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Crawling Into the Bunker





A new D.C. headquarters for the ATF raises questions on the meaning of federal architecture.

 -by Lynn Becker








Via the Reed Construction EWire we came across a story by Tom Ramstack of the Washington Times on the new, 438,000-square-foot, $139,000,000 (up from 295,000 square feet and $104,000,000 just before 9/11) headquarters for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Now scheduled to open next February, Ramstack reports that it's the first structure to ATF Building in Washington, D.C. by Moshe Safdie and Associatescomply with all of the high security features recommended after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, which left 168 people dead. The result is the kind of moated bunker that has become a standard response to the threat of terror. Among those new requirements is that buildings be set back 100 feet from the street, behind what Ramstack calls a "curtain wall" of concrete barriers. The building's walls are so thick they're resistant not only to car bombs, but to finding a place for plumbing and wiring.

To the project's architect, Moshe Safdie, it's a "decorative barrier", folded into the base of what Washington Post staff writer Joe Holley refers to as "The Aqueduct", a 30 feet high concrete screen curving around two sides of the building. In the bird's-eye rendering it looks a bit like a grass-planted parking ramp. Safdie has worked to make the design as light as possible under the circumstances, with a generous complement of glass in the facades and a graceful park making up the no-man's zone between the Aqueduct and the building.

Still, the message is clear: without a single successful domestic car bomb since Oklahoma City, the terrorists are radically re-ordering how we live. Somehow we're supposed to think that all these bollards and barriers will keep us safe, even though Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Murrah without ever having to drive into it. It's all maddeningly selective. Just as the 187-foot-high, windowless bunker base of David Child's new design for the Freedom Tower is to rise nearby Santiago Calatrava's soaring Transit Hub with its bones as light as a bird, the ATF Building is part of a larger development that includes a new Marriott, a soft target devoid of all the extraordinary strictures mandated to safeguard Federal employees.

FDR may have said, "We have nothing to fear but fear, itself", but judging by buildings like these, fear is all we've got. It's threatening to subvert our civic architecture, from an optimistic expression of the inevitable triumph of democracy, open and transparent, to a belief that our streets will, in perpetuity, be marbled with murderous enemies poised to strike, from whom our buildings must forever be made to cower. Is this how Churchill saved Britain?

You can see more about the building at the Safdie web site, but be warned: it's one of those overdesigned, underthought websites that force you do turn off your pop-up blocker to see it all, and then swells up the browser window to take over every square inch of your monitor, no matter how large.

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© Copyright 2006 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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