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A new direction for embassy architecture?

July 9, 2009 | 12:06 pm


The most recent generation of U.S. embassies hasn't exactly provided a sterling symbol of American values. In Baghdad, the new American Embassy sits behind a phalanx of blast walls, security barriers and checkpoints. Even some embassies built outside of war zones these days are self-contained and buffered to the point of paranoia. Others that try for openness and engagement with their host cities -- such as the new Berlin Embassy by the Santa Monica firm Moore Ruble Yudell -- wind up deeply compromised by heavy-handed setback requirements and other safety regulations.

The reason for that architectural attitude is straightforward: After the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa, the State Department produced design guidelines that made security the top architectural priority. The result was a batch of new embassies that were both impenetrable and designed to be built efficiently nearly anywhere on Earth: one-size-fits-all bunkers.

Perhaps a glimmer of hope for embassy architecture, however, can be seen in a detailed new report released this morning by the American Institute of Architects. Commissioned last summer by the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, OBO for short, the report was produced by a task force of more than 50 architects, diplomats, engineers, historians and others. Its chief recommendation is to adopt a version of General Services Administration's Design Excellence program -- which has produced federal buildings by Richard Meier, Moshe Safdie, Thom Mayne and other leading architects -- for use in embassy architecture and to integrate that design program from the earliest stages with security requirements. Other heartening recommendations: "Encourage Innovation" and "Publicize and Celebrate New Embassies." The report also challenges the one-size-fits-all mentality, calling for new embassies "that reflect the unique needs of a site at a foreign post."

What matters, of course, is not the report itself but what the OBO chooses to do with it. There is a focus on secrecy in the department that sometimes seems to exceed legitimate concerns about terrorism and safety. The whole culture of the place needs an overhaul. Maybe the AIA document will be a significant first step.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: Security line outside the American Embassy, London. Credit: flickr user gruntzooki.