Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Obama Cool in the Age of Insecurity



If the good citizens of Annapolis ever decide to invade the District of Columbia, drunk, chewing on unlit cigars and armed to the teeth, they will make it no further than 99 New York Avenue, the fortress headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms. But until that day, the ATF building will remain the worst building in Washington D.C.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the federal government redoubled its efforts, begun after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building, to make sensitive government buildings more secure. In the fifteen years since Oklahoma City, bollards, planters, walls, and retractable security gates have replaced park benches, eliminated landscaping, and narrowed sidewalks around most federal buildings in Washington and around the nation. For most of our important ceremonial buildings, the GSA has cleverly concealed these security measures within the architecture. For instance, few visitors to Washington would ever guess that the low wall around the Washington Monument is the last line of defense against a dump truck packed with explosives.

But even in Washington, the ATF Headquarters, designed by Israeli/Canadian/American architect Moshe Safdie and completed in 2008, breaks new and disturbing ground for architectural insecurity. Driving along New York Avenue (because nobody would ever want to walk near this building) one is arrested by the colossal barricade trying desperately to fill up the block. The ATF offices cower on the south side of the site away from New York Avenue, like a dog expecting to be kicked. In between the barricade and the building is a lovely no-mans-land. Dead end steps lead down from New York Avenue into this secret garden as if the garden had originally been intended as public refuge from the traffic noise of New York Avenue only to be walled off at the last moment by neurotic security consultants.

On the south and east sides of the site, just steps from the New York Avenue Metro station, gateway to the burgeoning NoMa neighborhood, the bulk of the building is hidden behind a single-story security cordon, making 2nd street feel like an alley where a few of the cordon's undistinguished storefronts have been turned over to retail. But these spaces feel like they've been banished from the kingdom, left to live as undesirables outside the castle walls. The only unobstructed view of the actual office building is from the narrow N Street side, but even here the building is sequestered from the street by bollards and planters and too-tall walls and even taller fences and a pointless pergola.

The dead end steps, the DMZ garden, the inhospitable retail, the planters and bollards and pergola--on all sides this is an unremarkable office building subsumed by architectural paranoia, dressed up with empty urban gestures. So why is this building in Washington DC at all? Why not exile it to a remote site outside the beltway?

This was the strategy of the American Consulate in Istanbul, the first of the post 9/11 embassies, which New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman dubbed the place Where Birds Don't Fly. The suburban embassy is too hard a target for terrorists to bother with, but more to the point, its very inaccessibility has made it a symbol not of our highest values but our worst fears. The best that can be said of the Istanbul Consulate is that it is not in Istanbul at all, but far away from anyplace that matters, like the crazy aunt in the attic. But in Washington DC, the ATF has stumbled out onto the front porch, wearing nothing but a top hat and tutu, and is screaming at the neighbors about alien invasions.
Fortunately there is prescription for this architectural nervous disorder: Philadelphia architects', Kieran/Timerlake’s design for the new American Embassy in London. Perched atop a gently sloping berm and surrounded by a reflecting pool, the glass cube, swathed in bubble wrap, is alighted on an open colonnade at street level. The design for the new American Embassy is distinctly urbane and utterly unflappable: Obama cool. Posed conspicuously on the south bank of the Thames, surround by a decidedly urban neighborhood of office buildings, this building is not afraid of the crowds. It will be the life of the party. Home to the "High-Tech-Modern Architects," Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, London is a showcase of technological innovation in architecture.

But even in such sophisticated company, Kieran/Timberlake's design stands out. The bubble wrap insulates and regulates sunlight and features next-generation "thin film" photovoltaics, a technology pioneered in the United States. But more important than the transparent skin, is the openness at the street. The first floor colonnade is a stylish storefront, taking its cues from the transparent Apple Stores, drawing in shoppers from the marketplace of ideas. Openness, transparency, technology: these are the values that America's buildings should symbolize around the world, and the values that should inform our federal buildings here at home. The ATF building will go down as one of the starkest expressions of a dark age in American federal architecture, but there is light on the horizon.

21 comments:

Colin on May 19, 2010, 1:45:00 PM said...

"Obama cool"? Oh give me a break. In any case that's not the US embassy in Instanbul, but the consulate. The embassy is located in the country's capital of Ankara.

Sheila on May 19, 2010, 1:48:00 PM said...

Thanks for the heads up on the consulate--changed it.

Anonymous said...

"The ATF offices cower...like a dog expecting to be kicked." Well said.

Critic said...

Nice article, but the view from above of the London embassy looks worse than the moated ATF. It appears as though its drawn a line around itself, pulling away from its neighbors with its own moat. The street view doesn't look so bad, but I'm not sure the Philadelphians pulled off what Safdie botched.

ERC said...

Yep, that's an ugly building alright.

zzindc on May 19, 2010, 5:00:00 PM said...

I think you overstate your case. I am no great fan of the ATF Building but I do appreciate its attempt to create a secure building in an urban setting. Would that the FBI's Hoover Building had retail accessible to the public in its perimeter! (And secure or not, New York Ave is a misguided urban freeway to be protected from.) Doubtless, the London embassy does wear its skin better - perhaps that's a lesson learned from ATF - but the embassy still keeps its urban neighbors far far away - it's the same attitude as the ATF Building, just in a prettier dress. Let's see what the ATF retail is like once that neighborhood is built out with more offices and customers. And let's see what the embassy is like once the moat is filled and its urbanity is something to be seen, from afar. Either or both might provide some surprises.

L' Enfant Terrible on May 19, 2010, 7:43:00 PM said...

I don’t mean to suggest that Barak Obama is somehow responsible for this wide-ranging aesthetic sensibility. I simply mean that Kieran/Timberlake seem to have tapped into the zeitgeist, best described as “Obama Cool”. . . in much the same way that the Saarinen embassy it replaces tapped into the impeccably stylish Kennedy mystique even though it was opened in 1960, the same year Kennedy took office. But don’t take my word for it, just watch Fred Armisen’s impression, “Obama Plays It Cool”

le terrible poo said...

does anyone, other than myself, see the irony in that safdie is responsible for the architecture of the ATF fortress AND the institute of peace in foggy bottom? it reminds me of when crazy, idealist fashion designers decide to create law enforcement uniforms... or vice versa.

i find it curiously odd.

L' Enfant Terrible on May 19, 2010, 11:44:00 PM said...

Stay tuned for Safdie part deux.

Anonymous said...

thank you for putting into words what i always muttered to myself as i saw that awful building going up. i am always put in a bad mood whenever i happen drive by it. argh.....

im glad you mentioned the grounds of washington monument. it is a great counterpoint to how you can deal with security while creating great public space. in addition, there are constantly emerging technologies for security measures (blast resistant glass, reinforced columns, collapsing sidewalk pavement, etc.). so for anyone to applaud this ridiculous attempt of its security measures (let alone its architectural integrity) is entirely uninformed.

(am not looking forward to the institute of peace building....)

Anonymous said...

thank you for putting into words what i always muttered to myself as i saw that awful building going up. i am always put in a bad mood whenever i happen drive by it. argh.....

im glad you mentioned the grounds of washington monument. it is a great counterpoint to how you can deal with security while creating great public space. in addition, there are constantly emerging technologies for security measures (blast resistant glass, reinforced columns, collapsing sidewalk pavement, etc.). so for anyone to applaud this ridiculous attempt of its security measures (let alone its architectural integrity) is entirely uninformed.

(am not looking forward to the institute of peace building....)

Really?! said...

I'm not architect nor building critic, but I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS BUILDING (and I live around the corner so its not like I only see it every once in a while). It is a building that represents EXACTLY the agency it serves--ATF...[explicative] with us!

It is supposed to be an imposing building. I'm sorry, I just don't think of lush landscapes and flower beds when I think of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms.

Everyone's entitled to their opinion and I don't mean any disrespect, but your take on the building sounds like someone who doesn't appreciate Miles Davis cause he didn't play enough notes. Why not just appreciate it for what it is, because I believe the building evokes the exact sentiment that the ATF wants to give off.

clchurch on May 20, 2010, 9:01:00 AM said...

Well, the ATF building is no worse than the FBI building, and that was built long before Waco.

Anonymous said...

About the only good thing that building has going for it is the 5 guys I can stop at on my walk home.

Funny that DOJ is leasing next to it and doesn't have nearly the fortress

Anonymous said...

Pesonally, the big barriers remind me of the colonades in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican - big hands that hold, protect, maybe strangle....

Melanie on May 20, 2010, 11:58:00 AM said...

This building is St. Peter's next to the FBI building. That thing is the worst building in town, and I hear they're tearing it down soon.

Anonymous said...

i've obviously missed the connection between president obama, cool and this building. would some one please explain. btw, i think the design of the building is awkward and irrational. that's its unattractive, i get. the relationship to the president, i don't. help! :(

Anonymous said...

While this building could have been better executed, it's worth remembering that ATF was the primary target in the Oklahoma City bombing. They were making decisions in the context of having been attacked.

Many federal agencies would like nothing more than to move a great portion of their operations out of the District to secure (and less expensive) suburban campuses. Congress and the GSA have worked to keep federal jobs in DC in the belief that the economic development and symbolic benefits outweigh the costs and security advantages of relocating. The results aren't always perfect, but I appreciate their efforts.

Also, GSA isn't responsible for the Washington Monument. It's a DOI property.

Anonymous said...

This says it all: A few weeks ago, I picked up a friend at BWI and we drove into DC via the B-W Pkwy. As we crested the bridge over the tracks we caught first sight of the ATF building and he said to me, "Why did they put a prison at the gateway to the Nation's Capital?" I had to sheepishly explain that it was in fact a Federal office building and, of course, he was appalled.

justjo on May 20, 2010, 4:11:00 PM said...

interesting comments. although i never knew this was the ATF, i think it's interesting. i dont find it so horrible unlike the other posters. i note the security and thought maybe there was a green courtyard somewhere...o well...beauty is in the eye...

Dustin on May 21, 2010, 7:31:00 PM said...

As an interesting side note, the central branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library looks very similar. (It was, obviously, designed by the same architect.)

 

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