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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2005 Issue

Design Is the Best Defense
At the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle, the landscape is the first layer of security.

By Clair Enlow

Design Is the Best Defense
Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture

The new United States Federal Courthouse in Seattle is set into a monumental, one-acre plaza designed by Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture of Berkeley, California. Look again, and there’s a garden abstracted from a Pacific Northwest forest—with trees, turf patches, ferns, and dark pools of water. This multilayer landscape invites third looks and lingering visits. But it’s also the first line of defense in this courthouse design, and its completion signals a new era in which civic spirit and effective security are intimately connected.

Planning for the Seattle courthouse began when memories of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were very fresh. Then, as the project approached the construction phase, the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

In spirit, this is the people’s palace—where citizens come to meet the law of the land and perhaps to put their lives in the hands of their fellow citizens. But due to events of the past decade, the place has another designation: target. This landscape is designed to stop a racing truck loaded with explosives.

“There’s a famous dictum in modern design: Form follows function,” says Peter Walker, FASLA. “The clearer you are about the function, the more clearly you can respond to it.”

Building concrete walls is the historic solution, but that was not an option here. It was the job of Walker and his team, managed by partner Paul Sieron, to go beyond any existing, prescriptive measures for physical protection of the building and its occupants. Starting with the understanding of defense and openness as contradictory goals, Walker worked to make them two facets of the same place.

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