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Can Architects Prevent Gun Deaths?

Architects wonder if they can design gunman-proof buildings

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Guns are on the minds of Americans. We’re not sure if we should ban them, control them or give them away for free. Politicians are debating what we should do with them. Teachers are worrying how to keep them out of schools or how to train kids to respond. And architects wonder if they can design gunman-proof buildings.

On Archinect, a discussion forum for architects, Peter Normand wondered what he could do to design spaces that reduced the chances of getting shot, writing:

Assuming that a larger portion of the general public will be carrying guns, that we are in the beginning of a personal arms race, what responses should architects consider?  Do we need bullet proof doors and windows for schools, Classroom panic rooms?  How can we make the built environment safe for the gun packing and unarmed public to interact? Can we expect building codes to address the life safety issues of firearms as thoroughly as fires?

Assuming the political reality won’t change for the next decade what can we do as a designer to keep the public safe in this new gun saturated environment?

The problem of using architecture to keep safe from aggression is actually quite old. Long before guns, cities were designed to defend against attackers with weapons. Those fortresses had high walls, single entry points and layouts meant to confuse invaders.

In the mountains of Idaho, some people are recreating that kind of environment. The Citadel is a planned community in which residents would be required to own guns and defend the compound if attacked. Its founders explain:

The Towers and Curtain Wall providing the town’s primary perimeter defense will be inaccessible to tourists. Each Tower will house condos. The wall sections between Towers will be the location for many of the larger homes. By looking at the Artist’s Concept (left) you can see that housing will be well-removed from tourist foot-traffic. The Perimeter Road follows the Curtain Wall.

Each neighborhood within the walls will have lower defensive walls, dividing the town into defensible sections/neighborhoods. Each neighborhood will have similar housing for visual uniformity and aesthetic appeal.

But The Citadel is a project designed to appeal to only a subset of Americans. Is there a way for architects to design more run-of-the-mill buildings to keep their residents safe, without just building a medieval castle?

In places that faced violence already, like Newtown, Conn., or the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., architects might consider not just how to make buildings that are safer in practice but that allow the community that uses them to feel safe. In the New Yorker, Thomas De Monchaux writes:

Shootings, events defined by immediate sightlines and ballistic trajectories, are an especially spatial and architectural kind of violence, and some ineffable part of their violence is to space itself—to the very airspace or geographical coördinates at which shots were fired or taken. The architectural task in the long aftermath of such shootings is not only to repair structural damage but to calibrate a balance between remembering and forgetting sufficient for daily life to continue nearby—and to figure out how the shapes, materials, and details of buildings can participate in that calibration. The architectural task is not only to provide actual security and defensibility but to figure out how the ways you see and move through buildings can affect your feelings of being at risk or at home.

Rebuilding with that sort of security, though, can be tricky. Adding big metal bars on the doors and windows of a school has downsides, especially if you’re trying to construct a place where kids will want to learn. Architectural Record had a story about these challenges just after Newtown, writing:

While fortress-like buildings with thick concrete walls, windows with bars, and special security vestibules may be more defensible than what is currently in vogue, they are hardly the kind of places that are optimal for learning. Edmund Einy, a principal at GKKWorks, says that what’s been done so far in many urban schools in the name of safety—such as slapping bars on the windows—has had a pernicious effect on students’ morale and performance. Einy’s new Blair International Baccalaureate Middle School, in Pasadena, foregoes bars. But administrators must greet students before they are allowed to go inside, which led GKKWorks to create an entry plaza. “There’s not much more we can do,” he says. “What are we going to do, put kids in prisons?”

Others argue that this is not a job for architects; it’s a job for politicians and people. Smart Planet’s C.C. Sullivan writes:

So answering the question posed by architect Peter Normand, perhaps we need to build as many reminders of our “gun-saturated society” and gun tragedies as we need protections against them.

Instead of panic rooms in every home and classroom, we need more symbols of awareness. Instead of new building codes and bulletproof doors, let’s open the shades on who we are.

Feeling safe, Sullivan argues, takes more than just physical design. It takes cultural design, too. Perhaps it’s not the job of the architect to keep us safe.

More from Smithsonian.com:

A Prize-Winning Architecture Tour of Beijing
The Architecture of Memory

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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