Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Architecture vs Shootings: An Impossible Fight

First, I want to express my rage and grief at the mass murder in Orlando on Sunday. This was the act of a man propelled by hate and bigotry against people who have been systematically abused and made vulnerable by the lawmakers in this country. It is obscene for public officials to bleat on about "thoughts and prayers" and in the same breath condemn the queer and POC communities to yet more discrimination. I fear there is no end in sight for these events, and that our country and government will continue to abandon our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends to men with guns.

There simply isn't enough time or space to list every mass shooting in the US in this blog; we don't even have a confirmed record of the mass shootings in this country. The best we have is the National Violent Death Reporting System, which is a state-based program under the CDC and includes only 32 states. And the House recently vetoed a proposed amendment to allow the CDC to research gun deaths.

But we need to start somewhere. If we use the definition of "four or more people are wounded or killed", there have been more mass shootings in the US this year than days passed of 2016. Let me repeat that.

There have been more mass shootings in the United States this year than we've had days in 2016.


We desperately need to take action, and this action is long overdue. Is there anything architecture can do to help protect people and prevent mass shootings in this endless march of murder?

One argument could be for shooter-specific regulatory codes. We build and regulate for the event of fire with protected stairwells and rated doors and suppression systems. Areas where specific natural disasters routinely occur have additional building codes specifically for those disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, avalanches, etc. We even rate building components for animals: termite-proofing, bird-proofing, bear-proofing, and so on. Perhaps we could build to prevent a man-made disaster like a shooting. 

We could require panic rooms with steel-reinforced walls; add bullet-proofing to furniture; triple-glaze and laminate windows to withstand projectiles. Or we could go one further and go live, work, and play in a bunker buried in the backyard. But this solution only works if there's no way for the shooter to enter, and the building's occupants don't mind living in lock-down. Is that a reasonable assumption to make? It becomes clear almost immediately how anemic this argument is.

How can a place or building prevent a shooter from entering? A shooter is just a man or boy with a gun. (And they're overwhelmingly male, folks. There aren't enough female shooters to even have a study.) If that man or boy can convince or force someone to let him in, what part of the architecture is going to stop him?
If that place is a house, chances are the house is owned by the shooter, who keeps guns in it. Is the kitchen or the bedroom or the living room going to prevent murder? 

If that place is a school, what is the classroom or cafeteria or gymnasium going to do against a teacher or parent or student or administrator who goes on a spree?

If that place is a doctor's office, how will the examination rooms or reception desk or pharmacy protect the patients and staff?

If that place is a shopping mall, how will the escalators or food court or storefronts stop a gunman?
If that place is a public park, how will the benches or paths or plantings protect the people enjoying the outdoors?

If that place is a movie theater, what will the projection booth or the stadium seating do to protect the audience from someone else who's bought a ticket?

If that place is a night club, what will the DJ booth or the dance floor or the bar do to protect the clubbers?

Architecture can do fuck-all to prevent a mass shooting.

Treating shootings like some kind of "natural disaster" with building codes and regulations would be criminally negligent and foolhardy - it can't protect people or stop murderers. Using architecture to treat every person as a Schrodinger's Mass Murderer would make for a dystopian nightmare; the mental strain alone would be incredible. (This might be why the security lines in the airport are so depressing.) We simply can't function, let alone thrive, in a society built with that kind of paranoia and restriction, and moreover it wouldn't actually prevent anything.

But that's not true of architects. Architects can write to their senators and representatives. Architects can donate time and money to gun control advocacy groups. Architects can work for and hire people who are frequent targets of attack to help stabilize and grow communities. Architects have a voice.

As architects we have a duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. We must not fail.

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