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Archive for the ‘Security Design’ Category


Today, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) announced Rogers Marvel Architects has won a design competition for a new President’s Park South, a 52-acre historic site located between the White House grounds and the Washington Monument. Redesigning President’s Park South, which is one of the most-visited landscapes in Washington, D.C., is a challenging brief for a designer. The site, which includes Sherman Park and the Ellipse, a number of monuments, and a closed through-street (E Street NW), is home to the national Christmas tree and also filled with tourists, local joggers, and sports teams year round. Any new design must meet the tough security requirements of the U.S. Secret Service but be more easily accessible for the thousands of tourists and locals who use the space. In addition, a new design must accomodate both bicyclists and those driving into work at the White House every day, and offer an “attractive environment” for visitors while maintaining the site’s “historic integrity.” Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design and an advisor to the competition, said “it’s a challenging, intriguing project” with issues that only “some of the most creative minds in the field of design” can solve.  

Some 30-plus firms submitted proposals but only five firms reached the finals and presented to the NCPC last week, including Rogers Marvel Architects, Reed Hilderbrand Associates, Sasaki Associates, Hood Design Studio, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. First, here’s a review of the winning team’s proposal, then the four other finalists:  

Rogers Marvel Architects (winner): Rob Rogers, the only architect presenting out of the five finalists, partnered with Quenell Rothschild & Partners, a landscape architecture firm, to create a proposal that “separates out layers of public space and security to improve the visitor experience.” Rogers, who has lots of experience implementing high-security projects for the Pentagon and other government organizations, said “security is very expensive but part of the public realm for the long-term and here to stay” so his team’s proposal invests heavily in security. In addition, his team’s design would balance the need to maintain the site as a “compelling place” given Marine One lands there, along with a “playground” for local residents. A reopened E street would become a “public gathering place,” a pedestrian plaza framed by a seating wall on the south side. Through E street, there will be “traffic-calming textured crosswalks with clear pathways.”  

The Ellipse’s lawn would be replaced with super robust “turf grass” so it would function like Sheep’s Meadow or the Great Lawn in NYC’s Central Park. “It would be designed for heavy use.” Rogers would also add a formal paved promenade all the way around the Ellipse to provide easy access for strollers. Managed parking would be kept in place but new “native-planted, vegetative swales” would be set within walkways between the new promenade and parking spaces. The grade of the Ellipse would be subtly regraded to camoflauge the views of the cars from some viewpoints.

Interestingly, Rogers would move the security barriers to the far south end of the Ellipse, enclosing the entire park in a new set of security measures. Perhaps there’s one downside though: it cuts the Ellipse off from the Washington Monument, severing the freeflow of people between the sites.

Reed Hilderbrand Associates: Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, said President’s Park South is an “open space that symbolizes American democracy,” but has been plagued in recent years by barriers. As a result, the visitor experience is highly frustrating: “People don’t understand why they can’t get a view.” To remedy the lack of access and maintain the security, his team’s proposal would rely on a system of bollards and “existing historic fences” to create sets of zones that can be secured. A new pedestrian plaza would appear where the southern end of the White House grounds meets the top of the Ellipse, the “pinch point” that causes so many problems now. E street would be open to pedestrian and bike traffic but the system of sallyports to check cars would remain in place.

Returning the tree canopy to its former glory seems to be a key element of his design approach. “We want to reconnect the president to the people by making the Ellipse people-friendly.” A central part of that effort is rebuilding the tree canopy depleted 15 years ago. This process would include diversifying the trees, restoring the soils, and capturing and using water on site. “The landscape needs to be built to last and built sustainably.” Overall, Hilderbrand said his firm’s proposal was an “urbanistic” one, which enables “promenading” and will help create a “diverse, strong, honorific, well-populated place.”

During Q&A, NCPC members zoomed in on the bollards. Harriet Tregoning, director of D.C.’s planning department, wondered if bollards are the way to go given there are new security measures that can be built into the landscape like granite benches or curves. Other NCPC members wondered how “procurable” the elements were if they needed to be replaced after a bomb attack.

Sasaki Associates: Alan Ward, FASLA, sees an opportunity to “reconnect the White House to the city and reconnect the Ellipse to the city” through a “simple and economical design.” Ward would move the sallyports up north and open up E street to pedestrians and bicyclists. On a new E street, only limited car traffic would still be allowed. A long narrow wall that also act as seating would provide a new security barrier along the northern end of the Ellipse, offering a “usable edge and security within the design.” In front of this bench-wall would be a “significant plaza space” in the center of E street, which would open up the park for visitors angling for photos. Additional seating areas on the side would enable pedestrians to stroll and relax, while a new cafe would also be added in one of the shaded, tree-covered side groves. Within the revamped E street zone there would be a separate bicycle lane driving through east to west.

For views, Ward proposed “subtle grading changes” to block views of parked cars along the southern ends. A stage for event space would also be created with a lawn with seating.

Tregoning wondered if a delineated bicycle lane was the best idea. She found the idea “hazardous” and called for a blended space where bicyclists and pedestrians would have to navigate more carefully, like a Dutch woonerf.  Other NCPC members wondered about the “purposeful geometry of the paving” and whether it’s necessary to create pathways with different styles.

Hood Design Studio: Walter Hood, ASLA, recent winner of the National Design Award, thinks President’s Park South is a “hybrid landscape” because it “has to do many things for many people,” namely serve as a residence, public recreation site, and forum for democratic expression. It’s also a “palimpsest,” something that can be wiped clean and used again. In that vein, Hood proposed “moving forward towards a new future a new place” that would reference earlier designs by Andrew Jackson Downing but also feature “articulated urban spaces” and ha-ha walls to offer subtle security measures. Hood emphasized the need for “squares” at either end of E street along with “garden circuits” that would tie together the landscape and paths.

On the other side of the proposed ha-ha wall, which would separate car traffic from a new pedestrian plaza near the southern end of the White House grounds, would be an undulating granite bench. Near the benches, a set of 50 glowing, interior-lit bollards would represent each of the 50 states. “People could get their photo taken in front of their state.” Porous pavements would be made up of Potomac river stones, and create a bold visual presence around the fence of the White House grounds. The overall planting scheme would feature native plants and bioswales would be built on the park’s side panels. The goal is to create “something familiar yet quite different.”

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, recently completed a project to revamp the north side of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. As a result, he’s already got an experienced team in place that can do work on politically-sensitive, secure, historic landscapes. For President’s Park South, Van Valkenburgh prioritized the need to create “permanent and appropriate security infrastructure that clearly separates vehicles from pedestrians” and “creating a sense of one continuous landscape” featuring big new trees and low plantings. He said his firm would help restore the site to President Jefferson’s original vision of the landscape as a “garden” so that the entire White House landscape could be “seamlessly experienced as a romantic landscape.” He also believed his plan for adding lots of lush vegetation would help “diminish the visual impact of security.”

The Ellipse today is a “dispirted public public,” which he found “visually disconcerting.” The security constraints and the original structure of the site help to create the “pinch point” where the Ellipse meets the southern end of the White House grounds. Van Valkenburgh’s team would undertake a “very straightforward reconfiguration” reducing E street from four to two lanes and using walls and gates (not bollards) to separate pedestrians from cars safely. “Gates indicate passage and make clear which areas are restricted.” Pedestrians would be offered a range of paths along E street and through a new central pedestrian plaza, creating a mix of different visual experiences amid the gardens. Security would be hidden by low plantings in places. Because the budget is not being spent on major changes to the structure of E street or other infrastructure, more funds would be available to “move in big trees” around the Ellipse. The current landscape, which is just a “skeleton,” could be “wonderful quickly” and help “connect the President’s landscape to the people’s.”

Van Valkenburgh, who seems to have been through the ropes before with the Pennsylvania Avenue re-do, left some design elements open to discussion. He said that “the materiality is very sensitive” and he’s open to being “flexible.” This may be smart given he said First Lady Laura Bush didn’t like any of the pavements he chose for Pennsylvania Avenue, so these were all changed during that project’s design process.

On the overall process and next steps: the National Park Service led an inter-agency process that resulted in a “Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House and President’s Park,” which created a vision for updating this historic landscape. According to NCPC, the winning design will go on to “inform the development of alternatives” for the new park, which will then be completed through a larger process run by the National Park Service and the U.S. Secret Service. Any ideas from the five finalists’ proposals could be included. These final designs will be reviewed through a “federal and local review and approval process,” which also includes an environmental assessment, over the course of the year.

Watch the presentations online.

Image credits: Rogers Marvel Architects

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Sam Lubell, west coast editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, argues that the demands of sustainability are forcing a merger of building and landscape. At the level of the design process, this integration has led to increased collaboration between some architects and landscape architects and, in some cases, for the two disciplines to “reverse roles.” 

One architect, Michael Maltzan, designed Playa Vista park on LA’s west side (image above) to be a series of “urban rooms,” which include “floating recreation areas, large angular planted mounds, carved granite bridges, and a tensile fabric band shell.” Working with landscape architect James Burnett, FASLA, Maltzan used “materials to reinforce the separation of space and employed shapes and textures to lead people through the park. In the end, the park is as much architecture as it is landscape.” Maltzan said: “The boundary between landscape and architecture barely exists anymore.” In fact, by blurring the lines between the two disciplines, “you can then create real innovation.”

In another example, Curtis Fentress is expanding the public space in the San Diego convention center by heading for the roof. His firm will create a five-acre green park on top of the center. While Vancouver got there first, creating a massive 6-acre green roof for their convention center, Vancouver’s conference center isn’t designed for public use (see earlier post). Fentress said: “It’s about adding public space in a tight environment.”

In an instance of a true collaboration, Morphosis and SWA created a new headquarters for Giant Interactive Group outside Shanghai, a project in which the “building and landscape are often indistinguishable.” The building is covered in a “‘prairie blend’ of 15 plants that undulates and twists at extreme angles, and slopes down to the surrounding waterscape. While all green roofs provide thermal protection, this project is an entire eco-system, filtering water for the nearby canal and feeding several life forms. The green space has become an attraction for workers and locals alike.” SWA principal Ying Yu Hung, ASLA, said:“We’re all interested in the same things these days. Energy efficiency, natural materials, the healing power of nature.” 


In fact, SWA’s Los Angeles office has 13 landscape architects and two architects — “an increasingly common admixture.” In another example of a mixed, interdisciplinary, and innovative firm, there’s San Francisco-based firm Interstice Architects, which includes two principals: an architect and a landscape architect. According to Lubell, “several of their projects combine the disciplines, including the upcoming Center for Science and Innovation at the University of San Francisco. This project will include a “new green plaza made of native plants built on top of an expansion to the school’s Harney Hall. In order to provide more light inside, the firm included benches that double as skylights and a side-facing ‘storefront window wall’ that cuts into the earth.”


Their firm’s interdisciplinary design approach, which is used to achieve maximum sustainability benefits, means, in practice, a breaking down of disciplinary boundaries to achieve results. Zoee Astrakhan, ASLA, Interstice’s landscape architect principal, said: “When you begin documenting things, the lines are difficult to draw. There was definitely a lot of time spent figuring out what made sense; figuring out what was architecture and what was landscape. It wasn’t always that clear to us.”

Read the article to learn about how other architects and landscape architects cross disciplinary boundaries.  

Image credits: (1) Playa Vista Park / Ivan Baan, (2) Giant Interactive Group Headquarters / Morphosis and SWA , (3) Center for Science and Innovation / Interstice Architects

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The New York Times writes that new research from Colorado State University indicates progress has been made towards a “plant-kingdom early warning system.” Plants’ ability to sense the slightest chemical changes can be manipulated so they change color when exposed to tiny amounts of airborne TNT molecules. Instead of intrusive scanners, perhaps air passengers will soon be walking past security gardens. In addition, these early warning plants could even be integrated into important public spaces: “How about a defensive line of bomb-sniffing tulips in Central Park in New York, or at the local shopping mall’s indoor waterfall, or lining the streets of Baghdad?”

In a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, PloS ONE, the plant reseachers say they are focused on how “computationally re-designed periplasmic binding proteins (PBPs) provide a means to design highly sensitive and specific ligand sensing capabilities in receptors. Input from these proteins can be linked to gene expression through histidine kinase (HK) mediated signaling.” They are in fact manipulating the chemical reactions of plants so their leaves are designed to “drain off chlorophyll” when bomb chemicals are detected. Without chlorophyll, plants turn a much lighter shade. June Medford, a a professor of biology at Colorado State, says the color change must be dramatic if plants are going to work as an early detection system.

Plants have evolved a system of sensors for detecting subtle chemical changes in their environment. This has been used to detect and ward off pests. Their chemical sensory power potentially makes plants an ideal (and sustainable) bomb-sniffer. “Plants in the lab, when modified to sense TNT, the most commonly used explosive, reacted to levels one one-hundredth of anything a bomb-sniffing dog could muster.”

The research, which has been funded by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, is now moving towards improving plants’ response time to threatening chemical compounds. Right now, the plants are responding slowly to chemicals, and take hours to indicate the presence of molecules. “Practical application requires a signal within minutes, and a natural reset system back to healthy green in fairly short order.” In addition, these plants must be kept healthy — an ailing plant could give a false signal. Sean R. Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside, said: “What you want is something that is extreme on-and-off and reliable, and I don’t think they’re there yet.”

Read the article and see the research study.

In another use of plants for security, Agence-France Press writes that a French businessman hopes to replace cement walls and razor wire with thorny security hedges in the cities of Iraq and Afghanistan. “The idea of establishing security barriers made of plants has many benefits, both from the psychological side and for the beauty and attractiveness of the city.” Dense, nearly impenetrable hedges could also be used in combination with high-tech sensors along border regions to slow illegal immigrants. “When you have five or six rows of thorny trees it will take at least an hour to cross, and that is more than enough time to capture [a] guy.”

Image credit: Central Park Flowers, NYC / Bertoco, Panoramio

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The National Building Museum hosted a symposium on “The Architecture of Diplomacy,” which covered both Danish and American approaches to embassy design. Friis Arne Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark, said buildings are a critical diplomatic tool, especially for small countries. The Danes, he argued, do buildings well and have some of the most climate-friendly, energy-efficient buildings in the world. “You can see how we are, as a people, through our architecture.”

An emphasis on design in Danish society

The Crown Prince of Denmark, one of members of the Danish royal family at the event, said architecture is a reflection of a country’s history and culture. For example, the Danish royal residence in Copenhagen, originally built in the 18th century, includes four identical palaces centered around an octagonal courtyard, which can be accessed from four streets by all citizens. “The design shows the connection between our family and the rest of society, and our role in preserving the stability of Denmark.”

“Washington, D.C. exudes grandeur and there is a clear link between politics and architecture in the city,” said the Crown Prince. So, in D.C., embassies must also convey values. In the past, embassies were used to convey wealth and power. Increasingly, though, embassies must convey the contemporary, cultural side of countries.

The Danish embassy, built in 1960 by famed Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen with the design input of Walter Gropius, one of the Bauhaus masters, was the first modern embassy in Washington, D.C. “The new embassy laid the foundation for a new relationship with the U.S.” While older embassies used to be refurbished mansions, Denmark went in a new direction, creating a modern building that “reflects transparency and openness.” The Crown Prince added that the building is purposefully designed to “not be overwhelming, but to put people at ease. This way we can create the coziness, comfort needed for real dialogue.”

The former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Richard N. Swett, one of the few architects to ever serve as a member of Congress, added that Denmark is also one of the only countries to successfully integrate best practice design into society. The Danish parliament includes a design review committee, which reviews all pending legislation to ensure it  “improves the quality of life for all Danes” and has the broadest impact on society. Swett said Denmark is a model for how to integrate design into national policy.

A focus on security in the U.S.

Jane Loeffler, author of “The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies,” gave an overview of the design philosophy behind U.S. embassies. Prior to the 1950’s, U.S. embassies were built in grand old mansions, as the Danish Crown Prince explained. Then, starting in the 1950’s, the State department’s foreign building office, which was led by a “committed modernist,” began building open, approachable sites. Eero Saarinen’s embassy in London is a key example of this era of U.S. embassies.

With increased concerns about security beginning in the late 1970’s, embassies had to follow new rules. “Planters were added, and side doors had to be locked.” This also meant that “no more glass boxes or architecture as art.” Then, in the mid-1980’s, the Inman report called for buildings to be set back 100 feet from the street, and a 7-foot high perimeter wall to surround all compounds. “This increased the difficulty in finding suitable sites.”

Escalating attacks on embassies during 1994 and 1995 led to the development of the Standard Embassy Design (SED) model. From 2001 to 2010, 52 new embassies were created using the SED model, with 34 more in the works. The assumption now is that “every embassy is a terrorist target.” In effect, this means embassies are no longer “representational buildings;” they now actually “impede public diplomacy.”

Still, there remain some exceptions. Panama City’s new embassy may be a fortress but at least it’s LEED-certified. In Beijing and Berlin, the embassies were designed by well-known architects. The embassy in Beijing also features the “art in embassies” program. London’s new embassy by Kieren Timberlake / OLIN will be the first under the new design excellence program. Unlike the old Saarinen embassy, which neighbors complained was “a hazard in our midst,” the new embassy will be better insulated from the surrounding neighborhood. The new OLIN-designed landscape is the first to embed security features into landscape architecture; bioswales double as blast walls (see earlier post).

Loeffler concluded that outstanding design creates goodwill overseas and that goodwill “may enhance our security.”

Image credit: Danish Embassy, Washington, D.C.

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OLIN is part of the design team headed by KieranTimberlake that has won the international design competition for the new U.S. Embassy in London. A total of 37 submissions were received, and then four finalists were chosen to explore the “symbolism of the Embassy and its presence and position in the cityscape of London,” writes OLIN. OLIN was involved in three of four of the finalist proposals, including those of KieranTimberlake, Morphosis and Richard Meier & Partners. Hallie Boyce, an OLIN partner, said: “The US Embassy in London provides our studio with the opportunity to create a contemporary working landscape – one that is welcoming yet secure, beautiful yet employs sustainable systems, truly American yet responsive to the context of London.”

The Guardian (UK) argues that the overall design is “cool, remote, and far from subtle,” adding: “Luckily for London, the American people are considerably more sophisticated and less populist than we are. Here in Nine Elms, the new embassy will adopt the form of a giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park, complete with a lake and what appears to be a ha-ha. Seriously.”

The L.A. Times says the new design aspires to a set of values focused on “ecological responsibility and neighborliness within a tight urban fabric.” Christopher Hawthorne discusses the landscape architecture in some detail: 

“At ground level, the architects, working with landscape architect Laurie Olin, have tried to engage the neighborhood despite security guidelines that require the building to sit back within a circular zone of blast protection. A park will wind like a corkscrew from the riverfront onto the embassy grounds and into the building itself, which will feature a number of interior sky gardens, including a two-level Ambassador’s Garden on the upper floors. A formal plaza leading to an entrance for embassy employees and dignitaries faces east, and the general public will enter through a curving path lined on both sides by greenery.

The embassy will sit safely on its northern edge, where it faces the river, behind a protective semicircular pond. On the other sides, parking and some meeting rooms are tucked away securely under undulating landscaped mounds designed to do double duty as green space and protective barriers. Although this proposal represents a move away from the bunker mentality that has marked so many recent U.S. embassies, it will likely be a stiff challenge to keep the building from looking armored at pedestrian level. The move from Grosvenor Square to the new location, after all, was in large part driven by a desire to build a more easily protected facility.”

The New York Times’ Nicolai Ourossoff thinks that the landscape architecture is primarily designed to camouflage the site, and protect it from attack:

“The building is surrounded by an elaborate landscape that reaches out to the surrounding city. A semicircular pond borders the structure on one side, and terraced meadows wrap around the other. Pathways running alongside the meadows would connect the site to a proposed public promenade (part of the city’s plans for the development zone). A narrow park runs between the pond and Nine Elms Lane, the main approach from the Vauxhall tube station. Conceptually, the landscape continues right up through the building, with a series of terraces carved into the facade. The abundance of green space contributes to the design’s environmentally friendly image. Circuitous paths weave through the park, which in renderings is full of young professionals. The main entry plaza for the building, which extends along the edge of the pond before slipping under one side of the colonnade, is conceived as a lively public space.

But the real function of these landscape elements is to serve as camouflaged security barriers. The northern pond is a reflecting pool — but also a castle moat. To the south, a concrete wall frames the outer edge of the lower meadow, which can be patrolled by guards.”

Bloomberg News also focuses on how the U.S. State Department’s stringent security requirements impacted the design, but may have also provided opportunities for including ecological components. “The glass cube sits aloof on beefy columns atop a shrub- covered mound, which will be partly open to the public as a garden. The mound’s mass can dissipate the explosive force of a car bomb, while avoiding the menacing walls and fences that deface so many consular facilities. A pond on the north side offers a pleasing amenity, while acting as another obstacle to would-be bombers and a heat sink for the biomass plant.”

Hugh Pearman appreciates the integration of security features and site design: “The oblique, spiralling approach to the building – here made through what is effectively a large garden or small park – is something we’re all used to from real castles on the tourist trail, and we like that. It was obviously essential to avoid a short, direct route. This and the level changes around the building will make it near-impossible to mount a surprise attack.”

While most critics have focused on how the proposed site and building will integrate security design, OLIN provided more details on the philosophy behind the landscape architecture proposal:

  • “Rather than employing a plinth to accommodate the large programs located at the lowest levels of the building, the colonnade sits atop a gently rising earthen mound. Within this landscape form are parking garage ramps and basement service and mechanical areas to the south, and the lower level of the Gallery and Multi-Purpose Meeting Space to the north and west.
  • Instead of fragmenting the embassy into a plinth and tower, this strategy transforms the large footprints of the lower levels along with the entrance pavilions into earthen landscape form to enhance the prominence of the embassy colonnade and transparent building.
  • The visual presence of the whole is that of a beacon that is a respectful icon representing the strength of the U.S.-U.K. relationship.
  • All elements are purposeful in multiple ways: from image and expression to the environment and urbanism, to the productivity and comfort of the users.”

The ground breaking for the Embassy is expected in 2013 and construction will be completed in 2017. The 12-story green building, which will feature glass, photovoltaic film-laminated ETFE scrim walls, rooftop solar panels, and biomass generators, as well as the site’s landscape architecture, is expected to cost some $500 million in total, writes Bloomberg News.  

In addition to KieranTimberlake and OLIN, members of the winning team include Arup for Sustainability, MEP/FP and Civil Engineering; Weidlinger Associates for Structural and Blast Engineering; Gensler for workplace design; Davis Langdon for Cost Consulting; and Sako & Associates for Technical Security.  

OLIN partners Hallie Boyce and Laurie Olin, FASLA, will lead the landscape project.  Learn more about Laurie Olin, FASLA, and his work in this in-depth interview.

Image credit: renderings copyright of KierenTimberlake/Studio amd

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