First, dig your moat
Designing buildings for America’s diplomats is getting ever trickier
Jul 30th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition
“NOBODY can be messing with our embassy,” declared Barack Obama in mid-July, after a pro-government mob pelted America’s mission in Damascus with stones, eggs and tomatoes. That is not true, however, of the put-upon architects who have to design America’s embassies: they are constantly being hit with new restrictions, from both their own government and the host country.
Ever since the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, security has been the overarching concern when designing new embassies. Safety rules have been tightened repeatedly, and incorporated into a “standard embassy design” that dictates which offices should be adjacent to which (keep the bigwigs away from the public areas), how far embassy buildings should be set back from nearby roads (100 feet, or 30 metres), what materials can be used for walls and windows (nothing that is easy to climb or shatter) and so on. The result, critics say, is a dull series of near-identical, boxy bunkers. As John Kerry, who heads the Senate foreign-relations committee, 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.”
He is not alone. Londoners are less than thrilled by the thought of the “crystalline cube” that will slowly rise from the semi-gentrified riverine site of Nine Elms. This, at $1 billion the most expensive American embassy ever built, was made necessary when Grosvenor Square in Mayfair became too unsafe, despite the bomb-blast barriers that make the place look like a damper version of Baghdad.The new embassy will be separated from malicious sightseers by rolling parkland and a moat—100 feet wide, as required.