Can U.S. Embassies Be Safe Without Being Unsightly?

Feb 26, 2013
Originally published on February 26, 2013 5:05 pm

There's been a tug of war between aesthetically pleasing and safe when it comes to American embassies around the world.

Many embassies have been slammed as bunkers, bland cubes and lifeless compounds. Even the new Secretary of State John Kerry said just a few years ago, "We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen."

But the choice between gardens and gates isn't just academic for diplomats — it can affect the way they work. Many diplomats found that the isolation, distance from city centers and lack of accessibility of many embassies complicated their job.

In the past few months, several articles in the American Foreign Service Association's journal have been devoted to "fortress embassies" and the effort to improve design.

"After World War II we were facing a world that was emerging out of a war and [we] wanted to use modern architecture as a way to convey our values, and a spirit of openness, optimism, democracy, and so we thought of architecture as a tool," Susan Johnson, a veteran diplomat and president of the association, tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish.

However, with cost always a consideration and safety always a priority, there was a shift to the more prisonlike embassies that have drawn criticism of late. Now, that's changing, with help from a State Department initiative — Design Excellence — that includes a promotional video describing art, design and architecture as diplomatic languages.

"I think what we're aiming to do now is find a balance that combines security and beauty, and use technology and innovation to do it," Johnson says. "If we're going to do it, let's make that building say something positive about America."

You can hear more of this conversation on Tuesday's All Things Considered.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Beauty versus security. There's been a tug-of-war between these ideals when it comes to American embassies around the world, especially after the attacks on embassies and consulates in the Middle East last year. There's even an initiative led by the State Department.


CORNISH: This is from a promotional video for the effort dubbed design excellence. It came about after many embassies were slammed as bunkers, bland cubes and lifeless compounds. Even the new Secretary of State John Kerry said just a few years ago: We are building some of the ugliest embassies I've ever seen. But the choice between gardens and gates isn't just academic for diplomats. It can affect the way they work. Susan Johnson knows that. She's a veteran American diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association. Susan Johnson, welcome to the program.

SUSAN JOHNSON: Thank you so much, Audie. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: So in the past couple of months, there's been articles, several articles in your association's journal that have been devoted to this subject of fortress embassies. Start by describing an embassy or a diplomatic mission that really epitomizes fortress design.

JOHNSON: Well, imagine something that looks like a prison, even a maximum-security prison, where it's located, you know, sort of far out of town and out of the regular pattern of traffic, high perimeter walls, big sort of lights that come on at night, barbed wire here and there, and a very prison-like, box-like structure that has no particular character, lots of small windows.

CORNISH: What's it like working in a building like that inside?

JOHNSON: Well, it's certainly not as pleasant, and it's not as convenient. And I think what many diplomats have found over the years is that the isolation, the distance, the lack of accessibility has complicated their job.

CORNISH: So what would be an ideal space? I mean, what's an embassy that really has the right balance?

JOHNSON: I think the little clip that you played earlier - and it sort of contrasted beauty versus security. I think what we're aiming to do now is find a balance so that we can have the security that our embassies need abroad, unfortunately, but not sacrifice beauty, location or just the convenience and the friendliness to the mission of diplomacy.

CORNISH: So tell us about an embassy out there now or on the way that actually embodies this shift towards design excellence as the State Department is calling it.

JOHNSON: The embassy in Beijing is very open. It really integrates kind of a modern Western architectural techniques and the sense of China. It's got reflecting pools, kind of broad sweeps and a sense of openness and lightness, even though it's large. Our embassy in London is truly sort of spectacular. It, too, it's sort of taller and boxy-like, but it's got a sort of remarkably creative use of what I guess is glass. It has water around it, somewhat reminiscent of a moat, but in a way, that's very much more like a pool and kind of fits in with the architecture.

CORNISH: A friendly moat.

JOHNSON: A very friendly moat.


JOHNSON: So if you can kind of imagine something that might have looked like a fortress but much more sort of softened and open by instead of being heavy and dark.

CORNISH: So what actually makes those two embassies just as secure?

JOHNSON: Well, I think it's the material used. They're still considerable setback from the street or from, you know, where trucks could be parked and blown up, but it's much more green and understated, and the barriers are less evident. Instead of perimeter walls, you've got, you know, bollards, trees, bushes, moats, use of water, so a mix of things that takes away the perimeter wall. And then the actual buildings, instead of being just concrete boxes, are a product of, you know, major architects or architectural design firms where they use modern materials that are just as strong and withstand, you know, explosion and bullets and so forth and so on just as well or better as concrete.

CORNISH: Now, of course, the Foreign Service Journal also published a piece from a diplomatic security agent this month, and he argues that this trade-off between security and how buildings look isn't a big deal. And that's, you know, what's more important are the ideals conveyed abroad by the U.S., not necessarily kind of how diplomats are feeling about the compound.

JOHNSON: Well, I think we have gone back and forth in sort of the history of our embassy building. When we first started as a young nation, we didn't have funds to build our own buildings. We'd least, or we bought buildings that were downtown, that were accessible to the government, that, you know, maybe were former mansions or belonged to banks or businesses. And so they were very integrated and didn't really stand out sharply as something foreign or different or even as targets.

After World War II, we were facing, you know, a world that was emerging out of a war and wanted to use architecture, modern architecture as a way to convey our values and a spirit of openness, optimism, democracy. And so we thought of architecture as a tool as part of the representational work of diplomacy, because embassies have to fulfill two functions. They have to be secure workplaces. No one is disputing that. But they also have to represent our country and its values.

CORNISH: But is that a little naive given the reach, say, of American pop culture. I mean, isn't the latest blockbuster movie from Hollywood doing a lot more for our image abroad at some point than, you know, whether or not the gate outside is nine feet versus 12 feet?

JOHNSON: Well, I think the problem is mitigating. Your image is made up of many different things. And certainly with globalization and with all the different technology, people have access to lots of aspects of American culture. But if your embassy looks like a fortress or a prison, you are conveying something that may be even runs counter to the popcorn or whatever. And you're also setting yourself up as more of a potential target or seen as something that is distant and detached from the country that you're in.

And so in countries where there's a segment of the population that for whatever reason is hostile to the United States, the image that we portray makes their job easier to convey that we're occupiers or that we're controlling the internal politics of that country. So these are all subtleties, and I don't want to exaggerate them. But, you know, pop culture is one thing. Our embassy is the official face of America.

CORNISH: Susan, thank you for coming in.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: Susan Johnson is president of the American Foreign Service Association and a longtime diplomat. She served in embassies all over the world, including in Bosnia, Iraq and Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.