"It looks friendly, but it is built like a fortress," says Washington architect George E. Hartman Jr., describing a recent project. "It is a reinforced concrete pillbox, broken down in scale to resemble a house." And it is a superb answer to a growing problem.

Hartman is talking about his firm's design of the new U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The building was cited for excellence last month by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The problem it solves: how to protect diplomats from terrorism while maintaining the architectural quality for which American embassy buildings have long been noted.

Protection, obviously, has to come first. "There is no trade-off between architectural design and saving lives," says Robert E. Lamb, assistant secretary of state for administration and security, and the department's new security coordinator. Yet Lamb also believes that the quality-architecture tradition can and should be continued.

That tradition has been fostered for the past 30 years by a somewhat obscure branch of the U.S. Department of State, the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations. FBO has commissioned some of the best and brightest American architects to design its facilities (mainly offices and housing), creating a collection of award-winning structures that put most domestic federal buildings to shame.

Following World War II, when the United States became a world power and had to dramatically increase its global diplomatic representation, planners were in something of a quandary over what style to use for the facilities. President Truman reportedly favored a chain of mini-White Houses around the world, but was talked out of the idea. A number of buildings in the newly popular International Style were built; when the ensuing negative foreign reaction to some of these glass boxes reached the ears of Congress, it almost resulted in an official style (neoclassical or Georgian). Finally, in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked for -- and surprisingly, took -- some advice from a panel of three prominent architects chaired by noted early modernist Pietro Belluschi.

They came up with a simple and straightforward policy, one which still serves as the basis for FBO's program. "Facilities shall be provided in an architectural form representative of the United States, expressing such qualities as dignity, strength and neighborly sympathy," their report stated. "These facilities should create good will because of their excellent architectural design, and their appropriateness to the site and country. Ostentation will be avoided . . . It is hoped that the selected architects will think of style not in its narrower sense, but as a quality to be imparted to the building."

Belluschi, who now lives and works in Portland, Ore., says FBO's success was based on a single premise: "You get the best architect, and you get the best architecture." He has a point, but the selection method he and his colleagues recommended also played a part. Design was to be removed completely from the political arena. Architects were to be chosen and design review undertaken by a rotating panel of three nationally respected architects, a system that remains in effect to this day.

During the early years, a number of architects whose subsequent Washington-area designs are noteworthy received commissions. The first building under the new program was by Edward Durell Stone. His gold-columned U.S. Embassy in New Delhi is an obvious precursor to the Kennedy Center, which he designed in 1962. Eero Saarinen, architect of the majestic Dulles International Airport terminal, designed the U.S. Embassy in Oslo and won a competition to design the U.S. Embassy in London, the most noteworthy element of which is a huge golden eagle perched on the cornice. Harry Weese, the Chicago architect responsible for Metro's monumental stations, designed the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, utilizing a contemporary version of traditional African forms. On the other hand, Marcel Breuer's ponderous Modernism, which may work for the massive headquarters of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is less satisfactory for the smaller-scaled U.S. Embassy in The Hague. The harshness of Breuer's monochromatic design is softened today by overhanging trees, and by colorful flowers in concrete planters that double as security barricades.

By the late 1960s, FBO had lost much of its initial punch. But it got back on track in 1977 with the arrival of an outsider, William L. Slayton, a former executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects, as deputy assistant secretary for foreign buildings. Although not an architect, Slayton traveled the globe as an ambassador of architecture, convincing reluctant diplomats that quality design was important. Slayton left in 1983, and since then, the position has been filled by State Department staff officers; all seem dedicated to continuing the program, while adapting to new concerns about security.

Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, who elegantly restored the historic Hotel Tallyrand in Paris as an embassy office annex, recently combined security and esthetics at a new visitor entrance booth for the U.S. Embassy in the French capital. The structure is small, holding only a receptionist and Marine security guard and the necessary metal detection and X-ray equipment, but the limestone-covered facility is sympathetic to the original 1931 building. The felicitous scheme removes an intrusive feature from the spacious lobby while still meeting security needs. "It may be a bunker, but it looks friendly," Jacobsen declares.

Hartman-Cox Architects took a similar approach with the embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Choosing an appropriate style was not easy. "You don't want to wave the flag," notes Hartman, "and you don't want to go native with grass huts." He was inspired by the local architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, and created a climate-conscious building with wide verandas and large eave overhangs.

It is huge, approximately 80,000 square feet, but the massing is separated into understandable segments that minimize the size. The entire complex is unified by an indigenous red clay roofing tile, while the masonry facade is covered with Shanghai plaster, also used widely in the area. (Surprisingly, some Malaysian architects objected to the design, saying it reminded them of their nation's colonial past; it seems they would have preferred a glass box of the kind found in Houston or on K Street.)

Despite the easygoing, residential appearance of the building, security requirements presented challenging problems. No windows were allowed within 15 feet of the ground, for example, but the raised, windowless base is cleverly cropped off visually by a nine-foot-high perimeter wall. Similarly, although the exterior features floor-to-ceiling glass on the deep verandas, the balcony railings are designed as bulletproof shields.

It's hard to think of a more appropriate way to demonstrate American architectural excellence -- despite the irony that most Americans won't see it -- than through this and similar buildings that show the flag overseas. FBO remains one of the few federal clients committed to quality design, and that's something to cheer about.