Architects spend a lot of time educating clients about the value of design. Here’s one more opportunity: The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has begun to scrutinize the State Department’s new approach to architecture, the Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities program, starting with a contentious July 10 hearing on Capitol Hill.
This is the committee’s latest investigation relating to the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. Certainly, no one blames architecture for the attack. Instead, the concern is that more Benghazis could occur because an emphasis on design for future buildings could lead to cost overruns and delays, leaving workers in outmoded, insecure facilities. Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., summed up the argument in late June, via Twitter: “Is State Dept Embassy Design Putting Style over Safety?”
Earlier that month, committee member Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told CBS News, “These people live in very dangerous parts of the world, we don’t have time to make sure that the building and the flowers look more pretty, we have to make sure that these people are safe and secure and can do their jobs.”
The 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa led Congress to reinforce security requirements for overseas facilities and earmark billions for new construction. Under Secretary Colin Powell, the State Department nixed its long-standing architectural advisory panel and adopted a scalable prototype solution, Standard Embassy Design, of which dozens have been built. This is what the Excellence program replaces, and some in government would like to restore.
“I know what worked for us, and it worked well—Standard Embassy Design,” said Grant S. Green Jr., Powell’s Under Secretary of State for Management, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera. “We had the Congress on our side and we built a ton of embassies. If they want to make them prettier, just change the frigging façade and make them prettier.”
During the July 10 hearing, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., suggested that the old system created a serious vulnerability: If terrorists manage to get the plans for one standardized facility, they’ve got the know-how to assault them all. The new Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities program, by contrast, entails hiring innovative architects to develop individualized schemes for each locale, which should improve security and have the fringe benefit of making the buildings better—more pretty, if you will.
The standard design has been roundly criticized for its less-than-good looks, which is a bona fide issue in the sensitive arena of international affairs. “The last thing a nation beset by the ‘ugly American’ stereotype needs is ugly American embassies,” veteran foreign correspondent Roland Flamini wrote in The Washington Times when State announced the Excellence program in 2012.
Embassies are a physical expression of our national character, and they provide the only firsthand experience of the United States many foreigners will ever get. So it is a failing that, as Secretary of State John Kerry observed in 2009, while still a senator, “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.” We can do better.
A core principle of the Excellence program is that good design and tight security are not mutually exclusive. Architects don’t spend their days arranging daffodils. Their creativity comes with a sober mandate: to assure human health, safety, and welfare. A whole body of scientific research demonstrates the causal relationships.
It’s too early to know for certain whether the new approach to U.S. embassy architecture will prove successful. No projects have been completed yet. But the idea builds on a solid precedent for both safety and aesthetics: the U.S. General Services Administration’s widely admired Design Excellence Program. Moreover, the new, individual designs are subject to the same timetables, budgets, and security requirements as the old standard design.