Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The psychology of architecture, or using our power for good

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School; the school itself took the day off, and all schools lowered their flags to half-mast.  The school, faculty, and students are trying to move forward and stop being a noun and a verb in modern-day American English and stop letting this event define their existence.  To say it's hard to do is an understatement.  Some former students are now teachers at Columbine, and most surprising to me is that the same principal is still there.

Designing a facility in the aftermath of such an event is an architect's toughest assignment by far.  I had the opportunity and honor of touring the campus after the remodeling was complete, and I got to talk to the project's designers.  The library, where most of the shootings occurred, was directly above the cafeteria, where some shootings took place.  Consider for a moment that you are in a place where you watch several of your coworkers or classmates fall to a brutal end--a hundred coats of paint will not wipe that memory from your mind the next time you walk in.    The architects took the library floor/cafeteria ceiling out and made the cafeteria a double height space with 13 foresty-cloud mural panels on the ceiling.  As I understood it, the first designs involved just removing the floor in areas where people fell, but that almost seemed too macabre.  By removing the library entirely from over the cafeteria, the deceased are honored by no one being able to walk where they fell ever again, and no one has to relive the memory of being trapped in that space.  The new library was an addition to the building near where it used to be and includes lots of visibility in the library and has huge windows that look out onto Clement Park, near where the memorial garden is located.  The garden includes a small courtyard and 13 trees.

The number 13 has been a bone of contention for the community.  15 people died in total, but two of them were the boys that committed the murders.  According to an article in the Denver Post this morning, someone holding up a sign that said "Honor All 15 Victims" was removed from the memorial ceremony.  The question of 13 verus 15 is another tough one that the architects had to address.  It's my belief not just as an architect but also as someone who lost a parent to fratricide that they should find some way to remember all 15.  While my uncle (and Harris and Kliebold) cannot be excused for what they did, I cannot imagine what kind of pain and state of mind would make a person hurt fellow human beings and then end their own lives.  Their parents have been extremely silent on the whole subject for the past ten years, and again, I don't blame them.  We all say we want to know what happened so we can prevent it, but I'm willing to bet my bonuses for the next five years (that's right, all $74.35) that people really just want to know, how do I keep my kids from doing it too?  There but for the grace of God go those parents.  Everytime I tell people that my dad's brother killed my dad and then hmself, one of the very first questions is, why? What was wrong with him?  There but for the grace of God go all of us.

Not long after the shootings, I overheard a couple of businessmen talking about it, wondering how the building was designed before the shootings.  "Weren't there enough exits?" one of them asked.  I nearly punched him.  Exits are designed for most emergencies, but think about it for a second: if you were being shot at in the middle of an open field, there still wouldn't be enough exits for you, not enough ways to escape the horror staring you quite literally point blank in the face.  Schools and offices have fire drills and tornado drills, but we never have your-classmates-are-shooting-at-you drills.  I've been asked about if a tower could withstand the kind of impact that occurred at the World Trade Center, and the answer is yes.  Anything can be built strong enough to withstand crashing planes and bombs and bullets (I recently heard about a police station with 1/8" thick steel plates on its exterior), but can you afford it fiscally?  Is it worth it for you to spend that kind of money for an event that might never happen?  Same thing for high schools: the vast majority of them will never have a school shooting, but some of them will be designed and constructed to help people see oncoming threats better or to withstand pipe bombs that students might decide to make and hide around the school.

I have to say from seeing it that the renovated Columbine is beautiful, eloquent beyond words.  It was nearly transcendent.  Its the kind of thing that architects try to do every day around the country and around the world.  It's the kind of thing that we strive to do in school and in offices and parks and houses and hospitals and buildings everywhere.

No comments: