Home Office architecture contest 'fosters culture of fear'

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One of the country's leading architects has accused the Government of trying to foster a "culture of fear" about terrorism.

The Royal Academician Piers Gough, who is a member of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, has asked design students to boycott a competition run by the Home Office which asks them to redesign a fictional public square after a devastating bomb attack which kills 500 and injures 1,500.

The contest, Public Spaces, Safer Places, was launched last week in conjunction with the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba). It offers a £2,000 prize to the student who best "builds out" the threat of "multiple co-ordinated suicide attacks" in crowded places – for instance, by limiting the amount of glass and masonry cladding used in buildings; or by building car-bomb barriers.

Mr Gough, who is known for his flamboyant urban design and, away from architecture, his party-going nature, describes the competition as " the propagation of paranoia".

"The Government gets blamed if there is an attack," he said. "They like to pass on the agony to us by curtailing our freedom. On no account should architects or students give succour to this."

The Government's architectural response to terrorism was comparable with its overly enthusiastic approach to traffic calming measures, he said.

"The percentage threat from terrorism is minuscule compared to others such as road accidents," he told Building Design. "Just when we have reached a consensus that traffic engineers' paranoia has ruined our streets and spaces with a plethora of guard rails, central reservations and insane quantities of signage, along comes terrorism paranoia to scare us into more fortification."

The brief for the competition describes how a "devastating terrorist attack" destroys a fictional one-hectare public square (approximately the size of Trafalgar Square) in the heart of a city. It needs to be rebuilt to withstand any future terrorist attacks. The draft reads: "Imagine that the national government and city authority now wish to redevelop the site of the attack."

Mr Gough's criticism of the competition has received backing from the heads of architecture at both Westminster University and Glasgow School of Art. Alastair Donald, an urban designer at Cambridge University, said the competition "can only have a negative effect both for designers, who find themselves subsumed by yet more regulations and for society at large which is forced to accommodate the culture of fear."

Earlier this year, the National Counter Terrorism Security Office released training videos pamphlets telling architects how to build panic rooms, truck-bomb barriers and limited glazing in order to reduce casualties in the event of suicide and truck bombings.

John-Paul Nunes, the head of education at Riba, denied the contest could be seen as scaremongering. "This competition is about promoting good design, not creating a bunker mentality," he said.