Call this civilisation?
By Edwin Heathcote
Published: August 19 2005 16:01 | Last updated: August 19 2005 16:01
The word urbicide was apparently coined by an architect in Sarajevo to describe the deliberate destruction of his historic city during the 1992-1995 civil war. Sarajevo had been a model of inter-ethnic and religious coexistence, a meeting place of cultures and empires for two millennia. Its partial destruction was an attack on urbane tolerance. The instigators of terror strike at the very thing that allows them the freedom to practise their fundamentalism or nationalism, and the physical manifestation of that freedom of thought and movement is the liberal cosmopolis.
New York, Madrid and London have become targets for the jihadists of al-Qaeda because of what they symbolise: urbanity, tolerance and freedom. Through their attacks the terrorists will, of course, succeed in eroding that tolerance and freedom of movement, speech and access to basic human rights. In the US, the government reacted to terror using military might; in Britain, Spain and Turkey - countries with historic terrorist and separatist struggles from the IRA, ETA and PKK respectively - terror was viewed as a matter for the police, not the army. But, as the targets of these assaults were also the cities themselves, some of the responsibility for defending our values must lie with the urbanists and architects.
The recent anniversaries of the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima demon- strate the iconographic power of architectural destruction. The World Trade Center was a second-rate skyscraper turned into a myth by its fall; the Talibanâ€™s dynamiting of the astonishing Buddhas of Afghan- istan was an eloquent expression of the iconoclastic power of destruction. Even the fragile archaeological remains of the original city, the ur-metropolis, Babylon, have been damaged in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda is anti-urban, existing as much in cyber as in real space. Like the tribes that wrought destruction on Rome and Byzantium, the jihadists are nomads, their distaste for our cities crystalising through visions of Osama bin Laden in his network of caves, his acolytes in temporary training camps with their laptops and weapons. Thus the conflict is framed - tolerance versus fundamentalism, democracy versus theocracy, freedom versus religious dictatorship, civilisation (the very word based on civitas, the notion of living in the city) versus barbarism. So how do we protect our cities, our civilisation?
Fifty years ago there were only two megalopolises with more than seven million inhabitants: London and New York. Today more than 20 cities qualify, including Tokyo, Mexico City, Lagos, Cairo and New Delhi. All of the next dozen or so cities mooted as future megalopolises will be in the developing world. Yet London and New York remain the most potent of targets. Not only are they arguably the two most successful cities in the world, they are also exemplars of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, places where people, institutions and corporations want to be.
Right up to the Renaissance, cities were built within walls to protect their citizens from external threat. There can be no realistic physical defence against hijacked airliners or maniacs exploding themselves underground, yet architects, engineers and planners have only physical tools at their disposal. So the seemingly obvious, sledgehammer approach - â€œLook, weâ€™re doing somethingâ€ - has been adopted. The recent shoring up of the defences of the Freedom Tower (sic) at Ground Zero to withstand a truck bomb has delayed still further the construction of this knee-jerk mongrel, while Wall Street and government buildings across the US have been fortified with tank traps and concrete barriers. The grotesque defences of the US Embassy in Londonâ€™s Grosvenor Square have been re-reinforced, the Palace of Westminster is going the same way and it was Margaret Thatcher who turned Downing Street - a public thoroughfare - into a gated community (and John Major was rewarded by an IRA bomb exploding in the garden).
I spent an hour at the London office of Arup - opposite Warren Street station where a bomb had failed to go off a few days earlier - talking to John Haddon, a director of the global engineering company and its leader of security consulting. I received a fascinating and terrifying introduction to the problems we may face. He ran through the potential of chemical and biological attacks (â€always place your air intakes at high levelâ€), shatterproof glass (â€the only thing it canâ€™t withstand is a point-blank truck bombâ€), the problems inherent in increased security checks (â€weâ€™ve learnt from Baghdad that suicide bombers often attack queues or self-detonate at any point theyâ€™re challengedâ€). Haddon emphasises that the most effective tool is the design of â€œsmart response procedures. Itâ€™s impracticable to design for an airliner being flown full tilt at a building. We need to look at the broader implications otherwise we end up like first world war generals preparing for the last battle they fought. What we can do is design evacuation procedures, staircases can be hardened and put in diverse locations, targeted alerts can be sent out via mobiles and e-mail.â€ He also talks about â€œinward evacuationâ€, where, instead of being sent outside - â€œthe most dangerous place in an attack is the streetâ€ - staff can be evacuated into spaces away from the huge glass walls that remain de rigueur in corporate design (auditoriums, even toilets). Apart from specific protection from truck bombs - which Haddon tips as one threat heâ€™d take seriously - his measured common sense is comforting. But it is also a realistic acknowledgement of the awesome problems that terrorism poses.
Haddon cites Canary Wharf as an example of a naturally fortified site, a virtual island, its entrances controlled and photographed, even with under-vehicle scan- ning, measures introduced to echo the Cityâ€™s ring of steel and in response to its own bombs. But Eric Parry, an architect who has designed a number of significant schemes in the City, told me how, when he went to Canary Wharf to look at some buildings, â€œa plain-clothes guy came up to me and asked me to leave the estate. On being unable to present a business card I was shadowed around by five people. By now shaking with anger I stood behind a line demarcating London Underground land and said Iâ€™d look at the buildings from there.â€ He was warned not to descend to the shopping centre. â€œWhat does this mean for living and working in the city?â€ Parry asks. â€œThere is this extremely uncomfortable, unseen presence which one can only call Orwellian.â€
When I ask Norman Foster, designer of 30 St Mary Axe - the Gherkin (itself made possible by the IRAâ€™s destruction of the Baltic Exchange) - how architects should react to terrorism, whether they can do anything, his answer is frank: â€œNo.â€
â€Democracy is fragile and itâ€™s at risk from those who donâ€™t share its values,â€ he continues. â€œSuicide is the ultimate weapon, a rejection of those values, that life is sacred, as are individual rights. What we can achieve in design can only be passive rather than active surveillance and cannot be about prevention. In the end you canâ€™t return to the cave; the ideal might be to have everybody at home glued to their TVs instead of going to the stadiumâ€¦ People want to move around, so we build tunnels under the city to give them freedom and that freedom of movement is exploited by the bombers to destroy it.â€
Foster and Parryâ€™s sentiments are echoed by Michael Sorkin, a New York architect, academic and vociferous critic of the painful rebuilding of the Ground Zero site. â€œThe values of free access and free assembly, the means by which democracy defends itself, are in the hands of architects,â€ he tells me. â€œThey [architects] have failed to defend a public realm thatâ€™s under threat from the paranoid surveillance of a draconian regime as well as from terrorism. Architects have a duty to defend the accessibility of public space.â€
The finest account of the decline of civic space was Richard Sennettâ€™s The Fall of Public Man (1977). In it he argues that a combination of corporate architecture, ghettoisation, the automobile and the consequent detachment from â€œbeing in the streetâ€ and the change in emphasis from society to the individual (led by psychoanalysis) has led to a decline in the public life of the city. Like Sorkin, he fears the further erosion of public space and he highlights a trend towards secure, isolated developments. â€œThere is an architectural danger of a withdrawal to gated communities - an irrational and useless response,â€ he tells me. â€œWhen faced with this kind of terrorism a bunker mentality emerges. After 9/11 almost every building in the US became like a fortress. The Brits are more balanced, Americans have very little experience of dealing with danger on the ground, so they overreact.â€
Can anything be done? â€œI donâ€™t think anybody really has a clue what to do. Itâ€™s as hard to address architecturally as sociologically. The old solution would have been to address physical isolation but these bombers were middle-class kids.â€
In fact construction has not been affected in the ways we might have expected since September 11 2001. The Oklahoma and US and British Embassy bombings led to far greater physical changes than the collapse of the Twin Towers. All new US government buildings are conceived as fortresses: anti-urban, concrete behemoths which almost challenge terrorists to attack them, as did the gated communities of westerners in Saudi Arabia which were so effectively targeted.
But while governments retreat into fortified bunkers, commercial and residential skyscrapers have continued to grow - the proposals become more attenuated each week. Currently mooted are Europeâ€™s tallest skyscraper in Moscow (reputedly plane-proof), a slew of glass towers in London, a residential spire in Chicago and the worldâ€™s tallest skyscraper in Dubai.
London architect Tom Emerson says: â€œItâ€™s like playing chicken with the terrorists. There may eventually be an effect on the global appetite for tall buildings, perhaps a trend towards structures embedded in the landscape and anti-iconic buildings. This is a topical risk but itâ€™s not big enough to make us re-evaluate the way we make cities - compared to everything else, traffic accidents and so on, itâ€™s a minor risk.â€
That sense of perspective is perhaps the most critical faculty. It is up to civilisation to reject terrorism, but architects and urbanists must ensure that any remedial works reinforce rather than undermine the freedoms of movement, gathering and expression that have placed cities at the fragile pinnacle of that civilisation.
Edwin Heathcote is the FTâ€™s architecture correspondent.