‘The Architecture of Diplomacy’ exposes undiplomatic approach to citing works

If you’re going to appropriate a book title, it’s a good idea to at least pick an obscure book, perhaps by a forgotten author, or something published so long ago it has little resonance among contemporary readers. Whoever chose the title to a new book with a forward by Prince Charles “The Architecture of Diplomacy: The British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington” broke all the unwritten rules. As anyone who has studied the history of diplomatic architecture on this side of the pond knows, “The Architecture of Diplomacy” is the title of a highly regarded historical overview of U.S. Embassy design by local author and architectural historian Jane Loeffler, whose book was first published in 1998 by the Princeton Architectural Press and revised and reissued in 2010. Loeffler has lectured widely on her subject, at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia and the University of Maryland, where she was a visiting associate professor for more than a decade, and she maintains a Web site at www.thearchitectureofdiplomacy.com.

The cover of the new picture book, written by the distinguished author and historian Anthony Seldon and Daniel Collings, is handsome enough. (It not only includes 200 color illustrations, but it also credits a separate photographer for its images of the residence’s orchid collection.) But Loeffler is concerned that some might confuse it with her work or consider it perhaps a sequel. Worse, she knows the value of her own scholarship well enough to wonder whether the authors may have used her research without proper credit. Over a long career of writing about diplomatic architecture, in multiple books including “Embassy Residences in Washington, D.C.,” Loeffler has taken up the subject of the British ambassador’s residence, which was designed by the preeminent British architect Edwin Lutyens.

A pdf of the new book, however, includes only a “selected bibliography,” with no mention of Loeffler’s previous work.

“That’s because her work didn’t form a part of the book,” says James Barbour, press secretary and head of communications for the embassy. Barbour argues that the two books are so different, nobody could possibly confuse the two. “Having read through her book, there are a handful of references,” he says, referring to the 1998 history of diplomatic architecture. But “I can’t see any commonality between the two.”

“Well that’s ridiculous,” says Loeffler.


The Architecture of Diplomacy by Jane Loeffler. (Courtesy Jane Loeffler and Princeton Architectural Press)

In an e-mail to Sir Peter Westmacott, the ambassador, Loeffler writes, “I know one cannot copyright a title, but I know, too, that it is not right to be casual about matters of scholarly citation nor to suggest an association between one book and another when no such association exists.” She asks that the book be retitled, or failing that, a disclaimer be included in both the book and in promotional materials accompanying it.

Westmacott, in an e-mail to Loeffler, declined to change the title of the book or offer any disclaimer in the promotion of it. He did, however, offer to send her a free copy. He also denied that either of the authors or the publisher of the book he is promoting were aware of Loeffler’s previous work: “None of Anthony, Dan or the publisher were aware of the title of your book when they chose theirs; and none have read it.”

Loeffler provided e-mails, however, that indicate that at least one of the authors was made aware of her work and previous claim on the title as early as June. All of the top hits on a simple Google search of the title, “Architecture of Diplomacy,” direct readers to Loeffler’s work, including favorable reviews of it and other references to her scholarship.

Rizzoli’s, which is distributing the book in the United States, referred questions to the British Embassy and to the book’s French publisher. An e-mail to an editor at Flammarion, which published the book, was unreturned.

That none of the principals involved in the new embassy residence book have read Loeffler’s work is rather surprising and perhaps an indication of how scholarship, even in an age of instant electronic communication and widely shared digital resources, remains remarkably parochial.

And then there is the question of what makes a title a good title. Loeffler’s book is devoted to the history and typologies of American embassies, from the days when grandeur, location and architectural prestige determined much of what made an embassy symbolically important, to the great age American idealism and aesthetic adventure during the middle of the last century, when architects projected visions of America that would have been radical even on their home turf. Her work remains particularly valuable to anyone studying embassies today because it has been updated with information about the radical change in how American embassies relate to their host cities in the post-September 11 security climate, a subject of often keen resentment in many capitals around the world.

So “The Architecture of Diplomacy” (the original book by Loeffler) is very much about the intersection of design, bureaucracy and national image. Whether or not “The Architecture of Diplomacy” (the title borrowed for the new British Embassy coffee-table book) digs into that kind of detail will be of keen interest to Loeffler, who says she will scour the book for scholarly accuracy and proper citation.

All of this might be a small publishing tempest not worth a second thought, except that the book industry today is all too susceptible to the ugly culture of celebrity and entitlement that infects so much of the rest of our life. A preface by Prince Charles and an A-list launch party hosted by the ambassador and Lady Westmacott at the residence on May 6 will elicit lots of buzz and glamour for the new luxury tome. Academic authors who do the hard work of scholarly research often feel poorly treated when big-name publishers and writers take up the same subject — or borrow the same title — and publish glitzier volumes with big budgets for photography and promotion.

Even if the new book is a substantial contribution to the literature, Loeffler still feels she was treated high-handedly by the embassy when she raised concerns. But her publisher offers this consolation: Given the deep respect the earlier book has already earned, the new one will only direct more attention to it. Still, it seems an undiplomatic and unnecessary bit of literary usurpation.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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