- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

In the age of terrorism, Washington is becoming a city of walled-off public spaces. Jersey barriers are ubiquitous, preventing access to monuments, federal buildings and streets, and in more prominent locations, they are being replaced with more permanent security measures.

On the Mall, walls and bollards are being erected around the Washington Monument and Lincoln and Jefferson memorials to safeguard them against the threat of car and truck bombs.

While increasing security, the fortifications diminish the democratic symbols they are trying to protect. They epitomize the ad hoc, ill-conceived ways in which Washington bureaucrats defend our most treasured civic spaces.

Not all cities are turning public places into bunkers. A provocative exhibit opening today at the National Building Museum reveals, in fact, that some of the most imaginative, risk-taking architecture being built today is for civic buildings, plazas, parks and memorials.

No suburban malls or baseball stadiums are included in “Open: New Designs for Public Space,” which highlights about two dozen urban complexes — existing and projected — in cities around the globe. It’s hard to imagine how some of these projects were publicly approved, given their unconventional designs — London’s egg-shaped city hall, Genoa’s terraced ferry terminal, and Graz, Austria’s, floating glass pod in the Mur River, to name some of the more dramatic. Clearly, some politicians were willing to go out on a limb to build these exciting structures — with nary a security barrier in sight.

Unfortunately, the exhibit tells us little about what it took to realize these unconventional designs or about public reaction to them, apart from a few short videos explaining the design and the construction of some completed spaces.

The most candid of these focuses on Federation Square, a commercial and cultural precinct in Melbourne, Australia, that took six years to finish. As related in the film, the London-based architects who won the competition to design this complex had never built anything before.

Initial public reaction to their jagged, faceted structures was largely negative, ranging from “shocking” to “Godzilla … a nightmare.” The buildings and plaza, constructed over a rail yard, became mired in cost overruns and construction delays.

Perseverance on the part of the architects and government officials paid off, however: The square has become a popular gathering space for music festivals and political protests. The city of Melbourne now has a heart.

Other public spaces in the show are less ambitious in terms of building, but no less impressive. One of the most powerfully simple is the aluminum-covered bridge constructed in Rijeka, Croatia, to honor soldiers killed in that country’s recent civil wars. Another is an 11-mile greenway of bicycle and walking paths in Bogota, Colombia, that aims to connect neighborhoods and reduce car traffic and pollution.

A few of the designs deviate from the conventional definition of public spaces as unfettered meeting grounds.

It’s hard to imagine the unwashed masses flowing into an art museum atop Tokyo’s tallest tower, a scientific research hub in Singapore or a contemporary art center on Boston’s waterfront. These examples seem to be included only to bolster the exhibit’s avant-garde perspective.

More than half of the projects in the show, which was organized by New York’s Van Alen Institute, are still to be built. They include a median strip-turned-town-square in Macon, Ga., and a monumental park commemorating freedom in Johannesburg, South Africa. Unfortunately, there is no indication of when some of those developments will be constructed and opened.

Not all, apparently, will break ground. One of the show’s most memorable projects — a mixed-use development in Liverpool, England, centered on a spherical building covered in hieroglyphics — has been scrapped, according to a museum spokeswoman.

In moving the exhibit to Washington, curators added a section on this city’s newest public spaces, including the expansion of the Kennedy Center, the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and the Pentagon Memorial, expected to be completed in 2006, dedicated to the 184 people who died in the September 11 terrorist attack.

Most of these are only cursorily explained through a few drawings or model photos; the National Museum of the American Indian is curiously presented through sketches instead of photographs of the newly opened building.

Security has become one of the toughest challenges for designers of public spaces, but is only briefly touched upon in the exhibit. Some of the projects rely on security guards and video surveillance, while others incorporate perimeter barriers into their designs.

The overall message is one of optimism, not fear. All over the globe, this exhibit shows us, cities aren’t hunkering down but are stepping up to open new places for people to experience and enjoy.

Washington could learn something from their confidence.

WHAT: “Open: New Designs for Public Space”

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through May 15.

TICKETS: Free.

PHONE: 202/272-2448 or www.nbm.org.

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