Bunker mentality: Architecture for gun control?

Architects are struggling with design responses for gun issues, everything from walled cities and fortified materials to better interior visibility and memorials at the sites of tragedies.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

Record gun sales over the last few months and new open-carry laws have architects asking new and practical questions about building design.

In a little-noticed thread on Archinect last month, the thoughtful architect Peter Normand of Urbana, Ill.-based co-working group Design Posse, poses a simple question: "What can we do as designers to keep the public safe in this new gun saturated environment?"

Three strains of answers are emerging. One is to fortify and exclude, a sort of stranger-danger design impulse.

For example, there’s a nice plot of land in Idaho where you can buy a future home in a walled-off enclave called the Citadel, a place that is purpose-designed for doomsday preppers, libertarians and gun-rights proponents. It’s a community where you can take care of yourself and each other -- as long as those others live behind the Citadel’s heavily fortified battlements.

Inside, enjoy the benefits of Jeffersonian liberty and Western mob justice, all in the scenic mountaintops of Benewah County. Plans include an underground shelter, a command center, a helipad and even a stockade. The development will be funded by III Arms, a startup gunmaker in Inwood, West Va., that intends to donate all its profits to the Citadel.

The site plan for the Citadel, showing its fortified wall. Inside is a stockade. (Courtesy III Arms)

In fact, walled-off residential enclaves are being built at record rates, with a 53 percent growth rate between 2001 and 2009. By then, more than 10 million U.S. housing units were in gated communities, The New York Times reported. That’s about 10 percent, not including second homes and vacant properties.

It’s positively medieval. But do gated communities really work? “The answer seems to be yes, says the International Foundation for Protection Officers (IFPO), they do keep crime rates down “but only by very little.” The city of Miami, for example, reports that “the long-term crime rate is at best only marginally altered.”

Fortify the walls

A second architectural response is to amp up security and harden the walls. It’s similar to what followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A large category of building materials and specialty systems is designed for defensive architecture, as it is known. Yet almost nothing in the codes specifically addresses gun protection, shooter control or safe havens. Even ballistic materials offer only feeble shielding.

For safety, build shooting ranges only underground, say code officials. (Courtesy Maribago Bluewater Resort)

Just ask designers of indoor shooting ranges. A code official on an International Code Council (ICC) blog recently featured a U.S. Marine corporal’s advice for building an indoor shooting range: Don’t try to build stronger walls. Instead, “limit the caliber cap and round type.”

Near occupied buildings, the Marine reportedly said, guns are only safe underground.

Another building code official suggests that the military’s own expertise is insufficient on this topic. “Ask the National Rifle Association (NRA),” he writes. “While the military certainly is knowledgeable about certain guns and shooting, they use a limited variety … The NRA will have the most experience and the most knowledge regarding shooting ranges and ballistic capabilities of different cartridges and rounds.”

Without special bullet traps, a 0.50-caliber shot will punch clear through an unfortified building, into one end and out the other, even through concrete walls.

Safer schools?

Yet, in the wake of shootings in elementary schools, many architects are not recommending heavier walls with fewer windows. Instead, the trend is to improve interior visibility -- an approach that works in all buildings, not just schools.

Around the country, architects are offering other tips for designing safer schools. None seem very new. On KUOW radio in Seattle, architect Kevin Flanagan of NAC Architecture offered ideas such as adding window blinds, laminated glass and beefed-up security systems with intercoms and electronic locks all controlled from the administrators’ offices.

While Flanagan suggests minimizing entrances, other architects argue that bigger entry plazas and lobbies are needed for better screening and vetting of visitors.

But the use of bars on windows, Plexiglass shields and other obvious signs of gun paranoia? Psychologists say this is bad for morale and depresses student performance. “There’s not much more we can do. What are we going to do, put kids in prisons?” asks Edmund Einy, principal of the firm GKKWorks, in a recent story in Architectural Record magazine.

Architectural curator Thomas Mellins comments in the same article that safety concerns just don’t translate into specific building layouts and wall assemblies.

A healing response

Which leaves many architects focused on the third possible response in gun-related architecture: building anew or erecting memorials -- or both -- in places where tragedies happen.

“Shootings, events defined by immediate sightlines and ballistic trajectories, are an especially spatial and architectural kind of violence,” writes Thomas de Monchaux for The New Yorker. “The architectural task in the long aftermath of such shootings is not only to repair structural damage but to calibrate a balance between remembering and forgetting sufficient for daily life to continue nearby -- and to figure out how the shapes, materials, and details of buildings can participate in that calibration.”

The symbolic belfry designed by Fantastic Norway for Utoya Island, site of a 2011 mass shooting that killed 69 people. (Courtesy Fantastic Norway)

It’s not better defense that comes after the shooting, de Monchaux contends. It’s dealing with our insecurities, discomforts and disconsolations.

As an example, de Monchaux describes the designs for Utoya Island in Norway, the site of a mass shooting in 2011. The architecture firm Fantastic Norway worked closely with the Labor Youth party, which owns the island, to create “a social village, a closely knit network of several individual houses and outdoor spaces,” writes the Museum of Finnish Architecture.

A new belfry is the focal point of the rebuilding, and Fantastic Norway explains that the word belfry is rooted in the Germanic words meaning “to protect” and “peace.” In other words, belfries originally were watchtowers that protected against hostile incursions.

Gun-toting tectonics

So answering the question posed by architect Peter Normand, perhaps we need to build as many reminders of our “gun-saturated society” and gun tragedies as we need protections against them.

Instead of panic rooms in every home and classroom, we need more symbols of awareness. Instead of new building codes and bulletproof doors, let's open the shades on who we are.

Normand describes his experience in a Michigan café, sitting a few feet from a patron carrying a gun in his visible holster. Across the state, he says, there are new laws permitting concealed weapons into churches, theaters and schools.

“Assuming the political reality won’t change for the next decade,” Normand asks, “what can we do as designers?”

Hopefully the answers are on the way.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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