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Hardened U.S. Embassies Symbolic of Old Fears, Critics Say

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, March 12 -- Across the Manhattan street from the landmark buildings of the United Nations, a new architectural symbol of American outreach to the world is rising: an impenetrable concrete tower with 30-inch-thick concrete walls and no windows on its first seven floors.

Built to endure a chemical- or biological-weapon attack or an explosives-laden truck careening up Manhattan's First Avenue, the new U.S. mission to the United Nations will offer the most secure diplomatic quarters in history when it is completed next year.

The 26-story building is one of a new generation of hardened U.S. diplomatic outposts. More than 60 high-security embassies and consulates have been constructed in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa over the past eight years.

The primary goal is greater protection for the 20,000 American officials serving in those facilities, but the buildings have also been criticized as enduring symbols of the fears and anxieties that gripped the United States in the wake of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The attacks of 9/11 are not a sufficient excuse for this bizarre edifice. I think the building sends an entirely wrong signal to the United Nations, and the world," said Stephen Schlesinger, an author who has written extensively on the United Nations. "Rather than being an approachable, beckoning embassy -- emphasizing America's desire to open up to the rest of the globe and convey our historically optimistic and progressive values -- it sits across from the U.N. headquarters like a dark, forbidding fortress, saying, 'Go away.' "

The latest quest to better guard America's diplomats began in 1998, when members of al-Qaeda simultaneously bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring more than 5,000. A review of U.S. diplomatic security in the wake of the bombings concluded that more than 180 U.S. embassies and consulates were vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and Congress mandated an unprecedented construction spree to replace those structures. The 9/11 attacks, which felled two Manhattan skyscrapers, only reinforced the need for safer buildings.

The Bush administration appointed Charles E. Williams, a retired major general from the Army Corps of Engineers, to lead the construction. Williams's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations developed a Standard Embassy Design, a one-size-fits-all blueprint that has produced dozens of high-security look-alike embassies and consulates for the State Department. Williams won praise for the speed with which the buildings went up, but also criticism that his approach sometimes resulted in shoddy work and, in the building of the $730 million embassy in Baghdad, contracting irregularities.

State Department officials defend the program, saying that a car bomb attack against the U.S. Embassy in Yemen last August underscored the threats still facing American personnel.

"We wish the world was a safer place," said Jonathan Blyth, a spokesman for the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. "However, in the last 10 years since the bombings in East Africa, the world is a more dangerous place. We need to construct facilities to put American diplomats in safe and functional facilities for them to advance foreign policy and ultimately, hopefully, make the world better, safer and more secure for all citizens of the world."

Blyth said that State has drawn on some of the world's best architects to build high-profile U.S. embassies in cities like Berlin and Beijing. The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was recently awarded the American Institute of Architects' Excellence in Architecture Design Citation Award for the Beijing complex, perhaps the most elegant embassy.

But Richard J. Shinnick, who replaced Williams, has conceded that many of the U.S. buildings lack grace. In a talk to industry advisers in September, Shinnick described the past eight years as "the dark ages as far as the design culture was concerned."

Foreign critics have been hostile to the Standard Embassy Design. "There is hardly a modern building in existence -- with the exception of nuclear bunkers and pesticide-testing centers -- that is so hysterically closed off from public space as this embassy," Germany's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said of the Berlin building.

John Rubell, whose firm Moore Ruble Yudell Architects built that embassy, was taken aback by the lashing it received in the German news media, which he thought was unfair. But he said that it may be time for embassy architects to address the critics.

"We have to deal with certain realities," Rubell said. "The security issues are real, but at the same time we need to design buildings that don't primarily express that fact."

A glance at the U.N. mission makes it hard to think of anything else. Its rough concrete exterior contrasts with gleaming glass luxury towers that sprang up around Manhattan in the boom years that followed Sept. 11.

Charles Gwathmey, whose firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects designed the mission for the General Services Administration, said the building will feature an inviting glass entryway, set off by an Alexander Calder stabile, to passersby and visitors once the project is completed.

But the transparency ends at the lobby elevators. The windowless floors at the base of the building will be filled with computers and other high-tech equipment that cannot be described to the public.

Gwathmey was most proud of the building's concrete skin, noting that he had received a call from the renowned architect I.M. Pei, who asked him, " 'How did you get that beautiful concrete?' He thought it looked fantastic."

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