Built Brave

How will terror and its aftermath reshape the design of office buildings? The new federal center in Oklahoma City offers some surprising (and surprisingly hopeful) answers.

It is a building unlike any other that the government has built. Although brandnew, it already has an undeniably emotional connection to the not-so-distant past. It's an ordinary office building -- which remains unnamed, in fact -- that is also, unavoidably, a national symbol. And since September 11, this building has become an even more powerful symbol -- of survival and resilience, as well as of heightened vigilance.

The federal office building currently under construction in Oklahoma City will replace the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was destroyed by a truck bomb in April 1995, killing 168 people. Within just three months of the attack, Congress appropriated $40 million for a new structure. But the project was anything but routine. It offered designers a seemingly contradictory challenge: Create a workplace that is safer than before yet welcoming to the public. "If you let security alone drive design, the easiest thing to do is build a bunker," says Carol Ross Barney, the building's lead architect and founder of Chicago-based Ross Barney + Jankowski Inc. "But nobody wants to work in a bunker, and it certainly doesn't represent the openness of the American government."

Barney has been careful to strike a balance. She beefed up security, satisfying the increased federal requirements put in place after the Oklahoma City massacre, but did so without making these elements so obtrusive. For instance, many of the stubby concrete bollards surrounding the 180,000-square-foot building are hidden in shrubbery, and the tree-lined grounds spread over two city blocks have different elevations, which creates natural obstacles for vehicles.

Meanwhile, security in the lobby is tighter, but the X-ray machines and the magnetometers are off to the side by the elevators, not right by the front doors. This is possible because the lobby, which is between the building's two wings, is enclosed by extra-thick concrete walls.

In addition to reducing the likelihood of an attack, another design goal was to avoid a progressive collapse -- the pancaking of floors falling on top of one another -- which is what happened to the Murrah building and to the World Trade Center towers.

From a strictly architectural standpoint, the Murrah collapse was worse, says Barney. It occurred after the loss of a single column, and it was instantaneous, leaving no time to evacuate. In effect, people were killed by the building, rather than the blast. Consequently, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) now requires that its new structures be able to remain standing, despite the loss of a structural element in the event of an explosion or, more likely, in case of a natural disaster.

But all of this safety creates its own challenges. The problem with heightened security in public buildings is that it risks dehumanizing the work environment, says Ed Feiner, chief architect for the GSA, in Washington, DC. Barney, he says, "has done a wonderful job making most of the security transparent."

For example, in order to create maximum openness, Barney included many windows, featuring downtown-skyline views, the building's U-shaped interior courtyard and fountain, and the adjacent park on the grounds. The glass sounds riskier than it is. Because many of the injuries from the Murrah explosion were caused by flying glass, the GSA has done extensive research to develop exterior walls (including glass) that can mitigate the impact of explosions. (In fact, the GSA has conducted blast tests on prototype building facades.)

Barney also wants the federal center to be an enjoyable and productive place to work. "If you have a great building in terms of security but it's a bad place to work, then you've failed," she explains. The ceilings are higher than normal (11 feet) to let in more daylight, but window shades give employees control over their immediate environment.

Despite the new building's tragic origins, it is not meant to be a memorial, says Feiner. The actual memorial, with its 168 empty chairs, is located one block south, where the Murrah building once stood. The new federal center is about looking ahead. Not surprisingly, though, some people in Oklahoma City can't help looking back. Of the various agencies expected to move in late next year, six were previously located in the Murrah building. (Law-enforcement agencies, which some believe Timothy McVeigh targeted, will remain located elsewhere.)

Some federal employees are looking forward to reuniting under one roof. Others refuse to go back. As one woman wrote in a letter to the Daily Oklahoman, "How would you like to go to work across the street from where 35-plus of your friends and coworkers were killed and where you were almost killed?"

It's not a memorial, agrees Barney, but it's not an ordinary building either. "It's more than Oklahoma City's building; it's more than just the federal government's building," she says. "People have made this a symbol in their lives. I want it to look brave. I want it to look open and clean. I want it to have clarity. If you move forward from a terrible event, you need to have a path with some clarity."

Visit the GSA on the Web (www.gsa.gov). Contact Carol Ross Barney by email (crossbarney@rbjarchitects.com).

Sidebar: Government Issue

Whether it's the new federal building in Oklahoma City or a new courthouse on Long Island, Ed Feiner, the GSA's chief architect, wants government buildings to be anything but the drab boxes built during the 1960s -- buildings featured on the "wall of shame" in his office.

"Commercial buildings come and go," says Feiner, who sports a suit and cowboy boots and speaks with a rapid-fire Bronx accent. "But it is our public buildings that will be here long after we're gone. How do you create something that expresses where we are now and where we want to go?"

During the past 10 years, Feiner has dramatically revamped how the GSA works with architects. The goal: Build the best designs from the best designers. Previously, designers were required to assemble teams of specialists and complete voluminous government forms up front. Now they submit a quarter-inch-thick portfolio. Previous federal-building experience is no longer a priority.

The changes are working. Some of the top names in architecture are behind the GSA's newest buildings, including courthouses in New York (designed by Richard Meier) and Las Vegas (designed by Mehrdad Yazdani). Thom Mayne, known for his ultra-modern designs, once claimed that he would never get selected for a federal project. Now he has three in the works.

Just how far has the GSA come? Feiner offers a full-page photo from a fashion magazine with a model posed in front of one of his new buildings. "Can you imagine a federal building being used in a fashion shoot?"

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