Dynamist Blog

Architecture Fights the Last War

Writing on Wired.com, security expert Bruce Schneier reflects how changing threats make yesterday's architecture obsolete:

The problem is that architecture tends toward permanence, while security threats change much faster. Something that seemed a good idea when a building was designed might make little sense a century--or even a decade--later. But by then it's hard to undo those architectural decisions.

When Syracuse University built a new campus in the mid-1970s, the student protests of the late 1960s were fresh on everybody's mind. So the architects designed a college without the open greens of traditional college campuses. It's now 30 years later, but Syracuse University is stuck defending itself against an obsolete threat.

Similarly, hotel entries in Montreal were elevated above street level in the 1970s, in response to security worries about Quebecois separatists. Today the threat is gone, but those older hotels continue to be maddeningly difficult to navigate.

Security isn't the only factor that dates quickly. I recently read Alastair Gordon's lively history, Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure. Again and again, airports have been designed to solve the problems of one era, only to confront completely different problems almost as soon as construction is complete. DFW Airport is no aesthetic treasure, for instance, but it ingeniously solved the problem of its design era: how to get people from their cars to the plane without a long walk down a corridor to the gates. Then came deregulation and hub-and-spoke systems, DFW became American's major hub, and passengers had to walk Texas-size distances to change planes. What Gordon doesn't note, and couldn't given the timing of his book, is that post-9/11, DFW is again one of the nation's more efficient airports, at least for passengers originating here. Its many entries allow security checkpoints to be spread closer to the gates, instead of routing passengers through a few chokepoints and then forcing them to travel long distances to their gates.

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