On August 7, 1998, two car bombs went off nearly simultaneously in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 220 people and all but destroying the U.S. embassies there. The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO)—an arm of the State Department responsible for the offices of the American diplomatic corps—was suddenly infused with a searing sense of urgency. The splendid 1960s glass-and-concrete embassies by the likes of Gropius, Saarinen, and Neutra—open, optimistic, and symbolic though they were—could no longer ade-quately protect America's foreign service against the pervasive threat of terrorism.
The move to replace existing embassies was already afoot, but the East African bombings galvanized the State Department, ushering in our current wave of new, nearly identical embassies. "The Standard Embassy Design (SED) is essentially the same floor plan and layout for each embassy," says Jonathan Blyth, chief of staff for the OBO. "They look different on the outside, but they're pretty much the same inside."
Implemented under then OBO director General Charles E. Williams, the SED first gained traction as a regional building solution starting with the
embassy in Kampala, Uganda. In the early 1990s, the United States needed to replace and erect embassies in sub-Saharan Africa quickly; regional standardization seemed to be the answer. The Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings accelerated the process, and what was once a local design program became a global one. With 31 of 57 new embassy facilities completed using the SED, there looks to be no sign of slowing the tide of uniformity. "Over the last eight years the OBO has moved 18,000 people into safe and secure facilities. We have 31 ongoing capital security projects and hope to award several more by the end of the 2008 fiscal year," Blyth reports. Twenty-two of 29 embassies under construction employ the SED.
For good reason, security concerns are paramount, and standardizing the embassies' designs seems a reasonable way to make them safer, more predictable, and affordable to construct—but must it also mean turning them into cookie-cutter buildings that resemble something between exurban corporate parks and stucco fortresses? Today, capital security projects are more like walled-off campuses than downtown office buildings, though the newly opened embassy on Pariser Platz in Berlin comes closer to the open, urban embassies of yore. In most capitals, pedestrians pass by gated compounds, and the pervasive sense of diplomatic goodwill and welcome is replaced by an architectural expression of, at best, caution and, at worst, paranoia. America's embassies built just after World War II—in downtowns as diverse as Rio de Janeiro, Athens, and Havana—were architectural exemplars of the openness, energy, and sophistication of America at mid-century. The elegant angularity of Marcel Breuer's embassy in The Hague (1956–1959), the long, clean lines of Richard Neutra's consulate in Karachi (1955–1959), and the bright glass planes of Ralph Rapson and John Van der Muelen's embassies in Stockholm (1951–1954) and Copenhagen (1951–1954) are all but absent today. If its embassies are its architectural face to the world, America is no longer smiling.
With architects hamstrung by the SED and at the end of the budget food chain, change appears unlikely. "We used to pay greater attention to the aesthetics of our embassies, but now, with the builder taking the lead, if we don't demand some kind of aesthetic architecture, we don't get it," says Joseph W. Toussaint, head of project execution for the OBO. His colleague Patrick W. Collins, lead architect at OBO, concurs: "The design world is all about tradeoffs. One of our big goals is to build a building that is functional and will protect the people in it. We need to get them computer access, light, plumbing, and all the amenities they need—and that is difficult to achieve in some parts of the world. So when it comes to aesthetics, there are often few resources left. You wouldn't believe how expensive blast-resistant windows are."
Toussaint is quick to note that standardization need not always mean bland design. A link still exists, if only in brand name, between the embassies of today and those at mid-century: "In our interiors we have standardized furniture systems by Knoll International. It's nice, comfortable, durable modern furniture. It's not chopped liver."
Of course, the SED is evaluated continuously, based on factors like changing security needs and construction techniques. A plan is even now underway to introduce a standardized vertical plan that will allow for embassies to take root in more urban areas. Sadly, the exigencies of international relations suggest that our days of design-driven diplomacy are, at the very least, on hiatus—if not over. "When a caricature in a newspaper causes people to blow up an embassy, you are driven by diplomatic security," says Blyth. "We would love to be building the embassies of the past, but we're not provided that luxury anymore."On August 7, 1998, two car bombs went off nearly simultaneously in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 220 people and all but destroying the U.S. embassies there. The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO)—an arm of the State Department responsible for the offices of the American diplomatic corps—was suddenly infused with a searing sense of urgency. The splendid 1960s glass-and-concrete embassies by the likes of Gropius, Saarinen, and Neutra—open, optimistic, and symbolic though they were—could no longer ade-quately protect America’s foreign service against the pervasive threat of terrorism.