Is the Push for Better Embassy Design Putting People at Risk?

Rendering of the new US Embassy in London (Copyright KieranTimberlake)
Rendering of the new US Embassy in London (© KieranTimberlake)

Some politicians are concerned that the new initiative to build better-designed United States embassies isn’t just expensive, it’s putting employees in danger.

At a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing last month (which you can watch here), Lydia Muniz and Casey Jones, director and deputy director, respectively, of the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, were aggressively grilled on the new design tactics. As Michael Z. Wise reported for Architect magazine, the two officials “had scant chance to defend their approach” and when “they tried, congressmen repeatedly interrupted or cut them off.” The criticism focused on a 2009 overhaul of the country’s approach to embassy design; Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz criticized a perceived sentiment that “aesthetics alone can further U.S. diplomatic relations.”

The current US embassy in London (photograph by Dilettantio, via Flickr)
The current US embassy in London (photo by Dilettantio/Flickr)

Back in 2009, the conversation was different. John Kerry, who was then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lamented: “We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen. We’re building fortresses around the world. We’re separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we’re doing.” But now the attempt to build sleeker, friendlier buildings — such as the new luminous glass box London embassy designed by KieranTimberlake and slated for completion in 2017 — is being accused of slowing down the implementation of better security, as employees are kept in out-of-date structures, and of costing exorbitant amounts. The London embassy is reportedly already over its one-billion-dollar budget.

In May, Al Jazeeera published an internal State Department report created by a security and foreign services panel that said “the new design program would likely increase the risks for overseas U.S. personnel,” citing the slow construction of embassies and incidents like the 2012 Benghazi attack as evidence of a need for speedier measures.

John Ruble of embassy designers Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners told Architect that the July hearing “was a sobering reminder of how challenging it is for architects to communicate the value of what they do to the public.” Communicating that value not just to the public but to politicians seems even more essential as the US edges away from castle-like constructions towards experimenting with more welcoming contemporary design.

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