Can Embassies Be Secure Without Looking Like Scary Bunkers?

Over the last 15 years, every embassy that the U.S. has built around the world looks like a fortress—an eyesore in cities and a not-so-friendly message to foreigners. So, architects who are building our new London embassy hope to prove that aesthetics and security can co-exist. It's an idea that's sparked some controversy.

I've visited a number of these embassies myself, and I can vouch for their dismal, almost bunker-like appearance. And, while that's good for security and a pending zombie apocalypse, it's not so good for American diplomacy.

Can Embassies Be Secure Without Looking Like Scary Bunkers?

As the Atlantic observed a couple of years back:

With a string of embassy disasters culminating in the East Africa bombings of 1998, fears of terrorism outweighed other concerns. In 1999, the State Department adopted a standard model of construction, which embassy historian Jane Loeffler describes as an "isolated walled compound." These spiritless shells are epitomized by the designs of PageSoutherlandPage, who have built 21 such embassies and consulates since 2001. From inside the walls of these fortified villas, you might mistake our embassies for social science buildings at a rural college. They are squat, unremarkable structures surrounded by green lawns; totally anti-urban, and, planners hope, totally secure. As Senator John Kerry put it in 2009, "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen…I cringe when I see what we're doing." Harvard International Relations professor Stephen Walt wrote that our embassies were like the "vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay."

This design presents practical problems as well. Enhanced security requirements—such as the rule that embassies must be set back at least 100 feet from city streets on all four sides—has made it very expensive or simply impossible to find real estate in most city centers. That already has pushed many embassies to suburbs, making matters difficult for both visitors and diplomats.

In 2010, the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations began a new initiative, Design Excellence, which emphasized security, good architecture, environmental efficiency and urbanity. ("Whenever possible, sites will be selected in urban areas allowing the U.S. embassies and consulates to contribute to the civic and urban fabric of host cities.") The initiative quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan, who once served on President Kennedy's ad hoc committee for Federal Architecture: "Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular age were. Surely ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in the darkness."

The manifestation of this approach is the new embassy being built in London:

The 581,251-square-foot building includes a consular section, support spaces, a U.S. Marine residence, and access pavilions….The landscape design follows the English tradition of urban parks and gardens surrounding municipal buildings with limestone paving surrounding and within the embassy, similar to many London walks. The lot will include six interior gardens, an event lawn, and a pond. The project features a landscape without visible walls, or fences to open the interior space to the surrounding city yet conceal the required security barriers.

Can Embassies Be Secure Without Looking Like Scary Bunkers?

Some pundits, though, are not pleased. The most recent attack is an editorial that appeared in the Washington Times:

An embassy must be secure against foreign spies and terrorists, and building one entirely of glass is style over function….The new embassy in London might have been meant to compensate for how badly American diplomacy has gone over the past decade or so, but spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make ourselves feel better is an expensive and ultimately useless exercise. The Obama administration would better focus on examining its failure overseas and working to regain moral authority and lost respect. Elaborate state-of-the-art embassies won't do it.

Putting up a front is a cheap temptation, and dangerous when the front is revealed to be false. Only when America protects her citizens, beginning with embattled ambassadors, will the nation impress its friends and intimidate evil, and be recognized as the great force for peace and freedom in the world.

The editorial has prompted a response from Aaron Betsky, a famous architect and director of the Cincinnati Art Museum:

I am a member of that federal agency program's review panel, and have experienced first-hand both how incredibly complex it is to design buildings for the state, and how thorough the design process has become. I thought I understood security concerns, but the lengths to which we go to protect our personnel abroad are now beyond anything you can imagine.

The critics claim that the current process is so lengthy that it puts those who are not yet in new structures at risk while they wait for new buildings. Yet I have seen no evidence that the process actually takes longer. The critics also claim massive cost overruns, which the State Department categorically denies.

The crux of the argument is that we are sacrificing security and cost to make the buildings "pretty." That is such a dumb and reductive notion of good design I almost don't know how to answer it. The Design Excellence program is about making the structures work. Part of that mandate is to represent our nation in a manner that does not make the people of those countries want to throw Molotov cocktails at us, and that both those seeking visas and those serving them have a pleasant place to work. But those concerns are so embedded in a process that seeks to make these places work in every sense of the word that to reduce them to a call for a certain kind of aesthetics is absurd.

The most obvious reason this has happened is that the new embassy building in London looks so striking…. Its high-performance glass skin allows the users to make the most of the often-dreary weather, while still meeting strict environmental standards and all blast tests.

"But once again," Betsky concludes, "this seems to be a case of, 'If a building looks good, the public thinks there must be something wrong with it.'"