Since the beginning of this year, there have been over 200 mass shootings in the United States. Millions of Americans no longer feel public spaces are safe, wondering which school, or theater, or nightclub might be the next target. Gun control has once again become the most heated area of debate in this country’s politics. And since legislators can’t seem to agree upon any course of action in such troubling times, many architects have decided to take matters of public security into their own hands. If we can’t remove the weapons from the equation, they’ve decided, we’ll make it more difficult for the weapons to have their intended effect.
Of course, there are also plenty of arguments to be had over how we should go about this. The new World Trade Center, commonly known as the Freedom Tower, is cited by architect Aaron Betsky as an example of how not to create a safe space. In his mind, the imposing, heavily fortified aesthetic of such buildings only reinforces the fear of violence and ultimately doesn’t do much to cut to the root of the problem. Instead, Betsky believes we should look to designs like the newly refurbished Sandy Hook Elementary School in striving for the ideal model to prevent shootings.
After the devastating shooting in 2012 that left 20 children dead, Sandy Hook Elementary began developing plans for a new campus that would put its students’ and faculty’s minds at ease while deterring any further violence. The project was recently completed, and many are looking to its welcoming, transparent appearance as inspiration for future construction. The new design features a pleasant amount of open space and large windows, which serve the double purpose of providing natural surveillance and preventing anyone from feeling isolated. Isolation is an important factor in the narratives of most shootings; the gunman is usually a lone wolf with few attachments. Creating an environment that truly feels like a strong community is equal parts vital to keeping potential targets unified and possibly preventing the shooter from becoming a threat in the first place.
But Sandy Hook didn’t just implement sentimental structures; they also implemented practical ones. There are open spaces, but limited ways to cross them. Footbridges stretch over rain gardens and small trenches not unlike moats. The many windows provide a clear view of each deliberately chosen entry point so students and staff can see exactly who comes and goes. The school tiptoes a fine line between form and functionality, aiming to protect those inside as best as possible without presenting itself as a cold, bureaucratic stronghold.
Betsky implores his fellow architects to craft public spaces as elegantly as possible, with as many unassuming means of defense as possible, because the concrete barricades and reflective windows that characterize so much contemporary urban architecture is only shutting out more burgeoning lone wolves. However, he is not so idealistic as to claim floor-plans alone will stop mass shootings. He is a strong proponent of gun control, especially in places of entertainment like movie theaters, but until laws catch up to the current climate of violence, he insists that naturalistic openness is the key to security.