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How much of our public realm should be sacrificed to the 'war on terror'?


To Tony Blair, the Madrid bombings reinforce the message that we are fighting 'a new type of war'that 'demands a different attitude to our own interests'.To architects, many of the problems posed by the threat of terrorism are not so new at all. In 'Fighting terror by design'(Ajenda, pp18) James Dennison outlines ways in which public spaces can be designed to minimise the risk of terrorist attack.As well as sensible precautions, such as applying anti-shatter film to glazing and selecting structures that resist blast loads, current best practice dictates that high-risk spaces be designed without 'places of concealment'.Nooks and crannies should be eliminated.Window sills and vending machines should slope so they cannot be used as shelves. In short, we are to design an environment which discourages assignations of any sort; where nobody can rest a cup of coffee, and which discourages any activity other than simply passing though.

It is a strategy that has been deployed in any number of 'invisible wars' - against crime, drugs or poverty.Or rather against homelessness, poverty's most visible, and therefore most threatening, manifestation. In his book City of Quartz, Mike Davies describes how, in a bid to deter vagrants, the Los Angeles authorities have created an urban realm where nothing is quite what it seems. Benches look like benches, but the discreet convex curve of the seat makes them impossible to lie on and uncomfortable even to sit on for any length of time.

As an approach to public space this stands in direct opposition to work carried out by, among others, Giancarlo De Carlo, the Smithsons and Cedric Price, all of whom hold, or held, that the fundamental obligation of public space is to encourage appropriation by its users.

The difficulty of reconciling the need for public safety with the protection of civil liberties is universally acknowledged, but is generally assumed to apply only to issues such as electronic tagging.But isn't the right to enjoy our public space also an important civil liberty? Does the need to 'design out terror' justify such a fundamental impoverishment of the public realm?

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