Tunnel Stairway on the London Underground. Jonathan Banasik

The ‘Atmosfear’

Why do you feel safe in this space?

Following the 2007 Glasgow airport bombing, 2 bombs were discovered in London that week. The government immediately began advising that new buildings should be set back from the road by 50m, windows should be no larger than 3 square metres, and masonry cladding should be avoided on any building taller than two stories. The National Counter Terrorism Security Office ran classes looking at retaining open sight lines in public spaces, and what kind of cladding materials perform best in the event of a bomb blast. Here is an example of terrorism affecting the psychology of a civilisation. Greig Chrysler wrote about an ‘atmosfear’ as being ‘a pedagogical device that produces fear, legitimates authoritarian state power, and mobilizes a political economy of disaster,’. The built environment has the power to make us feel threatened and secure simultaneously. There is a careful balance to strike with architecture between ensuring the safety and security of a society and restricting the lives of that society with paranoia.

In this modern world we often comment on how Health & Safety means we can’t enjoy ourselves because all the fun has been controlled and categorised into risk factors. The irony is that in this modern world, the climate of security we’re designing is reverting back to medieval defence tactics. London’s US embassy by Kieran Timberlake, completed last year, has a moat; strategic landscaping courtesy of traditional castle thinking, and a British ha-ha (a steep ditch set into a meadow that was originally conceived to keep animals from entering the grounds). ‘Rings of steel’ now surround areas such as the square mile of London, involving subtle chicanes and not-so-subtle barricading and bollards. It is reminiscent of ancient city walls around renaissance towns. The most conspicuous of these interventions are the security barriers around the Palace of Westminster, designed with enough disregard to aggravate Sir Norman Foster to the point at which he branded them a ‘national outrage’ in Architects’ Journal.

Security is nothing new, it is merely the threat that is shifting in appearance and how we perceive it. For private properties, building underground is one way to eliminating the majority of these threats, looking at nuclear bunkers for example. This way you have eliminated cyber-attacks as well as ballistics; however, in terms of the public domain you have a population confined to a restricted space such as the London Underground Tube Network. How do you try to police architecture inherently designed to allow fast population circulation? Imposing physical interventions can in fact be detrimental to the security of a building. Spaces that impact a person’s mentality and make civilians comfortable with their surroundings are the most powerful designs. CCTV is designed in line with Jeremy Bentham’s principle of Panopticism and the totalitarian ideal of being able to watch everything simultaneously whilst no one is able to watch you, used extensively across the network. Due to the demand for the speed and fluidity of circulation in these spaces, security is restricted to an observatory role, deliberately hidden or showcased through armed personnel. Geoff Dunmore, Operational Security Manager of the London Underground, writes that ‘Passengers continue to see a highly visible presence of British Transport Police across the Tube network. There is a need to balance increased Police visibility that provides reassurance with levels of visibility that cause alarm’.

Some standard architectural interventions are, at times, detrimental to the security of the underground. Places in which you can deposit items (bins, seats, sills and lintels) have been minimised. This is exemplified in all new designs for underground stations. Hawkins\Brown’s new Tottenham Court Road Station for Crossrail presents a concourse with a clean aesthetic and high ceilings, giving an impression of transparency. The space is also evidently void of such aforementioned architectural accessories and doesn’t afford space to conceal threat. This alludes to safety, because of the trust in our own primitive senses, of our immediate environment. The wall panels are also tethered to the core masonry structure so that when the vacuum from the negative shock wave is created, the panels are not ripped from the walls causing further fatalities.

The line between paranoid architecture and safe architecture is naturally very fine. It may also be heavily reinforced, tethered and disguised as a pretty hedgerow. As designers we must consider the needs of the society in moderation alongside the potential threats. That isn’t to say we should be less careful or strategic when designing, but when you decide to remove all 2000 bins from London’s square mile because of an IRA attack for example, understand that for 20 years, people just want to get rid of their sandwich packet and move on.