It used to be that D.C. architecture consisted of graceful Georgetown mansions, neoclassical federal buildings -- and, of course, the monuments. When the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was founded in 1910 to guide Washington's architectural development, it reviewed designs such as those of the Lincoln Memorial and the Federal Triangle. Over the seven years I've served on the commission, however, an increasing amount of time is spent discussing security-improvement projects: screening facilities, hardened gatehouses, Delta barriers, perimeter fences, and seemingly endless rows of bollards. We used to mock an earlier generation that peppered the U.S. capital with Civil War generals on horseback; now I wonder what future generations will make of our architectural legacy of crash-resistant walls and blast-proof glass.
Photos of Washington's treasured landmarks, in the post-9/11 era.
How did we become so insecure about our buildings? Although the 9/11 attacks loom large in the public's imagination, the event that changed the way federal buildings in the United States are designed and used -- perhaps forever -- was a presidential directive issued six years prior to the attacks. Historically, U.S. presidents have shown little interest in architecture. You can count the exceptions on one hand: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who designed his own presidential library; Theodore Roosevelt, who had many architect friends and added the West Wing to the White House; and of course America's two great architect-presidents, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Mostly, however, presidents have preferred to leave design to designers, whether of public buildings, war memorials, or double eagles. President Bill Clinton, whose most prominent addition to the White House was a hot tub, is not known as an architecture buff. But by issuing Executive Order 12977 in October 1995, he set in motion a process that thrust politics squarely in the center of the design process.
The executive order was the result of the Oklahoma City bombing. The day after the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives and injured more than 680 people, Clinton directed the Justice Department to assess the vulnerability of all federal facilities to acts of violence. The resulting report, prepared by a large team headed by the U.S. Marshals Service, is generally known as "The Marshals Report." To implement the report's recommendations, Executive Order 12977 established an interagency security committee charged with developing standards for all federal facilities as well as "long-term construction standards for those locations with threat levels or missions that require blast resistant structures."
The Marshals Report classified all federal buildings according to rising levels of risk. The Murrah Building, which had 550 employees and housed offices of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), would have been Level IV, a high-risk category that includes federal courthouses and all large federal office buildings, as well as ATF, DEA, and FBI offices. Level V is reserved for the highest-risk agencies such as the Defense Department, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Because the authors of the Marshals Report were security experts, they focused on the immediate security problem -- that is, safeguarding the occupants of federal buildings against explosives and other domestic threats. It is hard to question the good intention of protecting federal employees. As bombings in Madrid and Oslo later showed, however, terrorism does not confine itself to official targets; hardening government buildings simply moves the threat elsewhere. It is like deciding to protect only flight crew, rather than safeguarding the plane and all its passengers.
The Marshals Report proposed no fewer than 52 specific criteria, which resulted in the deployment of a host of building security devices. Some, such as reinforced structure, blast-resistant glass, and hardened curtain walls, have a small impact on a building's appearance. That is not the case with perimeter security.