concern for aesthetics. Things only got worse after the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Yet more security guidelines have led to embassies that are located on the exurban frontier, far from the people they should serve, and isolated within 10-acre security compounds. The architectural response has defeated one of the essential purposes of an embassy structure: its powerful advertisement of U.S. values.

Which is why one hopes nothing changes at the Holocaust Museum. The defense against terrorism isn't just physical, and it isn't just about violence. It's about the decision not to be terrorized. A quiet return to business as usual not only honors the building and its purpose, it demonstrates a profound understanding of priorities: Not every building can be absolutely safe -- fear is an inevitable part of human existence -- and the reaction to extremists should never dignify their ideas with a permanent mark on the social and architectural landscape.

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