U.S. Embassy Architecture: Breaking the Diplomatic Ties That Bind Design

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Last May, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, John Kerry said what has needed saying for more than a decade: "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen. We're building fortresses around the world. We're separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we're doing."

Lots of people cringe when they think about the recent architecture of American diplomacy, and now a new report adds ammunition to the Massachusetts Democrat's charge. "Design for Diplomacy," written by the American Institute of Architects, is a classic Washington document: dull, dry and filled with recommendations that run from the tepid to the bland to the obvious. But the fact that it exists means that the age of the American embassy as architectural wasteland may finally be coming to an end.

Not that this report says anything quite so strong as that. The AIA is interested in getting more architects involved in the design of overseas U.S. diplomatic properties, and their recommendations include stunners such as "encourage innovation" and "establish a peer review process." But here and there in the dark depths of the document are some refreshing reminders of what is so desperately wrong with the architecture of diplomacy: "Recognize that sites that are considerable distances from downtown areas, with limited access to public transportation, pose challenges for those seeking visas, diplomatic exchange, and other activities."

Which is to say, if our embassies are loathed by the people they should serve, they're not serving our interests very well. New security requirements have forced American embassies to be located at a punitive distance from population centers. In the past decade, the urgent need for a host of new, high-security embassy facilities led to design programs that produced dreary, fortresslike structures, often with tiny windows like portholes and large, forbiddingly blank walls. Design often meant little more than rearranging some standard features, sticking on a little grillwork or putting a decent canopy over the entrance. Even a building that is cited as an exception, the new chancery that opened in Berlin last year, was savaged by local critics for its bunkerlike features, cheap appearance and tone-deaf design.

Many new overseas buildings have been built so quickly, and to such unvarying formula, that they are plagued by maintenance and other problems. Unlike the Berlin project, which was meant to be a better-than-average facility suitable for its prominent spot near the Brandenburg Gate, the generic U.S. embassy is unpleasant, off-putting and marooned in a huge, arid compound.

To understand how we got here you have to go back to April 18, 1983, the day the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon was bombed, killing 63 people. Since then, and in the wake of other violent attacks, the design possibilities for U.S. embassies have consistently shrunk. New standards released in 1985 mandated stricter security, and in 1998, the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania led to yet more requirements. Now embassies must abide by 100-foot setbacks from the street, and the "co-location" of various diplomatic functions -- including services such as U.S.-sponsored libraries -- within unified, fortified compounds.

After Sept. 11, 2001, security concerns grew more intense. In 2002, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (the State Department office that builds and maintains embassies and other diplomatic properties) created the "Standard Embassy Design," which set strict guidelines for basic safety, construction and design specifications. Embassy architecture became almost a paint-by-numbers endeavor, and the results showed. In 2004, a longstanding architectural advisory committee established by the State Department a half-century earlier was eliminated. It was, perhaps, a symbolic acknowledgment that top-drawer architectural thinking was no longer required to make an American embassy.

With a few exceptions, the architecture firms that now gravitate to embassy design tend to be off-the-rack firms, and about the best thing you can say of their work is that sometimes the interior design isn't too bad.

The AIA document is a tiny, incrementalist attack on a few of the more distressing of these trends. It recommends the OBO create a "design excellence" program like that of the General Services Administration, the government's domestic landlord and property agency. This is essentially a call to keep up with the state of the art and to bring in the wisdom of outside architects. It argues for more flexible standards that would incorporate new security technologies and make exceptions for individual cases, rather than crude mandates applied across the board. And it encourages positive trends, including the Art in Embassies Program, which at least puts a little lipstick on the big, bristling pig that has become our standard overseas design.

But it doesn't go far enough, and the report fails to acknowledge the depth of the architectural problems plaguing our diplomatic missions. In the middle of the last century, the United States put its best architects (Eero Saarinen in London, Walter Gropius in Athens, Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi) in charge of designing signature embassies. These weren't perfect buildings, as anyone who has worked inside them can testify. But they positioned the United States as an aesthetic, architectural and intellectual powerhouse, and they were public diplomacy in action, three-dimensional billboards for a country that was democratic, muscular and confident.

Today, too many of our embassies bespeak fear and isolation, they often humiliate the people who come seeking visas, and they serve only one interest: the security of our diplomats. It's an important function, but it is ancillary to the real work of diplomacy, a fact that the AIA document fails to adequately emphasize.

Unfortunately, the budget for making new embassies is security-driven, and the AIA report reflects that. The report attempts to finesse the problem of security as merely a problem of design, hence its reliance on bland, bureaucratic ideas like "design excellence." It doesn't question the degree to which security has become the overriding and crippling agenda in the design of new properties. Is it time to rethink acceptable risk, and build better though more exposed properties? And if security obligations are now so onerous that we can't build good buildings, should we explore a new "post-embassy" era, with diplomacy conducted virtually if possible, and in small, dispersed facilities when necessary?

The AIA report doesn't address philosophical questions, and it doesn't risk much. But it is being taken seriously by the OBO -- which clearly wants to get back in the game of making good architecture -- and by powerful people on the Hill. And there are other small but important signs of potential progress. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Kerry's Republican counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, issued his own report on public diplomacy in February, which noted that the "co-location" requirement -- the mandate that all U.S. personnel have their offices located on the same fortified compound -- had been particularly disastrous for American information centers overseas. That report led to a Senate resolution calling on the Secretary of State to consider exempting public diplomacy facilities from the requirement.

And then there are the plans for a new embassy in London to replace the 1955-60 Saarinen building at Grosvenor Square. Although preservationists are understandably worried about the fate of the Saarinen icon, the new embassy is at least being developed through an old-fashioned design competition. Among the four finalists for the job are some important, innovative firms such as the Philadelphia-based Kieran Timberlake (which designed an eco-friendly building for Sidwell Friends School in the District) and Morphosis (which designed a strikingly high-tech National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Suitland). When it comes to this country's highest-profile embassies, in major cities, serving old and close allies, there is still some concern for architectural excellence.

It's the rest of the world -- where public diplomacy matters most -- that gets the short shrift.

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