Sandy Hook courtyard. Image: Svigals+Partners

Architects Are Designing Buildings for the Age of Mass Shootings

More buildings are being designed to make people feel safe.

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Aug 4 2016, 1:00pm

Sandy Hook courtyard. Image: Svigals+Partners

Architect Aaron Betsky is not a fan of the Freedom Tower.

The 1776-foot-tall building, officially called 1 World Trade Center, is a contemporary behemoth in the New York City skyline, and the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere. David Childs, the chief architect, designed the building to be "iconic and solemn," and memorialize the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when the two World Trade Center towers crumbled just steps away.

But Betsky, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, sees something else in the tower. He said the building doesn't make you feel safe or empowered. Instead, in a space meant for reflection, it evokes violence. "In my mind, the exclusionary zone, the bollards, the guard booths, and the walls of concrete hiding under reflective glass at Ground Zero do that," he said.

1 World Trade Center. Image: John D. Morris/Wikipedia

Our culture of fear has changed the role of architecture in the United States. In just 2016 alone, the country has seen 221 mass shootings, and we struggle to keep up with the stream of international terrorism attacks by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. If you listen to the news for too long, every building we enter seems compromised, from malls and movie theaters to schools. So while legislators falter over gun control laws, architects and building designers are working to rethink the concept of a safe space.

After a lone 20-year-old gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, the town decided to build a new elementary school, unveiled this week. Alana Konefal, an architect with Svigals+Partners, the firm tapped to design the school, said that meant involving the community at every step. "They shared their memories of the former school with us, their experiences and memorable aspects of the building," she said.

The new school design includes an open area in the front to allow for natural surveillance so people inside can see who is approaching. A rain garden acts as a natural buffer between the building and bus drive. Footbridges help create more specific, designated entry points to control people entering the building. "We want the students and teachers to feel welcome and comfortable, to create a place for them to call home," Konefal said.

New Sandy Hook school entryway. Image: Svigals+Partners

Feeling welcome, or like you're part of a community, is not just a sentiment, it's an important aspect of safety too, Betsky said. Most of the lone gunmen that carry out mass shootings are surrounded by a narrative of loneliness: "The systemic issue is that we need to find a way to make people feel connected to each other."

Meanwhile, that feeling of community isn't reserved for smaller-scale spaces. Even high-security government buildings are ramping up their design, some elements of which seem like large-scale versions of the Sandy Hook footbridges. While surveillance cameras, blast-proof glass and detectors have been common for years, the classic device of using water-filled moats to protect buildings is "returning to prominence," said Richard Paradis, an engineer and building security expert at the National Institute of Building Sciences.

The U.S. Embassy in London uses water as a barricade on two sides. Image: Nine Elms/Flickr

In his work consulting with the government, and making sure the federal structures meet safety requirements, he said finding the balance between ominous and open has been the challenge. In recent years, Paradis agrees, the conversation around safety has escalated, and every new attack reminds architects and building engineers what they're trying to avoid.

But even buildings that are physically distanced from the general public, or protected with natural and constructed barriers, need to feel open and welcoming. "We don't want the buildings to look like fortresses," Paradis said.

Architects like Betsky also balk at this idea of making our everyday spaces into fortresses. The constant stream of arbitrary violence that enters our newsfeeds and communities makes our society vulnerable to a knee-jerk reaction, one that calls for more armor in our infrastructure, more surveillance in our daily routine. And of course, few of us can imagine what it's like to enter a familiar place after a tragedy like the one in Sandy Hook.

The Alfred A. Arraj courthouse in Denver has been touted for secure, safe and open design. Image: Jeffrey Beall/Flickr

Too much protection, Betsky insists, means isolation. And a world where our cities are marked by harsh barricades instead of open plazas that invite art, music and conversation send a very disturbing message to those both inside and outside our country.

Violence can't be completely stopped with building design or urban planning. (When I told Betsky that I have yet to watch a movie in a theater without at least a fleeting thought of the shooting in Colorado, he was quick to respond: "That's one place where architecture stops and you need gun control."). But our everyday spaces can reflect what we want in from our homes: comfort, protection, and a place we're proud to host guests and visitors.

And in the event that something does happen, we could tap into a culture of strength rather than that of fear. "The term resilience comes to mind," Paradis said. "You design facilities so they can rapidly respond to an event, react and then recover."