Discreet Landscapes

Laurie Olin’s graceful greenspaces are also secret security systems.

Laurie Olin has been in the landscape architecture game for over three decades, most recent as principal of the Philadelphia-based Olin Partnership and as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His credits include the Vila Olympica complex in Barcelona, built in conjunction with the 1992 Summer Olympics; New York’s Bryant Park; and London’s Canary Wharf, King’s Cross, and Bishopsgate urban renewal projects. As of late, he has also been sharing headlines with his old friend Frank Gehry: The two are completing the 2.8-acre Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT; are part of a short-listed concern vying for the Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles; and are on Bruce Ratner’s dream team for the proposed Atlantic Rail Yards development in Brooklyn, which centers around a new sports arena and mixed-use community.

Yet Olin’s practice has a quieter concern: landscape security. Long de rigueur for state embassies, corporate campuses, and select private residences, the field draws upon techniques of landscape architecture to create discrete defenses against attack. Post 9-11, the U.S. Government has embraced the approach wholeheartedly. To that point, in January 2002, the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) tapped Olin Partnership as one of the three architecture landscape firms to upgrade 10 security-sensitive districts in Washington, D.C.; among Olin’s ongoing responsibilities are the Independence and Constitution Street areas, as well as the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Monuments.

Metropolis Web editor Julie Taraska spoke with Olin about bombs, bollards, and public access, and how, in this time of Homeland Security, we can maintain safety without fencing ourselves in.

How can a landscape architect help secure an area?
It has to do with what are all the devices in your repertoire (laughs). Some of them are very old, like fences and railings, which can stop humans but have to be reinforced to stop vehicles; some of them are ancient, like moats, ditches, water bodies, and ha-has, [which] are basically dry moats.

In a landscape, we can only do a few things: We can either stop vehicles, or people, or both, but we can’t deal with mortars or airplanes.

As for bombing, that gets one into what are the proper distances…For different kinds of structures, various security and Secret Service folks have worked out the charge needed to take down a reinforced concrete buildings is this, and for a steel one, it’s this. You’re always looking at what will bring a structure down vs. what will seriously damage it.

This is a lot of common sense stuff. One of the things that the Israelis have discovered is about the most someone can strap on himself and walk around is less than 100 pounds, including the backpack.

By the way, let me stop and say I hate all this stuff. I never want to know any of this. But at a certain point, trying to restore the public realm to some degree of free access and dignity, you end up having to know about this.

That’s what intrigued me about your firm: that you do try to balance the public and private.
We’re really trying to. And it’s really hard.

I was troubled by some of the first studies that [landscape architecture firm] EDAW and others had done in D.C., when they took all of the street furniture and hardened it. It was like a different version of tank traps: All of these big planters and heavy benches.

Weren’t those elements part of the NCPC’s pre-determined “Kit of Parts”—the tool kit of street furniture that landscape architects could use to increase security?
That was the notion of the kit of parts. And the notion of the kit of parts still appeals to me, as long as it’s seen as a big shopping menu with lots of stuff. The thing is to not have the elements be too heavy, too repetitive, or too bombastic. It’s like composing music: when to have long straight passages, when to have little flourishes. When do you use a cluster of bollards then a kind of low wall, then add two planters, then do something else?

It’s how to do something where, in my opinion, the pedestrians have free movement except when there is some building where you have to hold them at some distance from. But really, in Washington D.C., we had a lot of buildings that were built for stout. So we could allow pedestrians virtually right up to the building—it’s the vehicles that were the problem.

There were two or three serious dilemmas in D.C.: the buildings are located a city, and there are streets. If you don’t close the streets, then vehicles can be on the streets. And if the are vehicles on the streets, they’re the ones with the big bombs like you just saw in Baghdad yesterday. That truck went off with about 1000 pounds of explosives.

There’s not much you can do about that except you can figure out how to take the parking off the street, narrow the streets, and have a bigger pedestrian realm; how to do railing and fences that are actually crash barriers; and how to have gaps in between for benches, but have the benches still be barriers.

It’s a design problem, like it used to be with handicapped ramps. When the [Americans with Disabilities Act] was passed, we also said, “Oh, jeez” and struggled to retrofit everything until it became such a habit that we now start projects just knowing what to do. It takes a certain mind shift to not think of it as a problem, but to say, “Oh, it’s just one more thing.” You just absorb it and it becomes part of what you do.

Do you think people are cottoning on to some of these discreet security measures? I know the original idea was to make them almost invisible, as to not alarm people.
Security is a funny thing. Years ago, I was working on an estate for a client who wanted security cameras in part of the landscape. So here in the office, we figured out how to make a security camera look like a rock, which we were then going to place in the stone walls that we were building for him, so that no one could tell it was a camera.

I very proudly explained it to our client, look how clever we are, and he said, “Laurie, you don’t understand something. I want people to know I have security cameras.” He said, “I want to put up a pole with a thing on it, and whether it is turned on or has film in it or is connected, I just want them to see that there is a camera, because then they’ll think twice. It’s a deterrent.”

And I never though of that—that some of the stuff doesn’t work, but it discourages the more amateurish or casual people.

Is there such a thing as too much security?
We don’t want security to be oppressive and overwhelm ourselves with a Fortress America quality, but there are reasons to want to know what your limits are, what’s private, and, that at certain points, there is security. But what agency head is not going to want to have a lot of visible security, because that’s to admit that he doesn’t think anyone cares about his agency or will attack them. So it’s what I labeled at one meeting “security envy”: Agency A sees Agency B do something, and then thinks “I’d better do something, too.” Everyone tries to escalate.

That’s an issue: the business of trying to sort out levels of real danger and security. And secure from what? Right now, people are worried about Islamic fundamentalists who hate America. But there are other people who go around doing terrible things.

Are we going down a path in security design from which there is no return?
When we were working in New York recently, trying to come up for a circle part of Columbus Circle that could get community approval and landmarks approval and planning approval and traffic approval and Time Warner approval—this is not a complaint, mind you, it’s just doing business in New York—the developer for Time Warner said they were concerned about security and wanted to have bollards around the building. And I said, “Forget it, it doesn’t make sense. It’s an office and residential building with a bunch of stores in it.” But Time Warner felt that everyone hated them so much, that they were the big commercial baddie, and so somebody was going to attack them.

I said, “Yes, but why would they [attack you] at the ground, when the new style is something more dramatic in the air?” They kind of looked at me, like I was the devil with two horns.

In the end, it was city planning director Amanda Burden who said, “For Christ’s Sake! If we let Time Warner do that, then every office building in town will want to do it, and the sidewalks in New York will be so that you can’t walk in this town. It’s ridiculous. We can’t do it. We’ve got to stop it.” She was pounding the table as she said this, and I thought, “Right on, Amanda!”

Have these issues caused an increased delineation between private and public space?
There has been a resurgence of interest in trying to throw up some sort of line, sign, and barrier about private vs. public.

It’s an interesting thing. I was born in 1938, and the realm that I grew up in—the Eisenhower years after the war—there was this sort of naïve, open America that was obviously an aberration, because the fences of the 19th century had come down and the gated communities of the 20th century hadn’t gone up. It was this strangely open world where everybody just wandered around innocently, with plate glass windows and no fences and lawns uninterrupted between houses.

But nowadays I have noticed all of these fences, hedges, and barriers going up between houses. This is also by people who don’t go out and use their lawns much, which I find interesting, too. So I guess there is a hunkering-down-in-the-dark-with-your-television-with-the-fence-outside quality of this moment that troubles me.

But I’m a hopeless optimist. I do think a lot of things that come as waves of bad habits can be dealt with through design and common sense.

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