American Embassies: Not Always Fortresses
Last month a glass-walled, green fortress was unveiled in London, the winning design for the new, billion-dollar American embassy. Critics, not all of them architectural, panned the proposal.
Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times called it “a bland glass cube clad in an overly elaborate, quiltlike scrim.” Steven Walt at Foreign Policy though it “a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm’s length.” “A giant glass box on stilts rising from a Princess Diana-style memorial park,” wrote Jonathan Glancey in the Guardian “complete with a lake and what appears to be a ha-ha.” Glancey’s was actually a fairly positive review, that last ambiguity aside.
Still, the critical world had reached a consensus: a high-profile design competition for one of the most visible American embassies was bungled, the government picking the third-best proposal in part because of the sorry chokehold of security concerns. Among the four finalists, both contemporary heavyweights Richard Meier and Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects submitted better plans than little-known KieranTimberlake, which won (a view offered by Ouroussoff and others).
According to the Guardian, the only two British judges on the design panel, architect Richard Rogers and developer and art collector Peter Palumbo, “thought the design was boring and ‘not good enough to represent one of the great nations in London’… By contrast, they considered Mayne’s design to be ‘touched by genius’.”
Eero Saarinen’s U.S. chancery in London, which opened in 1960, may be brutal and something of a behemoth, recently reinforced with security barriers. But while it waits for its diplomats to leave for new digs in south London, it harkens back to the day when American Embassies weren’t unsightly fortresses. What’s more, when the U.S. abandons the Saarinen building, it will remain in Grosvenor Square. Qatar bought it for a half-billion dollars and plans to convert the landmark building into a hotel and apartments, with a promise not to touch the bulbous, limestone façade that takes up a whole side of the square. It’s easy to forget in an age of embassy bombings that these places used be open, breezy stand-ins for American optimism and culture.
“Saarinen’s Brutalist limestone intrusion, topped off with a garish gold sculpture of a screaming eagle,” according to architectural critic Martin Filler, might have spoken “revealingly of America’s postwar hegemony” in 1960. But the place also held art exhibitions and faced a public park. That changed with the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, followed by the east Africa bombings in 1998. By that point embassy design had been set on a new course away from high architecture, however garish. The postwar heyday of modernist stalwarts like Walter Gropius and Edward Durell Stone designing daring projections of American power abroad were long gone. The German-born Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, opened his American embassy in Athens in 1961, six years after Stone designed the embassy in New Delhi, which landed him on the cover of Time.
In their place came government ordained Standard Embassy Design, which operates under the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. A bland stipulation in the security age, the program is exactly what it sounds like: “a cost-saving initiative that standardizes the design for chanceries and consulates” that hews to the demand to be far away and imposing at the same time. Of course there are exceptions, namely the rebuilt and expanded palaces of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad that will be America’s embassy in Iraq. So many people have written about it already, but Jonathan Freedland in the New York Review of Books offered the best summary:
The most recent addition to the empire is perhaps the most arresting. The new US embassy in Baghdad is, despite its name, a base. It is set inside a 104-acre compound, making it “six times larger than the UN, as big as Vatican City, and costing $592 million to build.” It will be defended by blast walls and ground-to-air missiles, and have its own apartment buildings, along with its own electricity, water supply, and sewage system… Life will continue here as it already goes on in the US-enforced Green Zone, complete with its swimming pools, dry-cleaning outlets, and around-the-clock availability of pork in the mess canteen, as cosseted and disconnected from the surrounding reality as Happy Valley was from the rest of Kenya.
All of which makes me wistful for the old days, when Morocco, after being the first country to recognize the new-found United States of America in 1777, gave the U.S. its first proper embassy abroad — a villa in the midst of old Tangier, America’s mission in Morocco from 1821 to 1956. Morocco’s American Legation is the oldest American diplomatic property in the world, and, as the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Morocco (since removed to Rabat) proudly explains, “the only building on foreign soil that is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.”
Perhaps one day Edward Durell Stone‘s embassy in New Delhi will join its ranks. What’s certain is that none of the current crop of diplomatic strongholds ever will.
Image credits from top: KieranTimberlake’s winning design for the US Embassy in London, image courtesy KieranTimberlake. Richard Meier and Partners’ design for the new US Embassy in London, image courtesy Richard Meier and Partners. Morphosis Architects’ design for the new US Embassy in London, image courtesy Morphosis Architects. Undated photograph of Edward Durell Stone’s US Embassy in New Delhi, via DesignInquiry Journal.
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