Rethinking embassy architecture

Dwell magazine, which bears the subtitle “At Home in the Modern World,” sponsored a panel called “Designing Diplomacy: Embassy Architecture in Washington DC and Abroad” at the Finnish embassy yesterday. I was on the panel, deftly moderated by Dwell editor Aaron Britt.

As you might expect, given the magazine’s interest in mid-century modernism, much of the discussion centered on what are often seen as the glory years of American embassy design, the 50s and 60s, when architects such as Walter Gropius, Edward Durrell Stone and Eero Saarinen designed embassies for Athens, New Delhi, London and Oslo, all of them monuments of modern design if not always commodious buildings. They were fortunate to work in an era that celebrated contemporary design, at a time when the United States was conspicuously interested in projecting an image of openness, transparency and a progressive embrace of technology and innovation.

Professor Jane Loeffler, of the University of Maryland, who has written extensively about the history of American embassy design was also on the panel. Reading her excellent book, “The Architecture of  Diplomacy,” it’s hard not to get angry. Since the middle of the last century, the design of American embassies has moved so far away from the ideals of the mid-century modernists, and into such a dark realm of fear and anxiety and pragmatic submission to the regime of security at all costs, that you despair of America ever sending the old messages it once cherished: City on the hill, beacon of light, hog butcher to the world. Since the middle of the 1980s, when the “Inman standards,” a set of security guidelines authored after the devastating 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut were adopted, American embassies have grown more and more fortress like, more removed from the urban environment, and altogether more ugly (except on the inside). Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, things have only gotten worse.

I went into the panel deeply pessimistic that architects can finesse beautiful buildings out of these onerous security guidelines. William Miner, of the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Operations, is more sanguine. And he was genuinely excited about the ongoing design competition for the building that will replace Saarinen’s London embassy. Good architects can solve the problem, he argues. I’ll wait to see what emerges from the finalists vying to replace the Saarinen structure.

In a fit of temporary despair (you really have to see some of the new embassies to understand how forbidding, off-putting and ugly they are), I proposed acknowledging an impasse. If we’ve reached the point where the only embassies we can build are bunkers behind blast walls set into 10-acre compounds on the ex-urban rim of the city, then perhaps we need to rethink the very idea of embassies and diplomacy. Perhaps it’s time to disperse the various functions foreign missions must perform. Any business that can be transacted through video conferencing or the Internet should be removed entirely from the country. Deal with visa seekers in several small offices conveniently spread around the city—and treat them like clients, not criminals. Find reasonably safe rental space for the commercial mission. Hide the ambassador in a fortress where he or she will be completely safe (and do no harm). And then build a nice glass box, the vulnerability of which will be accepted as a necessary risk of public diplomacy, for the outreach functions.

That’s a gloomy proposal, and not one I relish. I still yearn for the bold years of making big, optimistic, inspiring statements with embassy architecture. If they can come again, great. But I don’t know that anyone is expecting much from the London competition.

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