What design can — and can’t — do to thwart terrorism


What design can — and can't — do to thwart terrorism

How should we safeguard subways, airport perimeters and shopping malls? Can design be part of the solution? Should it?

“People get so crazy about stuff. They want some guarantee that this won’t happen again by building something,” said Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney, the designer of the Oklahoma City federal building that replaced the one destroyed by a truck bomb in 1995.

There are no guarantees against terrorist attacks, of course. But while the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks were chilling, Americans could at least take comfort in the fact that the catastrophic loss of life was in some part due to engineering flaws — and that those flaws could be corrected.

The new One World Trade Center, designed by the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is built with massively thick internal walls of concrete that act like a stiffening spine. Architecture critics have called the building’s mostly unoccupied base an intimidating fortress, yet few would dispute that One World Trade Center is more robust than the twin towers.

Similarly, the 12-year-old Oklahoma City federal building was shaped to prevent a repeat of what happened after a truck bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995. The blast caused a “progressive collapse” in which the floors pancaked downward, crushing workers, visitors and children in the building’s day care center.

The replacement building has 14-inch thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and is three stories tall, not nine, like its predecessor. That keeps federal workers exactly where they want to be: close to the ground, where they instinctively feel safer.

“It’s almost emotional triage as much as it is safety,” Barney said.

In other words, the building was designed as much to make people feel secure and to enable them to go about their daily business as it was to thwart acts of terrorism. […]