The U.S. Department of State's effort to elevate design standards for American embassies is coming under renewed attack from critics who allege that architectural excellence comes at the expense of high security and fiscal restraint.
Embassies serve as billboard images for America, and the department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has begun a new effort to boost the design quality of these projects around the globe. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. government commissioned architects like Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Edward Durell Stone to create a new string of embassies that would project the strength and appeal of American democracy. But in more recent years, U.S. embassies were built according to a more standardized design template. Now the department is moving to adapt this more to local context and boost overall architectural quality.
The State Department's bid to strive again for architecturally distinguished foreign missions is subject to a constant tug of war over the need to protect diplomatic personnel while giving the impression of that they are accessible to citizens in the countries where they are stationed. Achieving an appealing national architectural statement has been complicated by successive violent assaults, from the 1983 bombing outside the U.S. mission in Beirut to the 1998 explosions outside U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left over 200 people dead and injured over 5,000. In response, Congress imposed security constraints that impinge on design standards by requiring major street setbacks and fortification against explosions. Demands for tighter embassy security have become even more intense following the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya in which the American ambassador and a foreign service officer were killed.
An internal State Department report published by the Al Jazeera network in May said that the new design program could increase the risks for overseas U.S. personnel. The report said fewer embassies would be built and design and construction would take longer, "leaving more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time." However, State Department spokeswoman Christine Foushee denied there had been any change in the cost and completion time requirements under the new design program.
Earlier this month, a separate CBS News report said that construction of the new U.S. Embassy in London, designed by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake, was already $100 million over cost estimates, in part due to the challenge of making its cubed glass façade blast proof.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah and a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has criticized the new designs and pushed for the committee to hold a hearing on the matter in the coming weeks. "They may be more beautiful but they cost a whole lot more money," Chaffetz told CBS. Chaffetz has admitted, however, that he and other Republican congressman voted to cut funding for embassy security.
Along with the one in London, new U.S. embassies are under construction or planned in more than 35 cities, including: The Hague, Netherlands; Asuncion, Paraguay; and Nouakchott, Mauritania. Architects are being asked to design buildings that look accessible and yet secure, presenting a nation that is open and friendly. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has decried some newer American embassies as the "ugliest" he's ever seen, regards these structures as "the front door" for U.S. diplomacy, and said that while they must be safe, they must also reflect "national values of openness and ingenuity."