I’ve written before about the challenges facing architects who undertake the design of American diplomatic facilities in the age of security madness. The State Department announced on Tuesday that KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia-based firm, has been chosen to design the new U.S. embassy in London. They won’t have the option of retreating to the exurban frontier and holing up behind blast walls on a vast campus. The design that helped the firm win the prestigious commission looks promising.
Tag Archives: Embassy design
The Post gave me considerable space in Sunday’s paper to look at a new report issued by the American Institute of Architects. The document is a nuts-and-bolts thing, incremental in its recommendations and it hardly glances at the real problem–crippling security dictates–that may make it impossible to build inspiring embassy architecture again. But it proves that there’s momentum to acknowledge the ugly embassies we’ve built and their impact on our public diplomacy agenda. Many architects believe that a workable compromise between security and aesthetics can be achieved through innovative and inspired design. I hope so. The AIA recommends that the office responsible for designing embassy facilities borrow from the GSA, and adopt a “design excellence” program. Perhaps that will help, though design excellence is a great way to ensure you get B-plus structures. It rarely if ever produces A-plus buildings.
But I think without a serious conversation about security, about the degree of risk we must accept, and about the nature of a diplomatic work–perhaps it is fundamentally dangerous and we must simply accept that–we will never build great embassies again. And if we can’t build great ones, then we should at least stop building bad ones. And reinvent diplomacy without embassies. A sad conclusion, and I hope we never get there.
Aaron Britt, an editor at Dwell, interviewed me after a panel on embassy design he moderated last May. The conclusion? I talk too fast. But if you listen at warp speed, you’ll get a sense of what we talked about at the event, hosted by the Finnish embassy. I raise the question: If security needs are now so onerous that it is impossible design a decent embassy building, do we need to think about a “post-embassy” architecture? Would it be better, perhaps, to disperse embassy functions rather than concentrate them in walled compounds? That way we could at least separate public diplomacy from the rest of the pack, and get our libraries and information centers back into the urban fray, and connect them once again with the daily life of real people, the souls we hope to convince that America is not, in the end, such a bad idea. (Actually, that’s beginning to happen… maybe. Look out for a Washington Post story on that soon.)
That green stuff behind us in the video? A view out the window of the stunningly beautiful Embassy of Finland: open, accessible and a tremendous asset to its country’s reputation. The sort of building we have decided the United States cannot build.