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Terrorism can’t be designed out

Paul Finch
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Design can make it easier or more difficult for the bad guys to do their worst, but it is not design that causes their behaviour, writes Paul Finch

It is an odd task for a weekly columnist to write just before a general election, whose outcome (at least according to the opinion polls) is far from certain.

Given the horrible context in which the election has taken place, it would seem trivial to write about anything other than the broad brush of British society currently – and what the implications might be for future decisions about architecture and the built environment in a security context.

In respect of terror attacks, the rush to judgement as to who should be held responsible is an example of blame culture at its very worst. Claiming that a small reduction in the number of police is in any way related to an increase in terrorist incidents is as disgusting as Alastair Campbell’s suggestion that Brexit voters are somehow the equivalent of the London Bridge fanatics. (I hope the BBC finally stops giving air time to this corrupter of public life and discussion.)

It would be possible to build barriers along strategic routes, but there will always be equivalent targets elsewhere

At the time of writing, little had been said about how we could design our streets so that they are ‘safer’ for ordinary citizens. Of course you could start building barriers at the side of every road to prevent vans or lorries being driven into pedestrians; this would be the equivalent of the extra layer of doors on the Jubilee underground line, intended to prevent jumpers from disrupting services. Of course they just choose other lines.

It would be possible to build barriers along strategic routes with huge people numbers, for example central London bridges; and it might speed up the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. But there will always be equivalent targets elsewhere.

On the whole, architects and engineers – at least in the UK – generally don’t adopt knee-jerk attitudes to this or that outrage. Do you remember after 9/11 all the people who predicted (a) the end of glass buildings; (b) the end of underground car parks; and (c) the end to easy-access buildings?

None of this has come to pass to any great extent, possibly because at some deep level we know that there are always different ways of delivering horror (poison in water supplies, Sarin attacks) which have little to do with the design of the built environment. In fact explicit symbolic acts of ‘security design’ are often extraordinarily ugly – evidence that deranged terrorists are winning because we debase our own aesthetic values.

Norman Foster made a good point recently in criticising the barriers outside the Palace of Westminster, which have paraded institutional contempt for design, heritage and the public realm for many years – quite unnecessarily, as Foster & Partners have proved by incorporating security features very elegantly outside the new Bloomberg headquarters in the City of London; ditto the use of landscape design to avoid a fortress feel around the Kieran Timberlake/Laurie Olin US embassy at Nine Elms, opening later this year.

The truth is that design can make it easier or more difficult for the bad guys to do their worst, but of course it is not design that causes their behaviour. There is still a strange stream of architectural determinism in the UK, which tries to blame crime on high-rise council estates, for example. It is never explained why the Krays were so vicious when they were brought up in nice traditional terraced homes.

A determinist fantasy world is one where you blame terrorism on a home secretary, or street design; or where you cannot understand why it is impossible to monitor 24/7 the tens of thousands of people notified to the authorities, via the terrorist reporting hot-line.

In times like these, we all need to keep a sense of proportion, especially given the surreal backgrounds of politicians who have been seeking our votes this week. One example, which I had completely forgotten: Ken Livingstone, when he was leader of the Greater London Council, sacked his ‘chancellor’, then in charge of all GLC finances, for bringing the capital to the brink of financial ruin. His name? John McDonnell!

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