At a panel discussion during The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2008 national convention, Thomas Vonier explained that cities are “important symbols” of civic and economic progress and, as a result, are “spectacular targets” for criminal behavior. After the June 3, 2017 stabbing by a terrorist on the London Bridge, Vonier wrote in ARCHITECT Magazine that “security challenges are now everyone’s business … this has become a challenge and a mission for urban design.”
Today, in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Vonier is helping security and design experts think about how they can better secure the symbols of American democracy. He also is continuing his work to help the world’s 3.2 million architects understand how they can transform their practices to support the United Nations’ climate goals.
Vonier is president of the International Union of Architects and president of The American Institute of Architects (2016-17). He was founding president of AIA Continental Europe (1994-95) and the first president of the AIA International Region. In 2010, Vonier was named to the AIA Board of Directors, where he served until 2012.
An architect practicing in Paris and Washington, D.C., Vonier supports public and private clients from Africa to East Asia to North America with their global businesses, industrial, and hospitality operations. He is author of “Urban Security,” a comparative study of security approaches in major metropolitan areas, and helps municipalities and public agencies with security improvements to their urban spaces. Vonier has also served as European correspondent for Progressive Architecture magazine, where his work was nominated for the Jesse H. Neal Award. He studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Wisconsin and was a research affiliate with the Laboratory of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
On January 6, 2021, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Hundreds of individuals breached building entrances and a handful even made it to the office of the U.S. speaker of the House, which is tucked away in the Capitol. Five individuals died.
Thomas Vonier, who served as AIA’s president from 2016 to 2017 and who is now president of the International Union of Architects (UIA), watched in horror with the rest of the world. A security expert, Vonier has worked with federal policymakers for more than three decades to keep civil servants and American citizens safe in government buildings.
Indeed, after the attack a private group preparing security recommendations for federal policymakers and security officials reached out to Vonier to ask his advice about how to improve security at the U.S. Capitol. Vonier offered his thoughts, including his opposition to the idea of constructing a fence around the U.S. Capitol.
Vonier has expressed that opposition publicly. Two days after the attack, he argued, “The U.S. Capitol building didn’t ‘fail.’ The security response failed. Nobody paying attention could have been ‘surprised.’ The U.S. Capitol is the core of our democratic republic. We can’t outfit it as a fortress or armed camp.”
In an interview, Vonier stressed that the other views he shared with the security firm are still under consideration and have not been released publicly. “I hope that what I’ve shared eventually will be heard on the Hill,” Vonier said. (At the time this article was written, Congress’ response to the January 6 attack was still in its early stages. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had called for a “9/11-type commission” to address security risks at the U.S. Capitol, but no commission had yet been authorized.)
Vonier became involved in security design and policy in the 1980s, after attacks from Beirut to Berlin resulted in the deaths of American citizens. He authored a major embassy security program for the U.S. State Department and testified multiple times before Congress.
Vonier said, “It was evident then—and it remains evident today—that architects can bring constructive ideas and often unique approaches to large-scale problems.”
Vonier said there are many opportunities for citizen architects to engage at their local and state levels on security issues. “Architects have done excellent work on making schools safer by design, notably after the Sandy Hook slaughter,” Vonier noted. “There is not a school district or educational institution anywhere that has not had to grapple with the specter of gun violence. Start where you live. Look around and find ways to contribute to making the physical environment better. There is no shortage of need anywhere.”
Vonier’s advocacy journey began in the 1970s in the same halls that were attacked on January 6, 2021. As a young architect, he had been asked to testify before Congress on the issues of energy conservation and natural energy resources. “It was during the first oil embargo, and I was part of a group that was very enthusiastic about solar and wind energy,” Vonier recalled. “It was encouraging to be listened to by people in a position to make decisions.”
Vonier is still working today to reduce countries’ and consumers’ reliance on fossil fuels. As president of the UIA, he supports the United Nations’ (UN) Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. He also works to advance the UN’s Climate Change Conference’s COP21 commitments. Specifically, the UIA’s Commission on Sustainable Development, established in 2017, raises awareness, creates knowledge, facilitates communication, and disseminates information across its global network to champion the importance of architecture in the development of sustainable societies.
Vonier said the goal of this work is to offer policymakers solutions for sustainable design and responsible growth. The UIA member section in Denmark, for example, has published “An Architecture Guide to the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” which provides examples of buildings and projects around the world that demonstrate a commitment to eradicating inequitable, climate-damaging development.
“We know how to diminish reliance on private automobiles, and we know how to reduce surface temperatures on streets and buildings,” Vonier said. “Architecture and urban design relate to almost every single aspect of the challenges our communities face.”
Vonier recommends architects interested in addressing the climate crisis start in their own cities and states. He referred to the “wonderful work architects did in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy” to create policies that improved environmental quality in that region.
“We need to help communities cope with things as they are,” Vonier said. “That means trying to handle extreme weather events, which have become more frequent and more severe almost everywhere in the world. Designing for resilience is every bit as important as designing for health, environmental quality, and resource conservation.”
While Vonier is optimistic about the impact citizen architects can have on urban security and climate change, he urges architects to remember that global problems are multifaceted and will not be solved by design alone.
“It is unreasonable to expect architecture and building design to thwart determined terrorists, criminals, or deranged attackers who are well-armed and willing to give up their lives to harm others,” Vonier said. “Those threats involve policies and practices related to mental health, the regulation of firearms, and intelligence gathering. People and communities build for high purposes—learning, justice, worship, recreation, healthcare. The architect’s job is to serve those purposes while also seeking to cope with, but not necessarily to solve or to eliminate, all kinds of threats and challenges.”
For Vonier, the nature of the challenges means the world’s design experts are called to live as citizen architects every day. “Everyone should try to hold policymakers and legislators accountable,” he concluded.
- As told to Kerrie Rushton