The security plan being designed for the Jefferson Memorial will depend on walls as well as scores of bollards. Where to put the perimeter security is a Hobson's choice: put it farther away and you need more bollards; nearer and you need fewer, but they are more visually intrusive. In either case, the experience of John Russell Pope's handsome building will hardly be enhanced. The directive to secure the Jefferson Memorial is intended to protect a precious national icon. It may end up having the opposite effect.
The team that prepared the Marshals Report did not feel obliged to mention the potential architectural impact of new security standards, but simply assumed that the criteria would be met -- somehow. That "somehow," after 10 years of the war on terrorism, has generally come at the expense of aesthetics. Standards, whether they govern the precise height of bollards or the minimum dimension of standoffs, tend to be inviolable and leave little discretion to the designer. And because everyone (at least, everyone inside the same risk-class building) deserves the same level of protection, there can be no exceptions. Most building-design decisions are tradeoffs -- between cost and benefit, maintenance and durability, and appearance and performance. Yet security -- "Are you ready to risk a life?" -- brooks no compromises.
And yet, if that question were to be answered by citizens instead of by security consultants, the response might be different. Most decisions regarding building security have been the result of executive-branch directives, either from the president or from department heads, rather than from Congress. These decisions are not the result of public debate. The possibility of an open discussion about security -- for example, when is too much, too much? -- is further constrained by the necessary veil of secrecy that surrounds the subject. After all, security measures are intended to foil terrorists -- whether foreign or domestic -- and revealing too many details defeats the purpose.
And herein lies the problem. The design of public buildings today is usually subject to review by design boards, municipal arts councils, neighborhood associations, and various community groups. But security concerns, which can greatly affect building design, are "off the table." Instead of reasoned discussion by citizens and their representatives, debate is stifled by the unarguable pronouncements of security experts.
Last year, the Supreme Court decided that the public would no longer be able to ascend Cass Gilbert's iconic marble steps to enter the Supreme Court building. Instead, visitors would be redirected to a side door leading to a screening facility. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the change unfortunate and unjustified, and Breyer pointed out that no other high court in the world has closed its front entrance due to security concerns. He wrote that the main entrance and the front steps of the 1935 building "are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."
But Breyer and Ginsberg were in the minority. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who supported the closure, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that from a security perspective, entering from the side is "mandatory." According to ABC News, Kennedy said that the court spent millions of dollars on an updated security facility, "but decided, after talking to experts, that visitors no longer should be able to enter through the main front entrance." Once more, the experts carried the day.