A Moat? A Ditch? How To Secure The White House Grounds How do you design a White House fence to keep out intruders, without making the president's front lawn feel like a prison yard? Architecture critic Alexandra Lange tells NPR's Scott Simon.

A Moat? A Ditch? How To Secure The White House Grounds

A Moat? A Ditch? How To Secure The White House Grounds

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How do you design a White House fence to keep out intruders, without making the president's front lawn feel like a prison yard? Architecture critic Alexandra Lange tells NPR's Scott Simon.


There's a bit of landscape work going on at the White House this summer. Since September, three intruders have been able to climb over the White House fence. Angled spikes will be added to try to deter fence-climbers. But those are temporary features. The Secret Service and the National Park Service are looking for more long-range design ideas to try to make the fence harder to climb but still make the White House look like the residence of a freely-elected leader in an open democracy. We're joined now in our studios by Alexandra Lange. She's architecture critic for Curbed and an opinion columnist at Dezeen. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXANDRA LANGE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what will the White House look like with what the Secret Service calls these removable anti-climb features?

LANGE: Well, the spikes that they're adding, the idea is that they will make it harder for people to get a grip on the top of the fence and also more likely to be snagged as they go over. But they won't make too big of a visual impact, I think, when you're standing in front of the fence and looking at it.

SIMON: I - I have talked to Secret Service agents - and not specifically about the spikes, but about the general proposition - who say they want to visibly deter people because they think discouraging people from even trying to climb over the fence is a better idea than having to pluck them off the fence.

LANGE: Yes, that makes sense. That said, there are other things that you can add to create more layers of defense beyond the fence itself. And they might be potentially more invisible - or even more attractive than the little spikes that they're adding to the fence.

SIMON: Such as?

LANGE: When one of the first fence-jumpers went over it, a lot of people jokingly suggested a moat for the White House, which, obviously, we're not going to have. But there is an 18th-century landscape feature called a ha-ha, which is a ditch in the ground with a wall built at the back of it, below eye level. And these were used on French and British country estates to keep livestock off the lawn surrounding the house. And the White House, in fact, originally had a ha-ha, during Jefferson's day, to keep the livestock that then wandered around Washington, D.C. away from the White House. So something like that would be very low-key, but would indeed slow people down if they approached the White House.

SIMON: Any other examples of security features that work at other notable buildings or buildings we may not know much about?

LANGE: Well, another good example is on Wall Street. Around the New York Stock Exchange, after 9/11, they put in these very attractively-designed bollards. Bollards are those little stakes or round balls or spikes that you often see outside the entrance of buildings.

SIMON: Yeah.

LANGE: They're usually concrete or metal and very plain. And they're to keep trucks from driving into the entrance of a building. But these bollards were designed like huge sort of faceted bronze gems, and they were of a mass that could stop a truck, but of a height that you could also sit on. And they ended up looking like really pretty sculptures in the middle of the street. So there are a lot of things that design can do to make these necessary features more attractive and not, you know, an interruption to the eye, like those bike rack, metal temporary barriers are.

SIMON: Are there museums, even entertainment venues, around the world that maybe we ought to look at for clues?

LANGE: One thing I think - when you're talking about public buildings that may not be able to be as accessible to the public as they used to be, I think it is interesting to think about them as a form of entertainment. And so what could you make for people to visit on the outside of the building that would satisfy them? I'm reminded of the headquarters of Lucasfilm, which is in the Presidio in San Francisco. And so lots of people go there, you know, kind of seeking worship of "Star Wars." And a few years ago they built a Yoda fountain out front...

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes.

LANGE: Which, I have to tell you, my 7-year-old was thrilled to find. And they have a Darth Vader costume in the lobby. So, I mean, it sounds sort of ridiculous, but if you think about people visiting the White House, it is, in some sense, a similar homage. So what would make people feel like they...

SIMON: Someone in a Thomas Jefferson costume, you mean? Or...

LANGE: Yes, maybe the costume is not the best example. Maybe - could you have a replica room of the White House? Could you have interesting backdrops with different presidents through history? So much of tourism today does involve taking selfies. Is there a way to actually turn that into a more positive experience?

SIMON: Alexandra Lange, architecture critic for Curbed and opinion columnist at Dezeen. Thanks so much.

LANGE: Thank you.

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