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Can security and design be reconciled in new U.S. embassies?

State Department hopes to move beyond bunker style in robust building program

The design of the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin, a brooding structure completed in 2008, drew the scorn of German newspapers as grim and uninviting. (State Department photo)The design of the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin, a brooding structure completed in 2008, drew the scorn of German newspapers as grim and uninviting. (State Department photo)

It's a dangerous world for U.S. diplomats.

But the last thing a nation beset by the "ugly American" stereotype needs is ugly American embassies.

The State Department is now promising to reconcile enhanced security with design in its aggressive new overseas building program.

It's about time, say its critics.

In December, the United States opened a newly completed consulate in Mumbai. The modern, glass-fronted, environmentally friendly structure is, depending on how the projects are counted, the 88th new U.S. diplomatic building to open for business in the past 12 years — and there are 40 more embassies and consulates in the design or construction stage.

This robust program on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history was prompted by the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which 224 people — including 12 embassy staffers — lost their lives, and thousands were injured. Following the attacks, a large number of other embassies were identified as security risks, raising serious concern for the safety of thousands of Americans working in diplomatic posts overseas.

With great urgency, a number of new buildings were initiated based on a standard design template for contractors hastily cobbled together by the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. The new embassies came in four sizes — small, medium, large and extra large — depending on the importance of the host country's relationship with the U.S. Impenetrability from suicide bombers and exploding trucks was the watchword; and the resulting daunting fortresses all over the world, from which the United States seemed to glare out defensively, drew widespread criticism.

Critics typically pointed out that the new structures were a travesty of what diplomacy was supposed to achieve in encouraging good relations, and furthermore showed America in a bad light. For example, the Germans heaped scorn on the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, a solid, brooding structure completed in 2008 near one of the country's historic landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate.

The new embassy was "no longer marked by inviting openness, but instead by rejection and control," commented the Berliner Tagesspiegel newspaper at the time. The authoritative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the building reflected "a nation so protected by armor that it can no longer see the world."

In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raged that he "cringed" when he saw some of the new embassies, and in 2010 introduced a bill so far, not passed — calling on the State Department to mandate greater attention to design in the new buildings.

"We're building fortresses around the world," Mr. Kerry fumed. "We're separating ourselves from people in these countries."

By fiscal year 2009, the State Department had completed 68 projects, costing $8.6 billion. The projected total cost of all 214 diplomatic buildings that need to be replaced is double that. The budget for fiscal 2012, meanwhile, is $579 million to cover nine or 10 new projects.

Christine Foushee, director of external affairs at the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, says that while initially "replacements were based on vulnerability" and security was the first priority, once the program was launched "many within the OBO were thinking of the best approach to revamping our process."

Two years ago, the OBO commissioned a task force of architects, engineers and diplomats to submit proposals on how to combine security and design in embassy construction. The task force report said U.S. embassies "must symbolize America's vitality, enduring strength, and innovation" and encouraged the OBO to jettison its small-medium-large standard designs in favor of a more selective process (which the bureau was already doing anyway).

The task force urged the OBO to encourage innovation, introduce peer reviews, widen its pool of designers and contractors to include newcomers, and to make design excellence a declared criterion. Many of the security requirements are, of course, highly classified, and architects and contractors undergo security clearance. But among the practical suggestions made by the task force was the use of shrubs, boulders, and decorative walls as a more attractive perimeter than bollards and barriers.

In April, the OBO introduced design excellence as its new watchword. American diplomatic building projects, the bureau now declares on its website, represent "the best in American architecture, engineering, technology, and sustainability, art, culture and construction execution."

"Because planning and construction take time, you won't see the full effect for a few years," says Ms. Foushee. "The new approach is a holistic approach, really, to get the best value for the money, as well as excellence in design — a whole approach to bettering our process."

Ms. Foushee points to the proposed new embassy in London as a step towards what the OBO envisions will be the embassy of the future. The projected $1 billion structure of blast-resistant glass covered with a quiltlike polymer scrim stands on columns and is protected by a moat on one side and a terraced park partly open to the public on the other.

Designed by Philadelphia architect James Timberlake, the building — to be completed in 2017 — inevitably has its critics. The Financial Times referred to it as the "glazed green cube embassy."

And don't imagine terrorism concerns have vanished.

Like many other recently planned U.S. embassies, the new embassy site in London would be removed from the center of the city — in Wandsworth, a riverside area of light-industry factories, and therefore less exposed to pedestrian attack.

The new embassy in Malta is being built on the site of a one-time World War II Royal Air Force base, several miles from the capital, Valletta.

It appears host-country residents may come to admire the new U.S. embassies after all. If, that is, they can find them.

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