The U.S. State Department may be the official public face we put to the world, but for years the face it has put to Washington has been an architectural mess. More than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, concrete security barriers still bestrew the east side of 23rd Street NW. Visitors to the diplomatic reception rooms are screened in an ugly modular structure on C Street. There is no clear public entrance to the building, which is composed of an early-1940s stripped-down classical structure that was, in the 1960s, dwarfed by an “addition” in the international modern style. And the entire complex feels like a giant black hole, sucking the life out of what should be a vibrant district, bounded by a major arts center, an urban university and the Mall.
Worse, if you have no reason to visit the building, and you don’t know anyone who works there, it’s almost impossible to get in. The home of the State Department is, like so many federal properties in Washington, a hostile, forbidding, unpleasant and unneighborly manifestation of the security regime run amok.
That may be changing. Last September, Secretary of State John F. Kerry joined five former secretaries to break ground for the building’s new public front door — the U.S. Diplomacy Center — which will include a shimmering pavilion housing a museum and an underground cafe, bookstore and event space. The Diplomacy Center, being built in the open space between the two arms of the State Department’s northeast-facing original building, will open in 2017 and eventually include three exhibition halls and underground space. The public will finally have some measure of access, and visitors interested in diplomacy will be able to explore documents and artifacts of the trade.
Construction is well underway and so is fundraising. The Carnegie Foundation of New York announced last week a $750,000 grant to support programming at the center, which will operate as a public-private venture, with the State Department providing physical space, security and some staff assistance while a private foundation builds an endowment and pays for programs, educational ventures and updates to its exhibitions. It is hoped that the center will draw not just tourist traffic from the Mall, but also school groups from across the country, in an effort to teach the history, the purpose and the day-to-day practice of the diplomatic corps.
And so the State Department comes a bit late to the game of incorporating the museum function into yet another arm or branch of the federal government. It joins such institutions as the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Southeast Washington, the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum and Visitors Center in Arlington, and the National Postal Museum near Union Station. Some of these are operated by independent nonprofit groups in collaboration with their respective agencies, and the Postal Museum is a branch of the Smithsonian Institution.
The impulse to create museums dedicated to specific government functions goes back at least as far as the 1976 bicentennial, when the federal government encouraged its constituent parts to create educational and historical exhibits. But their purpose today is enlarged, in response to the need to recruit talent to government or military service, fierce competition for public resources and a basic sense that ordinary civics education is in disarray.
The museum function, in short, is about survival.
The State Department hired architect Hany Hassan of Beyer Blinder Belle to design the new structure. Based on Hassan’s previous work in Washington, the choice is inspired. The pavilion will intersect the most architecturally sensitive part of the building — the austere 1941 building that housed the War Department before it moved to the Pentagon and was renamed the Department of Defense. That building, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and William Dewey Foster, has the starchy, severe elegance of the Washington house style of the 1930s and ’40s — a minimalist take on classicism with an orderly, vertical march of small windows; a strong, distended portico resting on a horizontal platform; and an utterly basic but pleasing symmetry of box-like forms.
This was once an almost invisible style, seemingly ubiquitous and mostly innocuous. And yet, over time, its lean simplicity has come to be seen as a virtue, especially in response to post-modern experiments that demonstrated how quickly the random or unskilled use of classical elements can become cloying and ridiculous. Adding to a building of this apparent simplicity is a unique challenge. Hassan has experience with this kind of project; he scored a particular success in 2009 with a pavilion and entry space created as an addition to the north side of the Old City Hall building on Indiana Avenue NW.
The old War Department structure, Hassan says, is more complicated than it may seem at first. “It is all about subtle moves,” he says. “In this case, I had to go to another level of minimal in the expression of the addition.”
Early plans for a museum called for it to be contained within the existing State Department envelope. But Hassan thought an addition could change the slightly forbidding valence of the structure and enliven the surrounding blocks, even if that meant risking the complicated problem of joining the new to the old.
“The stripped-down classical style, with small windows and masonry, tends to create a sense of being a fortress,” Hassan says. But a glass box set in the U-shaped entry courtyard could function as a kind of beacon, he says. “The whole gesture of reaching out.”
It is the essence of the thinking behind the Diplomacy Center, too. Plans for a museum date to 2000, when a former senator, Charles Mathias, and a veteran diplomat, Stephen Low, brought the idea to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She was enthusiastic, but over the years, fundraising and momentum languished, according to ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who serves on the Diplomacy Center Foundation’s board of directors and heads its fundraising efforts. Hillary Rodham Clinton rekindled efforts to get the construction started while she was secretary of state.
Over the years, the amount of space that museum planners felt they needed grew and so, too, the sense of urgency about explaining and promoting the importance of the State Department’s mission. The attacks of Sept. 11 widened old divisions in American society about the relative importance of hard and soft power, the fundamental American uncertainty about whether we are a nation that talks softly or carries a big stick. Everyone involved with the Diplomacy Center project says it is nonpartisan (and it has bipartisan support from past secretaries of state). And, they say, it won’t get into contested issues of policy, but focus on history and process.
But it’s clear that this museum is meant to re-engage a nation that has been at war for almost 15 years with the diplomatic virtues of talking and engagement.
“We have no self-interested constituency in America,” says ambassador William C. Harrup, chairman of the Diplomacy Center Foundation’s board of directors, by which he means that the State Department has no special interest groups pleading its cause and little economic leverage from private industry when it comes to persuading Congress to fund its priorities. It isn’t the Agriculture Department or the Department of Transportation or the Department of Education. Its mission can seem abstract and remote.
“Diplomacy and the State Department have always been at the end of the line,” Harrup says. “The better the American people understand diplomacy, the better the hope that State can get funding through Congress.”
So far, the museum’s collection has more than 6,000 objects. The State Department has staff dedicated to American diplomatic history and a collection of art and historical objects. The material in the Diplomacy Center collection includes diplomatic gifts, documents, passports and objects that speak to the tragedies that are so often the impetus to robust diplomatic efforts. Among the highlights: a pre-Civil War diplomatic uniform, early copies of the first two treaties signed by the United States, a vase made from Bosnian shell casings and a blindfold from the Iranian hostage crisis. The collection also includes a range of silver platters, jewelry, ceramics and glassware given to U.S. diplomats by foreign governments.
But the bulk of the museum experience will be informational and interactive. Kathy Johnson, director of the Diplomacy Center, says museum planners were inspired by the American Finance Museum and the 9/11 Museum in New York, both of which, she says, “did a superb job of explaining complex issues in an exciting, engaging way.” Renderings of the exhibition spaces, available online, suggest the standard thinking of contemporary exhibition design today, with physical objects used mainly to illustrate basic ideas teased out on printed panels, maps, kiosks and digital screens.
Visitors will enter through glass doors that allow a clear view of the original building’s facade. Security screening, officials say, will be no more intrusive than at other D.C. museums; it won’t require the removal of shoes, coats and dignity required at airports and many government offices. The main atrium of the pavilion will include interactive displays with a map and flags detailing where and with whom the United States is engaged in diplomacy. Visitors also will have ground-level access to one of the wings of the original War Department building, which will house two of the museum’s exhibit halls. Substantial space will be reserved for classroom activity and diplomatic simulations designed for students.
And a “Faces of Diplomacy” exhibit will, among other things, remind visitors that “the Foreign Service isn’t all Ivy League white males,” according to Harrup. The museum is meant to do many things — educate, recruit, advocate. And it is meant to remedy the “lack of self-promotion among foreign service people,” he says.
That helps put the design in perspective. Renderings suggest that the glass and masonry panels of Hassan’s pavilion will create a mix of transparency and reflectivity, with a nice glow to it at night. It’s a refined and elegant space, with something of the aspirational appeal of high-end retail. Like so many government agencies, the State Department can’t actually let people in freely, or open its doors, but pushing out from the austere, old entry court of the War Department is a new facade tailor-designed for a generation that wants at least the illusion of access, a friendly face and the reassurance that it is being well served by its government.
No one building can undo the dispiriting effect of bad architecture, overwrought security and the soulless corporate-academic campus of George Washington University that have disfigured the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. The Old Naval Observatory, across 23rd Street, is walled off behind a security cordon, a dour and forbidding no-go zone, and the nearby Peace Institute building is a monument to institutional self-aggrandizement and ugliness.
But if nothing else, the Diplomacy Center may serve as a reminder that diplomacy shouldn’t merely be the purview and playground of elites. There is a public involved, and the public wants access. That lesson could be usefully applied to American embassies around the world, which are desperately in need of the open-doors attitude Hassan is trying to incorporate into the State Department mothership in Washington.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They occurred in 2001, not 2011. This version has been corrected.